After a long recession where it seemed like no one wanted to drive anything but used Priuses, rich people are starting to throw money at luxury cars again. In fact, the luxury segment has never been better, or more luxurious. In the month of April alone I test-drove two separate cars with built-in refrigerators, one with adjustable rear-seat lumbar massagers, and a half-dozen with heated and cooled front and rear leather seats. Luxury cars now all have shipboard computers that would power the Space Shuttle and about twice as many horsepower as they require. It’s an extremely competitive marketplace for customers who have seemingly bottomless income. Manufacturers have been offering everything short of an actual butler to cater to customer whims.
But now Infiniti does offer a butler.
In March, I stumbled into a free 60-day trial of the new Infiniti Personal Assistant program, which Infiniti describes as your “own concierge service, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” They say, “whether you need directory assistance, dinner reservations, directions, or you have a more involved need, like tracking down a 24-hour dentist, researching flight costs, booking a rental car or need to order flowers for your loved one, IPA can tackle it on your behalf.” The PR person I talked to said she used the service to order diapers online and to make hair and nail appointments.
I had no looming dental emergencies, and, mercifully, am out of the market for diapers until I need them for myself 40 years hence. But I do travel a lot on important car business and occasionally eat at the kinds of restaurants where we sit on crates and share fried pig parts “family-style” with a bunch of strangers. Those are surprisingly difficult reservations to get. A personal concierge sounded good to me. So I signed up, and called immediately.
The first Personal Assistant I got on the phone was extremely polite, and had a nice soothing Southern accent. I imagined a room at Infiniti’s Tennessee North American headquarters, full of well-trained twentysomethings, catering to rich people’s (or at least upper-middle class people’s) ludicrous whims all day night. I got a guy who talked like a Southern version of Jeeves from the P.D. Wodehouse novel. I was all too willing to play Wooster.
“Welcome to Infiniti Personal Assistant. How can I help you?”
“Yeah, hi,” I said. “ I was wondering, on your website, you have General Trivia listed.”
“What’s that about?” I said. “I call you up for a trivia challenge?””
“Well, sir, we can certainly ask you trivia questions if you like.”
“But it’s really for if you have questions for us like facts about a city, population, history, that sort of thing.”
“Oh. I don’t really need that.”
“Not a problem, sir.”
“So, listen, I live in Austin, Texas.”
“A very nice place to live, sir.”
“It is. I’d like to try to get reservations at a restaurant called Uchiko, on North Lamar, for this Sunday night.”
“We can try to do that for you, sir.”
“We’re the middle of South By Southwest right now.”
“That may limit access, sir.”
“I understand, but work your magic.”
Twenty minutes later, he called me back.
“Unfortunately sir,” he said, “ Uchiko is all booked up through Monday the 18th. Sitting at the bar is an option but they don’t take reservations.”
I’d already known this, but thought that a real personal assistant, with real clout, could have gotten me that table. It’s nice to be an Infiniti customer, but that doesn’t guarantee you the hottest restaurant table in town just because you ask.
“It’s OK,” I said. “I was just kicking the tires.”
“Of course, sir,” he said. “Can I help you with anything else?”
"Actually, yes," I said.
I had to go to San Diego in a few days for a test drive, but had an afternoon free. I asked my personal assistant to find out if there were any yoga studios within walking distance of my hotel in the Gas Lamp District. Thirty minutes later, I got an email. In it were pasted the results of a browser search, which listed two Pilates studios. That wasn’t what I’d asked for. Browser fail.
Later that month, I was at the New York Auto Show, where I ran into my friend, the estimable car journalist Marty Padgett. I told him about my new Personal Assistant.
“Oh, yeah, I tried that, too,” he said. “It’s basically just a Google service.”
“Right,” I said.
“I asked them to get me tickets to a Broadway show for Monday night, just to mess with them,” he said.
Monday night, of course, is the night that Broadway goes dark.
I wasn’t as cruel as Marty, but I did ask my personal assistant to try and get me reservations at the NoMad, a trendy hotel restaurant that features a roasted chicken with foie gras and truffles stuffed under its skin, the kind of decadent disgustingness that someone with a personal assistant might enjoy. I can’t actually afford such a thing myself, but figured that while I had the service, I might as well act like I could.
They did get me the reservation. For 10:15 p.m. Everything else was booked. Apparently, Infiniti doesn’t have much pull in Manhattan, either.
Then I stopped traveling for a while and pretty much stopped using the personal assistant. My life just isn’t busy enough for one; I just walk up the street to the barbershop. If they’re busy, I’ll wait a half hour, play tabletop video games, and drink a beer while time passes. No personal assistant required there, and I’m not about to pay for an online diaper delivery service just to see if Infiniti can arrange one for me.
I did make two more requests during my 60 days of access. One was for a lunch reservation at Bouchon restaurant in Yountville, which Infiniti nailed down perfectly, but which my wife and I didn’t use because we decided we didn’t want to spend the money. The other involved something a bit more.
Rumor had it that Paul Qui, famed Top Chef winner and Austin food-trailer impresario, was going to open a new restaurant west of downtown. The press had all been saying “late May” as the date, which coincided with my wedding anniversary. So I emailed my PA service and asked them to find out the exact date, and to make a reservation.
“Christina T.” wrote me back a few hours later, quoting from a couple of different blog posts where Paul Qui said he wasn’t quite sure when he was going to open his place after all. After she researched these, she said, she called five other restaurants, all within a few hundred feet of Qui’s future location. “Yasmin at Casa Colombia has heard no news about the actual opening of the restaurant,” Christina T. wrote. She then listed about a dozen links that she’d researched.
It was extremely good, fast service, but it was nothing I couldn’t have done myself, minus the phone calls, which weren’t really necessary. I wondered: Does Infiniti think its customers don’t know how to use computers? In any case, I still had to make reservations for my anniversary dinner, at a restaurant that actually exists. I went online and did it myself. It took about two minutes, and I even requested, and got, a special table.
I was extremely satisfied with the level of personal service.