The butler and guest excursions

| September 23, 2011 |

Any trainer will tell you that the most challenging class to teach is not the class who questions your facts, but is in fact the class who simply sit there and accept every word without comment. Teaching a class of living dead is a disheartening, energy sapping exercise at best. I enjoy being challenged; it means I have to be sure of my facts. What I enjoy most however, is when I student asks a question that opens up a whole new area of discussion.

This week a student asked me a seemingly innocuous question about lunching with guests on day trips. It seemed that quite a few guests had some degree of confusion regarding the butler’s role on the excursion; were they there to serve, or were they there to participate? A few more questions and we got to the source of the confusion – the head butler had instructed the team to wear civilian clothes while accompanying the guests off-premises. This had naturally opened up innumerable possibilities for confusion. Of course such confusion can also occur even when one is in uniform and butlers often ask me what they should do in such situations. They are always a little taken aback when I tell them that it is best not to allow such situations to arise in the first place.

The reality is that when a butler accompanies the guest off-premises, they are still on duty and they are there to serve, not to be entertained at the guest’s expense. These misunderstandings happen when the lines are blurred. This is not to say one may not be friendly, but when one accompanies the guest on an excursion, one must have a clear role or function in the excursion. If not, then there is no reason to go along is there? Ascertain what it is the guest wants to do, arrange it for them and see them off. If you do accompany them, wearing civilian clothes blurs the line between on-duty and off-duty, opening the door to misunderstandings. This gives rise to uncomfortable situations which complicate the butler-guest dynamic, such as my student being invited into a bar to have a drink with his guest.

Avoid this by having a clear departmental policy for guest excursions. Be in uniform, be proactive and take the lead. Actively host the guest, plan the day (remain flexible) and be on the front foot when offering services. If you stand around dithering, the guest may invite you in simply because they don’t know what else to do with you! Present them to the manager of the establishment, make sure they are well taken care of and, having arranged a time to return and collect them, make your exit. If one does this with aplomb and style, all the while remaining polite, you avoid opening the door to uncertainty. In short, you are not distant; you simply have a clearly defined role to play which you execute with friendly and faultless efficiency.

Tags: Butler, Butler training, difficult guest, guest excursion, hospitality butler training, Hotel Butler

Category: Blog, Butler training, Hotel Butler, The Butler Way

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Vice President Africa, Middle East and Indian Ocean The International Institute of Modern Butlers

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  1. protocol.pro says:

    I think is excellent advice in the hotel world (I once worked at The Lanesborough).

    I was subsequently in private service in London and sometimes had the pleasure of escorting house guests on various excursions. While I would always maintain a professional appearance, I would consider whether my uniform would draw unwanted attention and possible embarrassment to the guest. Even in London, a butler in full regalia draws attention. Off site, I opted for a dark blue suit and let my behaviour and attitude rather than my clothes define the “line that must not be crossed.”

    Now I am a country butler and my uniform is a suit in the family tweed (made by my employer’s own tailor) and I am often indistinguishable in appearance from the men in the family. I rely on my behaviour and attitude to establish that line with the many, many visitors and guests.

    A colleague runs a corporate retreat that is indistinguishable from a private country house in almost every respect (except that he gets every weekend off!). He and his under-butler used to wear the innocuous blue suit until the day they descended the front steps to open the car doors for visiting international guests who did not know what their business hosts looked like. The guests were immediately shaking hands and making introductions. From that moment, my colleague decreed that staff would be in formal butler uniform.

    Whatever the circumstances and situation, whatever we’re wearing, it all comes down to maintaining our professionalism while ensuring guests and visitors are comfortable.

    • Frank Mitchell says:

      Dear Protocol.pro,

      Thank you for your participation, you make a very good point and I certainly agree that a guest may not want to be accompanied by a staff member who appears to be dressed for a wedding or a hunt! However, by most standards, a dark blue lounge suit is still fairly ‘formal’ attire. I also agree with your point about a traditional uniform making one uncomfortable in public.

      While in private service I once had a similar experience to the one you mention. My employer’s wife did not like me to wear formal clothing and so I usually wore a suit, or perhaps something more practical when going to the farm. (I always wore a tie & jacket as a minimum.) One day I opened the front door to visitors and the gentleman, who mistook me for a member of the family, proceeded to introduce me to his wife and children, all of whom insisted on shaking hands (as one does in Africa).

      I thought I was handling matters as smoothly as could be expected when my employer walked into the entrance hall wanting to know why I was not bringing the visitors through to the reception rooms. Once the visitor discovered his mistake, it promptly became embarrassing for all. After that I was allowed to wear my uniform.

      What I neglected to mention in my blog is that I am doing the training on a tropical island and private clothes for these staff members = very casual indeed. In fact, one evening they commented on me being all dressed up when in fact I had on a pair of chino’s, a white shirt, no tie and no jacket!

      Of course they work very hard in a hot climate and a suit would not be practical. They wear Bermuda shorts and a cotton shirt with long socks and lace-up shoes. Not island style perhaps, but I think that accompanying a guest in board shorts, T-shirt and ‘flip-flop’ slip-on sandals creates the wrong impression too.

      It remains a difficult balance to achieve and I think we agree that the uncomfortable invitation from the guest is most easily avoided by maintaining an air of professional and friendly dignity.

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