You're a successful professional woman who's been invited to a lavish dinner at which your firm is in line for one of the industry's major awards. Everyone is expected to take a partner but you don't have a current boyfriend and all your male friends are otherwise engaged. What do you do?
You're a jazz fanatic. Your favourite American tenor sax player is finally bringing his quartet to Ronnie Scott's and you've booked a table for two - but your wife hates jazz, as do all your friends. Nobody goes to a jazz club by themselves. What do you do?
You're determined to make the most of a rare business trip to London, and particularly want to take in a hot new art exhibition, perhaps the Picasso at the Tate. But while you know what you like, you don't know much about art - a knowledgeable companion would make a big difference. What do you do?
Don't panic. In all these cases, and many similar ones, help is at hand: you can now hire a partner for the day or evening from Consorts for Connoisseurs, a new business that has tackled head-on the stigma that might be attached to any organisation resembling, however superficially, an escort agency.
Deborah Campbell, the likeable, talkative and tough businesswoman behind the venture, is not afraid to grasp the nettle. 'Yes, I know some people might jump to that conclusion but this is something completely new and different. We are a team of professional people, of both sexes and all ages, catering for professional people.
'The organisation was born through my own experience of having been in a strange town on business reluctant to find an escort, and of having a partner unable to attend a special occasion due to other commitments. It is very difficult to find a consort with bona fide credentials in today's society, so our service is aimed at professionals who can be totally confident of our credibility and service.'
Ms Campbell hand-picked her team of 27 consorts from hundreds of applicants, and boasts that they are equally at ease at a film premiere, hunt ball, black-tie dinner, opera or ballet, or occasions such as Ascot, Henley and Wimbledon. (I asked if they would also be able to supply someone to accompany my partner on a trip up north to see his awful football team: no problem.)
'We also cater for the visiting businessman or woman who would like an articulate dinner companion for the evening, not necessarily of the opposite sex, and we would make all reservations if required.'
That certainly sounds better than sitting in a lonely hotel room watching MTV and contemplating the minibar, but I wanted to meet the consorts and see for myself how they lived up to their billing. They were all at a party this week - held, like all the best launches, on a boat - to mark the business's official opening. The men ranged from Clive, a handsome 23-year-old chef, to James, an absolute charmer of 73 who looks at least 15 years younger and who says his wife suggested he apply for the job 'to get me out of the house'. At least two of the others resemble famous actors (Patrick Swayze and William Franklyn, since you ask) but they are not like those model types who spend all the evening admiring themselves in the mirror and ignoring you.
It's the same with the women: many have a background in entertaining (Sue, a still-gorgeous fiftysomething in glittering gold, is a former ship's hostess and singer), and all are attractive, but not intimidatingly so. There's not a bimbo in sight; like the men, they are bright, confident and chatty. Many were recruited because of specific talents or interests - languages, sports, dancing, knowledge of the arts (Geraldine, a professional astrologer, might even give you a reading if you ask nicely). A large number of the consorts are married or have partners and there is even a husband-and-wife team: Michel, a suave Frenchman, and his delightful Polish wife Theresa. All are looking forward to their work with an enthusiasm that is infectious. James, typically, says: 'It's an adventure - like life.'
Such charming companions do not come cheap, but for the pounds 200 it costs to become a Connoisseur you don't just get a Consort for the day or evening: you are also picked up at your home, office or hotel in a luxury chauffeur-driven limousine and taken to the function, then driven home safely afterwards.
Safely: a key word. The staff are carefully vetted and given a strict set of guidelines; if they stray from them even slightly, Ms Campbell says, they will be instantly sacked. And they are taught to deal quickly and efficiently with any difficult situation that may arise if a customer has too much to drink and is tempted to do something he or she might regret in the morning.
Interestingly, the female friends I have told about Consorts for Connoisseurs have almost all responded positively ('just what we need'). The men are more reluctant; perhaps they still think that, because their ancestors were hunters, they are failures unless they are hanging around in pubs trying (vainly) to pick us up. They'll learn.
Consorts for Connoisseurs: Unit 2, 5-11 Lavington Street, London SE1 0NZ (081-855 0925 / 0860 161761).
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