You always remember your first. Butler, I mean. For me, it was six years ago, during a stay with my mother at the glamorous St. Regis in Shanghai – now named the Hongta – a business hotel with sweeping views of the city’s spectacular harbour. Isaac was an eager, slightly gawky teenager in a morning suit, and he was keen to be of service. Having little butler-related experience, we weren’t sure how to fit Isaac into our vacation plans. We eventually asked him to take us to the M50 contemporary arts district, where we perused the galleries and bought him a cappuccino, and he told us all about the girlfriend who called him tubby and derided his love of Western food – not exactly your typical butler duties.
Sometimes, when I think back to those days in Shanghai, I wonder whether Isaac’s mean girlfriend is now his mean wife. But more often, I think about the strange butler-guest relationship that is increasingly being imposed by the hospitality industry.
High-end hotels are going gangbusters with butlers, the ultimate luxury service accessory. There are pillow butlers. And bath butlers. And perfume butlers. And even cocktail butlers. (Who, I believe, used to be called “waiters.”)
Vancouver’s YVR “airport butlers” serve as concierge staff, offering an escort through terminals to help with duty-free shopping and car services. There are even butlers on airplanes – if you’re flying in “the Residence,” Etihad’s new three-room suite in the sky.
But the most popular form of butler is the personal butler, assigned to your room for the duration of your stay. While having a permanent valet has its appeals (see Jeeves and Wooster or, more recently, Downton Abbey), the more temporary arrangement of having a butler for a few days can be awkward. After all, it’s a somewhat strange affair to have a man you’ve just met offer to run you a bath.
“We had butlers when we stayed at hotels in India, and I was too shy to ask them for anything,” says Marilyn Livingston, a Canadian historian living in England.
Michele Sponagle, a writer in Paris, Ont., had her own bizarre butler interaction in Kenya. When she was staying at Olonana Camp, she got up very early one morning for a hot-air balloon ride over the Masai Mara. When she returned in the early afternoon, she found the butler had come in to tidy up. “That included picking up my dirty underwear off the floor, neatly folding them and putting them on a shelf,” she says, still mildly disturbed. “To make it worse, they were sensible, cotton briefs suitable for travel – a.k.a. granny panties.”
Not to say that having a butler doesn’t come with inherent perks. Since Isaac, I’ve had several other butler-related encounters. Once, at a Ritz-Carlton in Miami, I engaged the services of the resident “tanning butler.” In addition to his duties at the Ritz, Miguel was a 20-year-old part-time model and full-time accounting student (typical Miami). The tanning butler was prowling the pool area, an array of SPFs in a modified tool belt. Prone to freckling and lobster-like redness, I called him over, got into the classic facedown massage-ready position, and quickly realized the ability to make small talk is directly proportional to the amount of clothing you’re wearing. (“So, when do you plan on graduating?” feels like a ridiculous question to ask when someone is rubbing coconut-scented lotion on your shoulders.)
Butlers have become particularly popular amenities on cruise ships, where most suites come with 24-hour doting. On a recent sailing with Crystal Cruises, I quickly warmed to the butler assigned to my suite. Greg was tall and bespectacled, with a thick Hungarian accent, and he immediately put me and my boyfriend at ease.
As we worked our way up the eastern coast of China, Greg furnished us with restaurant and spa reservations, shore maps and premium Talisker whisky. He greeted us every morning with fresh fruit, waffles and coffee, gently inquiring about plans for the day. “And the party continues,” he would say, smiling, when he wheeled in a large table covered with the sushi we had gluttonously over-ordered from room service.
But we sometimes had trouble figuring out a precise division of labour. If you’re in a pickle, do you call the concierge, the front desk or housekeeping? “Just call the butler,” my boyfriend would say, as my eyes rolled at how terribly bourgeois we had become. But co-ordination is part of the point, says Sean Davoren, head butler at London’s famous Savoy Hotel.
“The butler takes ownership of what has been requested and ensures delivery in a timely and appropriate manner,” Davoren says. The Savoy Butler Academy trains prospective butlers in food and beverage service, valeting, floristry, travel and housekeeping – everything required for “a new generation of butlers who combine the discretion of a traditional English butler with the efficiency of a 21st-century personal assistant.”
According to Shay Ross, who worked as a butler at the Savoy, packing and unpacking was a large part of his job, as was pressing and laundering, itinerary preparation, accommodating dietary requirements and setting up a room for a celebrity with “anywhere from 20 to 200 requests.”
He found Middle Eastern and European clients were more likely to know their way around a manservant, while North Americans were commonly perplexed by the arrangement. “Some people just come out and say, ‘I don’t know what to do with you,’” Ross says. “But almost everyone finds they have a shirt that needs pressing before dinner.”
Ross has also had his own share of unusual encounters – including one guest who kept ordering oysters and was later found in his bathtub snorkelling for the shells, and another who requested a huge volume of zebra milk. One Russian ex-president asked for a tuxedo delivered to his room overnight, but refused to be measured. “We got it to him only five minutes late, and he complained that the pants were an inch too long,” Ross says.
Of course, most guests aren’t so demanding. And, as with exposure therapy, repeat contact with a butler can help guests loosen up. Sponagle, who has visited more than 70 countries, has put the underwear affair behind her and has come to see butlers as a premium amenity.
“Nice hotel rooms are a dime a dozen, but those Frette linens and Bulgari toiletries don’t mean much if you don’t get great service,” she says.
Sponagle recently put a butler to work in Budapest when her luggage didn’t arrive. “He gathered toiletries for me, pointed me to shops that had plus-size clothing for sale and chased the airline relentlessly to retrieve my suitcase,” she says. “I was able to go sightsee, knowing that my butler was on the case, so to speak.”
Hotel butlers are moving away from strictly The Remains of the Day roles to increasingly niche duties. Here are some of the more unusual options:
Fragrance Butler, Rosewood Hotels: Last year, several Rosewood properties introduced a 24-hour “fragrance butler,” available to furnish guests with a selection of perfumes and colognes curated to reflect the particular destination. (Guests must, lamentably, mist themselves.)
Tie Butler, The Lodge at Sea Island: Formal wear might not be top of mind when you’re at a 40-room “hideaway” on the coast of Georgia, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t dress for dinner. The Tie Butler offers guests a selection of ties and tips on different knots.
Doggie Butler, Delano Las Vegas: Why should Fido be bored while you’re at the craps table? Enlist a Doggie Butler for walks, brushing and even specialized meals – including Fowl Play (broiled chicken breast with steamed haricot verts and roasted potatoes) or the Bark-A-Roni (macaroni, béchamel, cheddar cheese and all-beef hot dogs).
Cocktail Butler, St. James’s Hotel and Club: In-house mixologist Zdenek Zemen will come to your suite in this hotel in the heart of London and shake up a Manhattan or Tom Collins for just you before you head out for the evening.
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