From Lionel Messi to wedding cakes, Abu Dhabi concierge service makes wishes come true

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"On a meeting room table in Alanoud Talawi’s Saadiyat Island office sits Dh500,000 worth of Baccarat crystal. One of her clients bought the crystal as a gift and has commissioned Ember Lifestyle, the concierge firm Ms Tahlawi founded and runs, to present the gift in a creative way.

Ms Tahlawi pulls up a photo of the display on her mobile phone: the crystal vases and figurines will be incorporated into a mini-cherry blossom garden.

The 33-year-old, from Saudi Arabia, set up Ember in 2010 to cater to clients in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. While she initially provided services to friends and family, the business, funded by her own money, grew by word of mouth.

“We have competition throughout the GCC but not necessarily in Abu Dhabi,” Ms Tahlawi says of competitors such as Quintessentially and Allinque that have sprung up in recent years. “The difference is that we are really from here and we know the culture very well. It’s the personal touch, knowing the culture, knowing the client.”

Most of Ember’s clients are GCC nationals. Her expat clients, she says, tend to be corporates; she has contracts to look after banks’ VIP clients and their senior management. She recently, for example, arranged a trip to Singapore for the top executives of an Abu Dhabi bank.

She also has the backing of the Tourism and Development Investment Company to provide services to the residential community on Saadiyat, organising anything from hiring private jets and yachts to domestic service, pet assistance, sourcing gifts and making restaurant reservations.

Had she not met her Emirati husband in 2003 during a trip to Saudi Arabia from the United States where she was working at the time, Ms Tahlawi’s career path might have been different

She studied TV and film in Boston and went to California to do an internship, working on the movie The Italian Job as a production assistant.

“It was an eye-opener to the world and to the movie industry,” she says. “I am proud to say, yes, my name is on the credits.”

Leaving film behind to relocate to Abu Dhabi 10 years ago with her new husband, she knew she had to find an occupation. And it didn’t take long for an idea to form.

“I had to go to Dubai [every time I wanted] to buy a gift or order something, and the level of service here wasn’t up to par,” she says. “I thought ‘if this is going to be my home, I am going to have to make this work’.”

Ms Talhawi describes herself as a “great researcher”, so she started organising trips such as friends’ honeymoons. Her first big job came from a local sheikh who asked her to arrange for his son to meet the footballer Lionel Messi for his eighth birthday. She was given three days’ notice.

“I didn’t even know where to start … but we made it happen,” she recalls.

Not only was the birthday boy photographed with Messi, he also met other Barcelona players and attended a private practise session.

Softly spoken, Ms Tahlawi says it is her natural curiosity and her refusal to take no for an answer that allows her to achieve what others might consider impossible.

Ember operates on a membership basis with the “experience” level costing Dh20,000 annually; this secures clients a dedicated lifestyle manager during office hours. “Refined” membership is Dh50,000, offering clients access to Ember until midnight and at weekends. “Exceptional” membership is Dh90,000. The latter is by invitation only and requires her to hire a designated member of staff to look after the request 24/7.

Travel experiences and gifting are the two areas of business that have grown since the company’s launch. She has also recently added a medical concierge service which helps clients access doctors in the US and Europe.

Clients also request volunteering trips for their children to broaden their horizons. Working with Habitat for Humanity, a non-profit organisation, youngsters are sent to needy communities such as in the Philippines, where they help to build homes for the less fortunate.

Whether it is figuring out how to fly a six-tiered wedding cake to Uzbekistan (too big for the plane’s fridge, so permission was needed to use dry ice to keep the cake fresh) or finding a honeymoon suite in the tropics with an evening breeze to obviate the need for aircon, Ms Tahlawi says she loves her job.

“It keeps me on my toes the whole time,” she adds.

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Published: December 14, 2014 04:00 AM"