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Slaying Oxymoronos Maximus, the Great Dragon of Cheap Imitation in the Luxury Market

When it comes to luxury, nobody is under the misapprehension that a Ford, as good as it is in its context, can be passed off as a car that would cost $100,000 because it is built of the finest materials and is designed with a host of features that would warrant such a price tag.

The same goes for a hotel: as good as Hiltons are, for instance, few if any of them are rated as five stars/diamonds for the simple reason that their furnishings and appointments are not so designed: Their 5-star offerings are the Waldorf Astorias and Conrads.

So while the obvious features visible to the naked eye are clearly evident and determinable as to their quality, the less visible but no less palpable features of service levels receive less scrutiny when it comes to assigning quality. In one luxury resort that had all the trappings of a five-star (and was even rated so), I was forced to recommend to corporate that they close the place down because 90% of the employees were totally focused on tips as opposed to service, which emphasis was not lost on guests. Not surprisingly, corporate paid no heed (and never asked me back). But, I was encouraged to hear that another luxury chain in the same region, had done just that a few years later, shortly after opening at great expense, because they found they could not maintain their standards and did not want their brand to suffer. Kudos to them.

When it comes to service levels, butlers are really designed for hotels and resorts that are Five Star, or Four Star heading toward a Five. Why? For two simple reasons:

  • Butlers demand a premium in terms of rack rate for the host of added services they make available to guests, which added expense would be tolerable to guests not traveling with an eye to economy as the primary driver;
  • Butlers (should) provide a style of service characterized by discretion, panache and attention to detail, etc., which are more likely to be the expected and appreciated service levels for those moving in luxury circles.

This not to say that a hotel of any rating, or even no rating, cannot provide those same services, or some of them, at least, to their guests, in an effort to improve service levels—nor even having other department staff delivering those services because there is no budget for butlers. This is not to say, also, that any hotel of any rating cannot train its personnel in the same levels of sophisticated service—all power to such efforts to improve service—but the likelihood that their guests will appreciate such niceties and refinements may well lessen, as will the difficulty increase in providing such services on restricted budgets available to hotels and resorts with lower rack rates.

So what point is being made here?

Two actually: the first that two and three star/diamond-level hotels are advertizing butler service as such, while offering substantially inferior levels of service than is expected of butlers; and the second, that four and five-star/diamond hotels and resorts are doing the same! It is one thing to offer genuine butler service, and quite another to hang onto the tails of the butler profession in name only, while not delivering on the promise such offers to guests.

The latter is the equivalent of fake Gucci bags, or lacing milk with melamine, a derivative of coal, in the effort to boost its apparent protein content (melamine having a signature almost identical chemically to protein). The result in hospitality won’t be sickened and dead babies or sickened adults, as was the case with melamine-laced milk powder in baby formula and chocolates, etc., but it will be disappointed guests who do not return—something that benefits neither guests nor hotels. Melamine, for those who may not know, was one of the examples of cheap and even dangerous imitations coming out of China.

While China is probably also the most egregious in cheap imitations of butlers, the intent is not to scapegoat them: They have had bad examples set by the British, for instance in areas close to the hearts of the Chinese, (in this case, tea) as butlers are to the British. To amplify: a couple of centuries ago, the British developed a prodigious thirst for the tea drink that the Chinese had been cultivating for five thousand years. Demand was so strong and prices so high due to the low-production volume, given the slower methods of quality production practiced by the Chinese, that the British decided to grow their own in other colonies, specifically at that time, India and Ceylon.

The problem was they did not know how and the Chinese were not inclined to tell them (the British actually thought green and black teas came from separate tea bushes, and that they were harvested by monkies, such was the state of confusion on the subject); so the British East India Company (the largest corporation in history) sent industrial spies to China, who obtained the needed information, as well as smuggling out several hundred tea plants. The British then developed mass-production methods that boosted volume while lowering quality: creating small tea leaves and dust that when bagged, could be used to create poor-tasting beverages (when compared with the whole- or large-leaved Chinese teas that actually taste of something). How ironic.

But back to butling and standards of butling: having been asked numerous times by Chinese hotels and potential JV partners to, at the most extreme end, train hundreds of butlers at a time for three hours total and then give them a certificate, and in each case refusing to quote on such RFPs, it has become clear that someone else did step up to the plate, and that, consequently, China is awash in hotels with butler figureheads offering little or no substance.

This is not to say that all hotels in China are so afflicted, but the exception no doubt will prove the rule. And this is not to say that it is only in China that such standards are expected: many hotels elsewhere have requested similar treatments—one luxury hotel in the Middle East rejected a one-month program with three trainers for its 170-plus butlers, and instead, awarded the contract to a single trainer who spent a total of three days on site, so the hotel could claim it had butler service.

A famous luxury chain worked with us initially, long enough to receive our suggestions and acquire our materials, and then decided to do it all in-house. A couple of years later, a third-party asked for our assistance in bringing the butler service up to some sort of standard, having conducted an audit in a US location of this chain and finding it rather too deficient. Corporate refused, and they remain, to this day, offering inferior butler service.

What does one take away from all of this?

That there are some hotels and resorts that recognize the value of butlers in providing extra and superior service to their guests, and who make a serious effort to understand and implement those services and service styles—and their efforts are being undermined by the greater number of hotels that see something desirable, yet try to implement it with short cuts—usually to minimize outlay.

The result is an oxymoron—a contradiction—cheap luxury. Imagine Rolls Royce using plastic burled wood or leather seats; or inferior metals in the engine that sheer after one or two uses (as the author has found to be the case in trying to use construction tools that are almost invariably available only from Chinese manufacturing plants).

Providing guests with amenities such as fake Gucci bags is the same order of thing as butlers who don’t deliver on the range of butler services, or who don’t know how to. A hotel would not do the former, so why do they do the latter? Just as guests might look askance at Gucci bags until they had inspected them carefully, so they do at hotels that claim they offer butler service. The result is that butlers no longer become the selling point they should be, because of past experiences that did not live up to guest expectations.

It’s time we slew this dragon as a profession and as an industry, and started to insist on quality delivery. One possible resource is to implement and promote more broadly the industry rating system created seven years ago for hotel butler service—available for free at

This article is not directed only to hotel managers and owners who feel cutting corners on luxury to be appropriate, but to the hotel managers and owners who do the right thing—because their investments are being tarnished by the former. It is an industry wide issue and we can do something about it, even if just speaking discreetly over a drink or dinner to any colleagues who feel that cutting corners is appropriate when providing luxury, that cheap luxury is possible to present to a discerning clientele.

by Steven Ferry

Published May 2013 by Hotel Business ReviewHospitality Net, and Hotel Online.