Newsletter Steven Ferry

The Modern Butlers’ Journal, April 2018, The Butlers Speak

Steven FerryThe Butlers Speak

by Steven Ferry

Dealing with Day and Overnight Guests

All butlers surveyed stated that they look after day and overnight guests, although 25% said they rarely were required to do so.

For day guests, duties include answering the call from the main gate, alerting the principals via text message of the imminent arrival, meeting the visitors at the front door, escorting them to the room where the principals wish to meet them. Each provide the standard butler function of asking guests if they want refreshments, or presenting them with refreshments, depending on principal dictates. Refreshments offerred depended upon the time of day, who the visitor was, and what their interaction was with the employer. In one household, the butler offers everyone a beverage of their choice and almost always fresh-baked cookies/biscuits and grapes, and on some occasions, even snacks. Apart from fetching drinks and nibbles, duties include hanging up coats, accepting any gifts on behalf of the principal and relaying them for opening later.

As for any interesting experiences/challenges with day visitors, one butler reported having a “No Shoes” policy for the interior of the home, making the asking of guests to allow him to clean the bottom of their shoes somewhat awkward when they had not been forewarned of the policy. One butler found she had to finesse the question of interruptions—when to clear items or to offer something else to the visitor or principal. She solved this by asking the employer ahead of time and sometimes receiving texted instructions on when to come; she never opened a closed door or approached a business meeting unless so instructed.

One butler found it interesting to see how grateful guests are when he remembers what they like or do not care for. “I still love to see their faces when I hand them something I know they enjoy, yet it has been months since they last visited.”

In terms of advice for handling day guests, the butlers agree on the value of building and consulting a database of the visitor’s name, the room in which the principal met them, refreshments offered or taken, and any other pertinent information, such as gifts brought for the principal. The building (of the database) could come from observing and noting each visit, or information provided by the principals; or from the PA or secretary of the visitor – asking them to be as specific as possible, rather than accepting, “Oh, they eat and drink anything.” Some people are shy and don’t want to be a nuisance, yet often they are somewhat picky when the time comes. The reward for pushing for this information at the front end includes less scrambling and legwork to remedy the lack of preferred items being presented or in stock when the guests arrive. This advance work includes ensuring that the outdoor crew prepares any facilities (pool, volleyball net, horses) the guests are expected to enjoy. And what does it all boil down to? In the immortal words of the housekeeper, played by Helen Mirren, in Gosford Park, “It [the most valuable skill an employee has] is the gift of anticipation: I know when they are hungry and the food is ready. I know when they are tired and the bed is made; sometimes, I know it before they know it themselves.”

One butler mentioned the soft skills needed: “Listen, follow instructions, and try to be involved or invisible, depending on the principal’s earlier instructions. No matter how long you have known a guest, keep it professional: It is not your guest, so no personal information about yourself needs to be discussed, and if asked a question, answer it briefly with a smile and continue with your chores or obligations.”

Duties relating to overnight guests start with briefing by the principals and coordinating with the chef and the rest of the staff; greeting guests on arrival, including taking them and their luggage to their room and orienting them to the key features of the property and their room, giving them their wi-fi password, and even providing photographs and contact information for staff, the house phone number and address; offering to unpack and press any items that may need touch up. And once they have settled in, offering drinks, snacks depending on the time of day, or serving meals, and overall helping to make their stay comfortable, making sure they have everything they need, etc., the goal being to create a home-away-from-home. One butler checks with the guests if they mind her entering their room again, so as to service it at turndown when they are at dinner (straightening the bathroom and bedroom, exchanging linens, turning on the lights, drawing the curtains/ shades, replacing water bottles and managing any other requests that the guest may have had, such as returning or processing laundry or ironing).

Interesting experiences/challenges include servicing random guests the principals may have met in town. And for a female butler, handling weekend guests during golf outings at a second home, where, the more frequently the men were invited, the more some of them would become flirty when drinking. Handling? Keep the response brief and formal, such as “Can I get you another drink, Dr. _____?” It’s best to excuse yourself with these touchy-feely types, saying you need to check on the dog or something, remaining cordial and professional, especially for those who may be chronic in their pursuits.

Advice for overnight guests include having a clear list of guidelines in each guest room of family/house rules and expectations. Another butler, noticing that some of the principal’s visitors were in need of help while ambling from the dining room table to their car, for instance, took a Nursing Assistant course (4 weeks of nights and weekends). The same butler took a bartending course so as to be able to provide guests with a greater variety of specialty beverages—it does not take long to know how the principals like their favorite tipples, but guests bring a wide range of requests that it would be better to be able to accommodate smoothly, instead of fumbling with a cocktail menu book and wondering how one frosts a glass and what kind of salt one uses for a Marguarita.

Lastly, the butlers were asked if they had noticed any changes over the years in the expectations of visitors or guests, and we quote some of their responses:

“Entertaining has become much more relaxed, and less structured (which is a shame) than in years past; and guests expect the best because they are a guest, and yet their attitude and actions sometimes reflect that of a spoiled child” RC

“Because we offer housekeeping, some guests make no effort to keep their bedroom/bathrooms tidy; yet they are a house guest, not a hotel guest. It never seems to amaze me how many people have zero manners these days: They don’t know how to eat and what flatware to eat with. I have made the mistake in the past of laying my table with a couple of courses of flatware already down and then have to stop mid-service to re-set a course. People also can’t serve themselves (during Butler Service). And then there is the constant leaving the table during a six-course dinner to take a call or visit the bathroom, which makes it tough for the chef, too. In what universe does a house guest think it’s okay to manscape (remove bodily hair below the beltline) in the bath tub and not clean up after himself? Or have his shoes polished and not thank anyone? Don’t get me started on not tipping my poor hard-working housekeepers. I don’t care for myself, but for goodness sakes, tip the poor lady for all the extra work she has done for you and your family! The messes she has cleaned up; the clothing she has laundered and pressed so you leave with everything you arrived with, clean and ready to put away when you arrive home. The dozens of pool towels you have messed up throughout your stay. Some guests seem to think we do not notice the once-white now-grey underwear—my floor cloths are whiter, for goodness sakes. It’s all very sad. But they don’t care or have any shame it would seem.” PB

“It seems the younger generations, those in their 20’s and 30’s, show me a more entitled attitude during a visit. I expect teenagers to be sloppy and lazy, but I am sorry to say this attitude is continuing into later years.” LW

“Over the last four decades, people have become less judgmental of the service providers inside the home, more respectful—or maybe I just look at it differently now: For instance, I work hard and an occasional reprimand is expected, but I do not choose my principals anymore, as I have developed a thick skin—life is too short. A chef in a different household was asked by an overnight guest to provide lunch; whereas the household policy calls for breakfast, snacks, and dinner to be served in the home, lunch to be enjoyed out with the hosts. The lady guest berated the chef, saying she never had been a guest anywhere where lunch was not offered. The homeowner stepped in and asked her not to talk to the chef like that, he was just following the house rules. Truthfully, I try not to compare guests’ behavior, but I think the newly rich pile on expectations that are sometimes impossible to meet. I also find they want to tip me, which I kindly refuse. I am already being paid, and tipped for that matter (end-of-year bonus) for the services I provide.” DS

In short, we can say with some truthfulness, that some guests misbehave—maybe more so than in the past, as social graces wilt under the onslaught of the anonymous, virtual world in which most younger people spend the majority of their waking hours. A good reason for butlers to continue to maintain the high ground on manners as role models that are markedly missing in the media to which people are so exposed.


The Institute is dedicated to raising service standards by broadly disseminating the mindset and superior service expertise of that time-honored, quintessential service provider, the British Butler, updated with modern people skills, and adapted to the needs of modern employers and guests in staffed homes, luxury hotels, resorts, spas, retirement communities, jets, yachts & cruise ships around the world.