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So, What Is A Butler Anyway?

Rare is the week that goes by without word of some upscale hotel offering butler service as a way to improve service and retain or gain that coveted 5-star or diamond status. That’s as it should be. But then consider the industry veteran Horst Schulze’s declaration in the Wall Street Journal that Capella, his future line of hotels, will have a six-star rating. What does he specify as the criteria for such an august label? Private swimming pools. And personal butlers.

It seems butlers are really not just for the wealthy in their private estates, but also for their convenience when they travel.

So, in providing butler service, a pertinent question might be “What exactly is a butler?” Or more to the point, “What are butlers in a hotel setting?” They obviously are more than the dog, beach, computer, baby, and bath butlers that rushed out fully armed from marketing departments during the 1990s and beat a hasty retreat in the face of public disdain.

The answer is very clear to those hotel executives who have brought in any one of a handful of trainers able to teach their personnel how to “butle.” Anyone who has read Hotel Butlers, The Great Service Differentiators, will know that there is a technology and mindset to butling. It is something that can be learned to jump-start an individual in the Middle East, the Far East, the East Coast or the West Coast of America, the Caribbean, and anywhere else in the art of butling British style.

In addition to the dozen-or-less trainers working on site at hotels, there are a dozen-or-less schools around the world teaching strangers to the art of butling the skills and panache needed to fulfill their roles with sufficient aplomb. There is no shortage of resources for anyone wanting their employees trained to the high standards of service that the butler exemplifies.

In recognition of the increased demand for butlers, and the subsequent need to train butlers, and even non-butler staff in the mindset of the butler so as to raise service standards throughout hospitality venues (be they hotel, resort, spa, or private villa), the International Institute of Modern Butlers was founded.

The Institute purpose being to promote training in the butler model, to act as a clearinghouse for butler training resources around the world, and to help set and raise standards in the profession. It being recognized that, like any profession, butlers need standards and a standard-setting body to prevent the profession from becoming less than it should be.

And in the case of butlers, there is the additional requirement that a model be constructed of what the butler is and does in both the private and hospitality settings in the 21st Century. The ideal being, perhaps, a modern butler with the core values of the early-20th Century butler, rather than a mannequin with the outward trappings and motions of the butler and no mindset to back it up.

One important program the Institute is championing is an apprenticeship program for butler school graduates, whereby they apprentice under butlers in private estates or work in butler departments in hotels to hone their skills and add substance to their training. This represents a handy and cost-effective personnel pool for private estates, as well as hotels intent on offering butler service, or wanting to add butlers to their department without investing in bringing a trainer on board. It also allows butler school graduates to break into an industry that can be quite closed to neophytes knocking at the door. While a trainer working with trainees on site is the optimum way to slam-dunk a butler department into place in a hotel, an alternative is to bring in butler school graduates and have a trainer visit briefly to fine-tune and provide quality control-an important element given that butler schools focus on the basics of butling and few provide hospitality-centric training.

Which brings us back to the original question: what is a butler in the hospitality setting? The cinema and various books create stereotypical butlers whom we find amusing for their restraint and biting wit in the face of monumental stupidity; and endearing for their willingness to work behind the scenes while their employers blithely strut across the stage, playing out their own pre-ordained roles.

Yet, whether answering the telephone or dealing with difficult situations, there is something about the attentive and slightly aloof British butler that has a place in today’s modern hotels as much as in the 19th Century British stately home.

Maybe it is their low-key approach to service, in preference to the maestro-center-of-the-stage performance so characteristic of many American service professionals.

A butler is a frame of mind rather than a status or a series of duties. It is a mindset that anyone can adopt in any situation in life to very satisfying results, because it is founded on the truths that it is better to serve than be served, and that life can be rational and serene when one assumes responsibility for all things.

In almost every person, there is a penguin-suited figure dying to emerge, to bring a surprising level of equanimity, order and happiness to the lives of those around him or her. This may seem far-fetched in a world of hard-nosed corporate executives, self-centered guests and screaming, obnoxious children as sometimes parade through the hospitality world, but what does win in the world of service, funnily enough, is complete devotion to providing service. Anything less is transparent.

Butlers are superior service professionals. Their model has value. It is the future of service.

This article also appeared in the Hotel Business Review section of, and in Polish in the publication