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Luxury Hotels: The Butler is here to Stay, But will the Guests be Happy Driving Fords?

“If hotels can have ridiculous things like butlers, they can certainly have bed bug inspectors,” bemoaned one hotel magazine editor in December, 2010. This might well be the epitaph for butler service in hotels, as it is too commonly practiced: in booming Asia, seemingly one-for-one, butler training programs have gone to the cheapest bidder who, perforce, is obliged to reduce training to well below the irreducible minimum. Against this backdrop, we have to wonder if butlers really are here to stay. I believe they are, but they need a make-over.”

The last project we were asked to bid on in Asia was to train 100 butlers at a time for 3 hours each. Anything related to understanding what a butler is, how he thinks, acts, his persona, goes right over the heads of those enquiring, who can only think in terms of their employees learning rote procedures. The essence of the butler is glossed over, missed, rejected in the drive to offer butler service in name alone.

Having written the book on hotel butlers that has been used to create many butler departments around the world, one has to wonder if the whole concept of the hotel butler has been a failed experiment, a mistake, simply unleashing a Pandora’s box of tired knock-offs—like the inferior and short-lived knock-offs that pour out of Asia, displacing Western manufacturers and offering consumers choices between cheap knock-offs; or is it a work in progress that necessarily involves a clash of cultures in the face of which, a calm insistence on standards being met will win the day, eventually?

One hopes the latter, but the economic pressures on hotels to train their staff without an adequate budget and of butler trainers to take any work means there are precious few troops fighting on the side of quality. When I first began training hotel staffs as butlers, the program was one month long with follow-up visits. Keep this in mind as you read the next few paragraphs.

The pressure to institute butler service pushes up against the lack of budget and results in the solution to take the training in-house and fudge the program, much in the same way that some hotels are looking for any green certification to look green, rather than institute an honest-to-goodness program that will cost some money upfront to save a lot in the long run and reduce the ecological footprint of their facility. One famous chain, for instance, was given three of the Hotel Butler books as a first step in engaging the Institute’s training services, and from those created its own program, which ended up being a 2-3 Butler rating on a scale of 0-5. A start, to be sure, but hardly doing justice either to the full range of services a butler can provide in a hotel, nor to the guests, nor to the stature of the brand.

The same DIY impulse can be seen in the hotel that justified to the monetary powers-that-be the bringing in of an Institute trainer on the basis that representatives from other locations in its chain could also attend and then demand the trainer’s materials so they could (as it finally came out) train others as butlers back at their hotels. Yet the training had been designed as adequate for the half-dozen butlers from the host hotel, and the addition of a further 14 students stretched the trainer sufficiently thin that it was hard to provide the needed practical training for any of the students, let alone train them to train others.

In another example, a government training agency made permission for the Institute to provide training to a large hotel contingent upon its own trainers sitting in and cribbing the materials verbatim—while not engaging in any of the practical training—with the expectation that they be able to offer the course themselves as the sole supplier to other hotels in the country.

In one famous hotel, a VIP guest asked a second butler to pack his suitcases, giving him instructions on how he wanted it done—the first butler presumably not meeting the guest’s expectations. The guest then sat for the next twenty minutes, engrossed in the second butler’s technique (paying tribute to the guest’s request while moving beyond it to the optimal way of packing a suitcase). The guest response: “I’ve never seen anyone pack a suitcase like that, wonderful!” The difference between the butlers: The second had been trained properly, the first had been trained in-house by butlers who had been trained properly. And as the second butler admitted, he may have excelled in the guest’s eyes, but suitcase packing had not been his strong suit during his training.

It is generally and correctly perceived that hotel butlers are a nice idea for luxury hotels, an adaptation of the superior service to be found in the private sector—whether those individuals are called Butlers or Personal Hosts or anything else. However, one fundamental reality has been overlooked, the enforcement of which is sabotaging the program: in private service, money is no object when it comes to servicing the employer and his or her guests. In bringing the butler model into hotels, we run into an environment where money is the object (especially when the hotel is owned by investors rather than hoteliers), and increasingly so in the sense of money being a barrier when an economy—local, regional, national, or international—hits rough weather.

This fundamental contradiction and oxymoron is taking the wind out of the sails of the hotel butler concept. We are trying to make a Rolls Royce out of a Ford. We are asking swine to appreciate pearls—not intending to be insulting by the metaphor, but to borrow a particularly evocative image. Are butlers truly only for the extremely wealthy? One suspects so, although many a not-so-wealthy guest has been thrilled by butler service precisely because it is an exciting upgrade, whereas the really wealthy generally have become inured to, or merely expect to receive, butler style service.

However, where the rubber meets the road, or the butler the guest, the truth is that superlative service wins loyalty, (even if begrudgingly in the worst case of the most hardened guests who, even while grumbling habitually, do return because “the hotel with butler service is the least disappointing of the hotels”).

The initial vision of tiered service in a hotel, offering the very high-end suites butler service, is still totally valid. Perhaps where the concept went off the rails was when hotels tried to offer (and finance) butler service in all rooms/suites/villas, and so found such programs overly expensive. Many years ago, I consulted the flagship of a famous luxury brand on their butler options: their grand hotel had about 4 five-star hotels moving in to their city, presenting competition for the first time. Even with only about 60 suites, full-time, dedicated butler service for all suites would require over 100 butlers and be prohibitively expensive. Whereas dedicated butler service (meaning one per suite) for the top few suites, providing the full range of butler service (and earning them a top 5-Butler rating) would have a) been economically feasible, b) provided the level of service that kind of guest would expect, and c) would have helped maintain standards for butler service in hotels and made it something desirable, rather than something annoying.

Maybe “A Butler for all” is the basic misconception in importing the butler concept into a hotel. In other words, if you can’t afford the real thing, nobody is fooled by the Ford that has been pimped into a Rolls Royce. We are allowing the desire to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace to push us into this whole culture of Economy Butlers, Ford Butlers, Butler-Service Wannabes, all of which is self-defeating and oxymoronic. What can possibly be special or noteworthy about something that isn’t?
We have come this far, and too far, to drop the hotel butler concept. The genie is out of the bottle, we need to stay the course and keep pushing for perceptions to change and standards to be raised. Meaning a move away from scaled-back butler service for all guests, and minimalistic in-house or scaled-down-to-the-point-of-ludicrousness training based on drumming in how to perform a few rote actions into butlers hopelessly at sea about who they are and why. It means concentrating the butler service offering to the top suites to justify high rack-rates, as well as any guest in any other suite who is willing to pay the premium. It means training butlers who really are butlers in mind and spirit, the heart and soul of discretion, knowledge, anticipation, invisible service. It means reaffirming the butler as Rolls Royce in the mind of the butler, management, owner, and guest.

Whether or not this transformation transpires rather depends on the economy, guest demand, and whether hotels recognize a demographic that wants a) to be pampered (discreetly, not conspicuously) while b) still receiving value for money.

As the NYU’s June 2010 International Hotel Investors’ Conference showed when Bill Fischer stood as a lone voice decrying the focus on finance when good service, which ultimately drives the bottom line in a service industry, seems to take a back seat to investor returns, especially when so many hotels are owned by investor groups rather than hoteliers who really live and breath service. And there’s the rub.

How will this actually play out? My sense is butlers will divide into the Rolls Royce and the Rolls Royce Wannabes: a small but exclusive selection of venues will provide genuine butler service to some of their guests in larger resorts, or to all the guests in smaller resorts/villas.

And in the rest, butlers will be commodities, marketing gimmicks churning out the irreducible minimum, the formulaic attempts at one-size-fits-all “wowing” of guests that bows to economic pressures and the needs of mass tourism.

The danger is that the latter will so besmirch the reputation of the profession and service offering, that the whole idea will fall into disrepute and be abandoned.
And that would be a shame, because butlers really do represent a quantum leap in service potential for travelers…offering a suite of en-suite services that nobody else can come close to offering in a hotel environment. It is hard to see how the recently conceived hotel butler, whether called a butler or a personal valet, in providing such personalized service, would not be an integral part of every hotel brand claiming to offer luxury services. The butler is here to stay. The questions are, which hotels will strive to achieve the real thing, and which will be content to offer cheap knock-offs? If this article reaches anyone already invested in, or planning to be invested in, such personalized service, it would be salutary to request a consultation from one of the more reputable butler establishments and then invest in the personnel, equipment, and training that will result in real butler service—for that, surely, is the goal for guests and brand alike?