Walk into The Lanesborough Hotel at London’s Hyde Park Corner and you’re immediately escorted to your room, where check-in takes place. Once reception has completed the arrival procedures, you are introduced to your butler, who is there to be your personal assistant for the rest of your stay. He’ll unpack for you, set up your WiFi, make restaurant reservations, draw your bath, make hotel transfers, wake you up with coffee and tea, be a personal shopper . . . and a whole lot more, if need be.
“We’ll do anything as long as it’s legal,” says The Lanesborough’s head butler, Daniel Jordaan. In the past, that included cutting the hair of a businessman who was late for a meeting; finding reindeer from a farm, people to dress up as elves and Santa, and a snow machine for an impromptu Christmas party; redecorating a private hospital room in the style of The Lanesborough for a woman who had come to London to give birth; filming a husband and wife dining together for the first time after marriage; and sending a courier on the Eurostar train to Paris to have a confidential document signed urgently.
Blame it on Carson, the hard-working butler who runs a tight ship on the popular television series Downton Abbey, but more and more high-end clientele are yearning for yesteryear, when personal service extended from the hotel or cruise line’s concierge to inside the suite. With the addition of butlers, hoteliers now have the opportunity to serve their guests behind closed doors.
“Certainly, Downton Abbey has brought back the nostalgia and what it is to have personal butler service,” says Sean Davoren, head butler at London’s iconic Fairmont Savoy, in charge of a 23-person staff. “We live in such an automated world now that it makes sense that people crave human service.”
Whatever the reason, butler service is proliferating across the travel industry, from high-end hotels to luxury cruises to first-class service on Singapore Airlines. From the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan to the new St. Regis Doha in Qatar, expect to find butler service for all suites. Jumeirah’s Burj al Arab, an ultra-luxe all-suite property, known for its unique shape modeled after a billowing Arabian dhow sail, offers 24-hour butler service to all guests of the hotel. The Burj al Arab’s butlers answer to any hotel guests’ whim, and, in fact, it could be said this property even takes service a step further — aside from butler service for every guest, the hotel boasts an 8:1 ratio for staff to suites.
According to recent estimates, there is now proper butler service at close to 400 hotels around the globe. Luxury hotels, in an effort to compete with one another, now see the butler as a necessary employee to lure the most discerning traveler.
The trend is particularly keen in the U.K., where properties across the region have announced the introduction of your own personal Jeeves. Café Royal reopened on London’s Regent Street in December with complimentary butler service to guests in all 159 rooms. If you plan on staying at the Isle of Wight’s Priory Bay Hotel, you can have your own “yurt butler,” one who services the wood-framed dwellings on premises.
“We have a very high percentage of return guests, in excess of 60 percent. The fact that we offer this unique service to all guests plays a major role,” says Daniel Jordaan. The Lanesborough has offered butler service since its opening in 1991, long before the current trend. “The most important aspect during welcoming is to build trust with the guest in order to make them feel at ease with their butler,” he adds.
Over at The Savoy, each suite has its own personal butler who only works with that one patron, so your Man Friday is at your service all day, every day. They’ve had their share of out-of-the-ordinary requests, including a woman who only bathes in Evian water. The butler carried 30 liters of warm Evian water to her bath each morning. Then there’s the time a guest requested goat milk directly from the goat. The butler sent a chauffeur to northern Wales, some 250 miles away, to collect the milk. “The milk only cost 25 pounds. The chauffeur cost 600 pounds,” says Davoren.
Butler service has also extended to warm climes. Sandals Resorts has butler service at 13 Caribbean properties. The service has been such a smashing success that, starting this month, the Grande Riviera Beach & Villa Golf Resort in Jamaica will feature an “All-Butler Village,” following the resort’s recent $60 million refurbishment. Butlers handle all needs from unpacking luggage to booking dinners, activities and spa treatments to reserving chairs on the beach and ordering snacks and beverages.
“Butlers at our resorts have gone to such extremes as meeting guests at the airport two hours away, planning surprise baby showers and video-conferencing in family members who were unable to travel to a destination wedding at a resort,” says Gordon “Butch” Stewart, chairman of Sandals Resorts International. “In fact, many guests will return the following year and request the same butler,” Stewart notes.
Be it land or sea, expect butler service to be top-notch. In 1990, Crystal Cruises became one of the first cruise lines to introduce butler service to their penthouse-level berths. Their butlers welcome guests with a beverage, give a tour of the ship, unpack their suitcases, provide IT assistance, run a bath, dry-clean suits and dresses, help with shore excursions and provide a slew of food delivery options like hosting a multicourse meal in your room for friends.
“Until butlers arrived on the scene, there was very little we could do for guests in their suites other than the occasional amenity and room service,” says Thomas Mazloum, senior vice president of operations at Crystal Cruises.
“A cabin steward typically comes twice a day to make your bed and refresh your towels and ice, and you hardly see them at all. The butler is more available. You can call to arrange tea or coffee when you like, get your shoes shined, send out your clothes to be pressed,” notes Fran Golden, a well-known cruise writer and author of 20 books about cruising. “I remember a Crystal Cruises sailing where my butler brought hors d’oeuvres every day. He brought caviar one day, and I told him how much I liked caviar. So he began bringing it every day. I was in caviar heaven,” she says with a chuckle.
On Azamara Club Cruises’ two ships, the butler introduces himself to the high-end clientele and then tests the water to see how much attention guests might enjoy. Some relish their privacy, while others can’t wait to be pampered.
“Last year, we had a couple on board who were traveling with their grandson, an avid tennis player. A day before the ship was to be docked in Tallinn, Estonia, they asked the butler if he could find someone close to the professional level to play tennis with their grandson. The butler found a former Olympian who brought the boy to the Olympic Tennis Center in Tallinn. The kid still talks about it. It was an experience of a lifetime!” says Bert van Middendorp, Azamara associate vice president of hotel operations.
Azamara’s staff of butlers, who currently come from India and Mauritius, are trained by the Guild of Professional English Butlers, the same service that trains English butlers to work in the private estates of the English gentry. Van Middendorp seeks employees who are willing to serve and never say no.
At The Savoy, Sean Davoren says, “I’m looking for a personality. I can teach all the skills quite easily, but I can’t give you a personality.” The Savoy’s staff comes from diverse backgrounds — employed in housekeeping, food and beverage, even acting — prior to making the switch to become the next Carson. Butlers are trained in-house and are chaperoned for at least three months.
Steven Ferry, chairman of the International Institute of Modern Butlers and author of Hotel Butlers, The Great Service Differentiators, notes butlers should have “satisfaction in serving others and bringing a smile to the guest’s face.” Ferry trains butlers for both private service and hospitality and was in Moscow training a private service butler when we caught up to him. He worries improperly trained butlers will dilute the service.
“There is a strong drive to garner the prestige of butlers to justify higher rack rates and appear better than the competition,” says Ferry. “Unfortunately, some established schools are quite happy to teach 500 butlers at a time for three hours total and then call them trained. The result is a general deterioration of the service butlers can bring to hospitality.”
The International Institute of Modern Butlers and a few other serious trainers are working diligently to reverse the trend. They’ve even introduced a 1- to 5-star butler rating service that critiques hotels in an effort to allow guests to anticipate what service they will actually receive from their butlers.
Adding to the overexposure are so-called specialty butlers, employed only to perform one duty. Rosewood Hotels & Resorts recently introduced its Fragrance Butler Program. Nine of its properties, from Jeddah to Dallas, are currently offering the service. Don’t have time to shower before that meeting in Manhattan? A fragrance butler at The Carlyle will spritz you with one of their 10 perfumes and you’re off and running, smelling like a bouquet of flowers for your next engagement.
At Antigua’s Jumby Bay Resort, another Rosewood property, a Sorbet Butler strolls up and down the beach offering the refreshing treat. The MGM Grand in Las Vegas introduced a Music Butler for folks staying at its Skylofts. Available anytime, the butlers will show you how to hook your iPod or iPad to the symphonic Bang & Olufsen sound system. In Paris, Le Meurice features a Family Butler who keeps kids busy around Salvador Dalí’s favorite hotel with scavenger hunts and games, along with providing kid-friendly dinner menus en suite. Then, of course, there are numerous beach and bath butlers at countless properties, waiting to assist you with suntan lotion or bath bubbles.
The Lanesborough’s Daniel Jordaan says that once luxury hotels recognize that butler service is a permanent job, like a concierge or bellman, the overexposure of specialty butlers will come to an end.
“A butler is a butler, and a butler can manage all. At The Lanesborough, we’re a one-stop shop,” says Jordaan.
Steven Ferry believes there is room for more butler service in the travel industry, especially in first-class cabin service on airlines.
“Wherever food and beverage service is provided can benefit from the smoother way butlers provide service. After all, butler service predates restaurants by several hundred years,” notes Ferry.
So if it’s not a bother, Jeeves, throw rose petals on the floor, make my bath steaming hot, iron that wrinkled collared shirt and hand me a glass of Champagne. After a long flight and the constant stresses of modern life, I’d happily allow one of Edwardian England’s best contributions to society, the butler, to fluff my pillow before I rest my weary head.
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