Sat, Dec 18, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Under-promise, over-deliver: How to be the perfect Christmas PA

At this time of year, a personal assistant's job gets a whole lot harder as underappreciated Christmas dogsbody

By Diana Cambridge  /  THE GUARDIAN , London

ILLUSTRATION MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

Buying gifts just for family and friends is enough of a chore for most of us. What if you had to repeat the negotiations endlessly? Buy appropriate tokens for people you don't even know? Choose and sign cards for hundreds of strangers? Order holly-wrapped canapes in September and coordinate Christmas menus ad nauseam?

If you're a Christmas "trawler" (you make at least 21 vague "shopping trips") rather than a "precision shopper," then having to "do" Christmas for work might not be ideal. But some people choose it. Welcome to the world of the Christmas personal assistant (PA).

"My key skill is organization -- I used to be in project management." sighs Gill McCafferty, knee-deep in snowman wrapping paper and robin tags.

Her West London company, just2busy, specializes in Christmas "admin." Buying gifts is key.

There have been some intriguing festive requests this year.

"One client rang me and said she'd seen [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair wearing a shirt with naked ladies on the cuffs, could I get one?" she recalls. "I found out they were from Paul Smith. Someone else wanted a flight in a Gypsy Moth plane, which I arranged, plus some racetrack days. I sort out lots of lavish pampering gift days. Most people I shop for have generous budgets so I might be spending a few hundred pounds. I'll choose treat weekends, crates of wine, Red Letter Days. Smaller gifts include magazine subscriptions and theater options."

McCafferty's hourly rate is ?20 (US$40) but clients tend to buy blocks of time -- five, 10 or 20 hours. As a time-saving device, she claims to be worth every penny.

"I have so many contacts and sources now that I can probably achieve in 30 minutes what it would take someone else three hours to do," she says.

Haley Dwyer of Leatherhead, Surrey, is "virtual PA" to 32 clients. Her company, E-nough.biz, manages customers' offices, and their lives, remotely, with the help of three "virtual assistants."

She offers packages from ?49.95 for two and half-hours to 20 hours for ?324.95. During December, she has four events to attend every week, all parties grateful customers have invited her to, plus assignments including arranging a murder mystery party, a champagne business breakfast, and a smart supper with tickets to the comedy club.

"This year I am organizing four different parties, plus business to business promotional gifts," she says. "I also track down personal presents for clients. A typical request came this week from a client who asked me to find him six Neil Diamond concert tickets."

Dwyer's advice to well-organized PAs looking to branch out on their own is to join local business networking groups. She claims to get at least 50 percent of her business from local traders' groups.

"They often are too busy just working to be able to handle the Christmas stuff they'd like to do -- yet it's the Christmas marketing that brings them extra orders for the next year," she says.

She deals with clients' diaries, takes on desktop publishing for them, filters and replies to electronic greetings. Her clients include a health club, a school, and computer and communications consultancies. In one year, she has built up 60 percent repeat business and nearly 40 clients.

"It's very cost-effective for clients as they pay for only the time they use, and a virtual assistant is totally productive," she says in justification of her job.

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