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Butler Service Today Five Leading Hotels Share their Secret

Why have butler service in a hotel? In the cases canvassed, there were two basic reasons: either because the hotel owners conceived they had the best property in the world/on the PGA tour/etc. and they believed the corollary on the service side could only be supplied by the addition of butlers. Or because they wanted to give their most important guests such a level of service.  The five hotels participating in this article have provided guests with this butler service for the last 6-16 years, building the desired reputation and reaping the rewards. Contrasting this with hotels that have signed onto the butler concept and then disbanded the service, it is obvious that butler departments are not always guaranteed success.

How did they do it, those who succeeded?

First of all, by overcoming the obstacles they met on the way, starting with launching the service. In the case of the iconic Burj al Arab in Dubai, the problem was finding qualified staff in a country that did not have many locals to draw upon. When you have to man a department of something like 160 butlers, it is easy to see why this would be a challenge. In the end they sourced their staff from about 100 countries. Falling Rock in Pennsylvania, a privately held resort designed in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright and boasting a challenging Pete Dye-designed golf course, also provides 24-hour butler service to its 42 rooms and suites. Their main challenge, being on a huge estate in the countryside far from any cities, was likewise recruiting butlers, which they resolved by targeting regional colleges and universities.

Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe did not have such issues, but struggled with the more prosaic problem of making their pantries flow sufficiently to keep up with the demand for butler services. In the ideally situated Seven Stars Galleria in Milan, their challenge was being able to deliver the same level of service required in a private estate, while being in a hotel environment. This resolved with a perception shift that each room or suite was a single house with the most important guest in it. One of these hotels also mentioned justifying a large payroll as a challenge, which they overcame by providing the expected level of service with concomitant guest satisfaction. They all also hired experts to train their staff, rather than trying to fudge the training by in-house solutions not based on the butler model.

Ongoing challenges have related, for Burj al Arab, to their butlers leaving after two years—not because of dissatisfaction, but because, having worked at the hotel, they became valued commodities in the West, as well as their home countries. The solution was hiring mature butlers, providing better pay and living conditions, allowing the butlers to multi-task, and of course, promoting internally so there was a career path worth pursuing.

At Harrah’s, lack of consistency was resolved by having pictures of each set-up, from morning breakfast to elaborate dinner tables and everything in between.

Similarly, the other hotels found they needed to continue the focus on training in order to maintain standards. In the case of Falling Rock, the initial training was sufficiently strong and effective that they were able to continue annual training in-house. Their ongoing challenges have been “the stress of striving for our 5th star so we can be one of the top 25 resort hotels in the world [they achieved 5 Diamond from AAA soon after opening and have maintained it since, and have been awarded 4 Star the last two years by Forbes/Mobil], and keeping the team motivated during incredible busy times.” Team-building and venting sessions have apparently helped keep the team motivated.

In Seven Stars Galleria, the most challenging aspect of the head butler’s work is making sure the guests are satisfied from the moment they arrive at the hotel, as many stay for just one night. This is resolved by empowering the butlers to deal with whatever comes up so that the guest is always given superb service and treated as the most important person.

What’s So Special About Butler Service?

Given that butler service is superior, and that part of it can be attributed to the attitude/mindset and communication skills of the butler, what do butlers actually do en suite to service guests. The key is actually in the phrase “en suite,” because that is the niche that hotel butlers open up for hotels as lines of service to guests. Until butlers arrived on the scene in hotels three decades ago, there was very little hotels could do for guests in their suite, other than clean them, provide amenities occasionally, and room service. Those hotels who have successful butler service list the following actions they can perform to wow their guests or merely make their stay more fun/convenient/pleasurable/tailor made to their needs, etc.

Preparing the suite for arrivals, welcoming with a beverage and hot/chilled towelette; touring the guest; unpacking (and later packing) their suitcases so they can go about their business or vacation straight away; concierge service and being a continue source of information during the stay; helping with IT and business/personal secretary requests; running a bath, usually with all sorts of trimmings from caviar and champagne to less exotic fare; checking-in and –out; promoting hotel facilities (and upselling); wardrobe management, laundry, pressing and shoe shine (Falling Rock provides golf spike detailing!); providing room amenities; replenishing the private bar; providing F&B functions from simple food delivery to serving and clearing multi-course meals (in larger suites) and organizing and managing a wide range of parties; escorting to any and all appointments on-and off-property; personal shopping and personal assistance; wake-up service; and most importantly, anticipating guest needs or dealing with their requests if not anticipated. There are other services that can be delivered, but none of the five hotels questioned offer them.

Compare this to hotels without butler service, where one checks into an empty room and talks through the phone to front desk, and occasionally has food delivered: traveling is a lonely business, so butlers putting the mansion-away-from-the-mansion back into the equation certainly adds value to a hotel’s offering. Think orchestrating wedding proposals; floating-gazebo dinners; tracking down long-lost relatives and arranging the reunion; training a guest on sabering a champagne bottle so he could impress his fiancee; replicating elements of a guest’s home in their suite; the more mundane five-hour drives to deliver lost items and smoothly handling medical emergencies—these are the above-and-beyond the normal hotel stay that butlers make possible.

Which is probably why guests tend to rave about their experience at these hotels, with “nearly 100% exceptional feedback from our guests,” as one GM raved in turn, and comments like “the best service they have received in all their travels,” as one head butler reports.

The media have similarly trumpeted the wonders of these hotels and their butler service: Butlers, like Rolls Royces and Bentleys, super-yachts and private jets, symbolize the ultimate in the striving for and enjoyment of superior service, possessions, and lifestyles. They contain several of the ingredients that the press typically salivates over.

The one fly in the ointment for butlers is that mystery-guest-certifying organizations like Forbes/Mobil, AA, AAA, RAC, Leading Hotels of the World have yet to catch up with the phenomenon of butlers, even though they exist with a wide range of service offerings in something like 400 hotels around the world. As one representative explained to the author in Spring of 2010, they do not want to penalize hotels without butler service by having butler criteria. There is an easy way to resolve this, using the criteria established by the International Institute of Modern Butlers and offered freely to these organizations to incorporate into their own where butler service is offered.

Butler service is the way of the future in a world where even the wealthy (and why not) are demanding maximum bang for their buck—service levels to justify the high rack rates demanded in luxury hotels. And by the way, with various hotels straining beyond the five-star rating in an effort to reflect the service they actually do deliver, it might be time to come up with 6-star and maybe even 7-star ratings to reflect hotels and resorts with butler services, private infinity pools, and so forth.

Which brings up another point, while on the subject of these organizations: the ratings have become sufficiently confusing between competing systems in a global environment—and with knock-offs and self-assignments occurring—that the ratings have lost meaning or usefulness to the consumer in some part. One whole country (which shall remain anonymous) adds two stars to their actual level as a marketing gimmick. At the International Hotel Conference held in Venice during October, 2010, panelists referred to hotels by such terms as luxury, upscale, mid-upscale etc., in their attempts to define hotels. It’s off-subject for this article, but worth exploring and resolving, perhaps, as we move increasingly into a global marketplace.

Other benefits of butlers in these hotels are the ability to personalize service based on an ever-accumulating database of guest preferences (a long-standing butler tool), provide a single point of contact for guests who takes ownership of any problems and removes worry and chores from the guest experience; and the development of a relationship that encourages repeat visits, with guests requesting the same butler.

Butler service has justified high or higher rack rates in these hotels (at a time when occupancy is up and profits and rev par down in the rest of the country, Falling Rock has enjoyed increased rack rates 5 out of the 6 years since they opened). The number one reason guests at Burj al Arab return is because of their butler service. Burj al Arab enjoys 35% repeat guests, Seven Stars Galleria and Falling Rock experience 40%.

Internal Perceptions

Not to paint butlers as super heroes, they are generally simply dedicated and service-oriented individuals, but is that how other employees view them?

Not in all hotels, for sure, where the butlers didn’t get what a butler really is and so earned the opprobrium (harsh criticism or censure) of their colleagues. Possible conflicts and areas of jealousy were avoided in these hotels, however, by understanding that this new beast, the butler, was an unknown quantity in hospitality, a recent entrant. So efforts were made to increase the understanding of the other departments of what a butler is, why they are of value to the hotel and thus to all its employees, and, also how they enhance, not cut across, staff income streams. In additino to meetings and briefings, two hotels employed cross-exposure/training to increase understanding and so acceptance. The result has been respect, mutual respect and the building of long-term relationships that add up to real teamwork and thus excellent service.

One hotel among these five, however, is fighting an uphill battle probably because they did not start off on the right foot—finding it difficult to make other departments accept their role in servicing guests. Their current effort to salvage the situation is to be as helpful as possibile to other departments in their servicing of guests.

How about the perception of the butler department by the butlers in these hotels? With an industry churn of about 31% per annum, Harrah’s has experienced zero churn over the last three years; Falling Rock 20%; Burj al Arab 14-18% until the Front Office merged with them, at which time the numbers increased to 25%, the same rate as the hotel where there is friction between the butlers and other departments. Whichever way you cut it, butler departments, when well run, have lower churn than the industry as a whole. Maybe this comes about because “there is no greater feeling when, as a butler, you can provide a service to a guest who has it all and still impress them.” and “Exceeding the guests’ expectations is the biggest reward we could hope and strive for” and “I am convinced the hotel butler role is the best guest-experience- maker a hotel can have.” In summary, “Our guests come to our hotel for our rating and our reviews, but they come back because of our service and our staff.”

From the management side, a GM who recognizes the value of butlers says: “the butler profession will continue to grow in the coming years. However, a butler staff is definitely a huge investment: wage scales increase, training is a huge investment, and amenities normally increase in cost when a butler program is implemented.”

Then there is the hotel where the butlers are struggling, even while earning a reputation for the service they provide: the friction between butler and other departments traces back to the manager’s perception of butler service, “not seeing or understanding the link between the butler and guest satisfaction and loyalty, and the butler’s role in differentiating the property in the local marketplace”—a bit like a farmer using a Rolls Royce to haul hay”.

Where do Butlers Belong?

The hotels participating all agreed that all five star/diamond hotels needed to offer butler service if they expect to provide top-level service; one even suggested that some four-star hotels should also offer butler service. Why? The wow factor and what it does for word of mouth, repeat visits, occupancy, rev par, and the bottom line.

For those wanting to establish butler service, all hotels agree that experienced butlers should be hired if possibile, certainly managers, and those with a passion to serve; train them repeatedly; and focus on attention to detail, especially in compiling and following guest preference databases (which makes anticipation possibile).

Butlers are still relatively new to the hospitality industry, which is behaving a bit like it is reaching puberty on the subject: all angst and knobbly knees about how to proceed…which makes these five hotels early developers and good role models for those following close behind. If service is the name of the game, then added service opportunities seem to be a no-brainer. Certainly, more and more guests will feel this way, the more they experience the ideal.

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