Stephen Place is the man people call when they don’t want to wait in a queue. Since his move to Malta in 2014, the former tour guide has transitioned from high-end holiday chaperone to boss of a luxury concierge service.
Whether securing last-minute tickets to a Grand Prix, opening a museum for a private tour or tracking down a particular Cartier bracelet, Place’s working hours go beyond the traditional 9-5.
Place Concierge offers 24-7 support for clients with memberships starting at €25,000 per year. It’s an eye-watering sum for the average person, and you would almost expect members to feel entitled to ring Place and his team at 3am for something as trivial as tracking down the lost TV remote down the side of the couch, never mind a last-minute visa. But Place insists that’s not what his clients are like.
“I describe them as the ‘wealth’ out of money talks but wealth whispers, so they won’t call us at 4am unless they’re really stuck,” he says. “If they’re calling, they need help like a medevac [medical evacuation] out of a skiing accident or, during Covid, we had medevacs to Istanbul, for example.”
These days Place often finds himself on private aircraft and in five-star hotels, shepherding clients on their travels, but he spent his formative years kicking footballs around the flats of Dublin’s northside.
“I grew up in Ballymun and I’m very proud of it. Quite a lot of successful people in life are from there,” he says.
I could appeal to the savvy, discerning traveller by actually telling stories, not just puns— Stephen Place on his Wild Atlantic Way audio guides
Place comes from a family of 10. His father, Brendan snr, was a League of Ireland footballer and a Dublin City Fire Brigade chief.
After school he secured a soccer scholarship to the US and found himself living in Georgia with nine other Irish guys, but in the end a professional football career wasn’t meant to be.
Instead it was a trip home and a nudge from his brother, Michael, that set him on the road to his current career. “My brother was a tour guide for the Paddywagon buses, and he encouraged me to come with him for a bit but that’s how I got a thirst to be a tour guide,” says Place.
After a few years Place decided to get his own professional operator licence after spotting a gap in the market. “I could appeal to the savvy, discerning traveller by actually telling stories, not just puns,” he says.
Place decided to capitalise on the official launch of the Wild Atlantic Way as a route by creating his own audio guides on the area while leading boutique tours for small groups who wanted to see “the real Ireland”. Luckily for Place, his future wife, Liz, happened to be one of 14 Maltese women on a tour he was leading.
The chance meeting saw Place ditch the audio guide and follow his heart to Malta, where he started his business over with the encouragement of Liz, a company director and the chairwoman of Trade Malta.
“When I moved to Malta I started to come out of my shell and realised the world is much bigger than Ireland,” he says.
A flurry of high net-worth individuals have established an official presence on the Mediterranean island in recent years, attracted by a favourable tax regime, including developer Johnny Ronan. Place saw an opportunity and pivoted his offerings to tailor to the needs of this demographic.
Place organises luxury travel experiences such as flying clients to nearby Sicily for the day, where he can have the villa from The Godfather film opened up just for them.
But he says it’s not always about pulling off extravagant opportunities that sets a concierge service apart; instead it can often be the small details that win clients over, “like making sure the drivers smoke away from the cars, having NDAs in place and making sure there aren’t local news reporters to blow the cover of a celebrity”, he says.
“We can arrange private vineyards or the cathedral after hours but as much as we love doing that, it’s also about the simple things – like pastizzi where the locals like it.”
Be nice and it will go further than offering $50 to get that restaurant table— Place on the limitations of money
Despite working with “high-net-worth individuals”, Place insists money will only get you so far when trying to gain access to some of the world’s most exclusive spaces.
“Building relationship with the right people and asking nicely is really important. Be nice and it will go further than offering $50 to get that restaurant table,” he says. “Money talks and it does open doors a lot easier but it’s not a sweetener. For things, say, like 12 Grand Prix pit passes, yes you’re going to need a deposit to say you’re serious, but for something like touring the Coco Chanel palace, they usually only allow VVIP customers with a €100,000 base spend do that but there is another way in.”
Place insists having a wide network across a company and never going above someone’s head to their boss helps get gatekeepers onside. “The EA [executive assistant] can be just as important as a billionaire owner, sometimes more,” he says.
According to Place, his Irishness gives him an edge over local competitors thanks to the connections he can make with Japanese clients over whiskey and Saudi clients over horse racing. However, he has to be wary of one cultural habit. “Being Irish naturally we want to say yes to everybody, so we can over-promise, but I can’t do that because you can’t deliver the best service. I have to exceed expectations,” he says.
The Irish tend to give each other a helping hand when we’re abroad
Place is still a regular visitor to Ireland but says Malta feels like home thanks to the similarities he has noticed in the local culture. “The Maltese are the Irish of the Mediterranean. They like a chat, they like a gossip and they like a drink,” he says.
He credits his wife and her family for not just helping him settle in but for the success of his business.
“I wouldn’t have been able to get this far without her business understanding. I owe it all to her. I wouldn’t be in this position today and wouldn’t have learned so much about the world if we hadn’t met.”
In 2015, overlooking a spectacular Valletta vista, Place married Liz Barbaro Sant, who is now the vice-president of the Malta Chamber of Commerce.
While Malta is home, Place is keen to give back to the local Irish community through the Irish Business Network Malta by facilitating networking opportunities for business people looking for a foot in the door.
“The Irish tend to give each other a helping hand when we’re abroad,” he says.