“American women expect to find in their husbands a perfection that English women only hope to find in their butlers,” said W. Somerset Maugham, famed playwright and novelist.
Memo to Somerset: The fad has spread.
Nowadays, it seems, well-heeled travelers of every nationality are seeking just the sort of perfect service in their hotel suites and cruise ship cabins that only a butler can provide. From Tokyo to Dubai, from Miami’s South Beach to London—and, seemingly, on every swanky ship that plies the high seas—a wave of butlers is on the elegant march.
“Butler service is definitely a growing trend, especially in top five-star hotels and resorts,” says Khun Chomphunuch Thongkham, guest relations manager at the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi resort in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Indeed, butlers at Thongkham’s resort are constantly on call, whether to pack and unpack suitcases, make restaurant reservations, fix stubborn Internet connections or simply prepare Jacuzzi baths.
The exact functions that these professional pamperers provide differ from property to property; but, generally, the job of the butler is to centralize the many functions of a hotel or cruise ship in the body of one resourceful, always available person. To that end, the butler is the equivalent of one-stop-shopping—the go-to guy for requests both large and small. Tell your butler to do it and you don’t have to ask again.
How do butlers differ from other service people guests might encounter like cabin stewards, for example?
“Butlers and cabin stewards have very different roles,” says Brian Major, a spokesman for Regent Seven Seas Cruises (RSSC). “A cabin steward just cleans your stateroom. A steward would never perform the duties of a butler: making dinner reservations for a guest, booking shore activities or even providing service during an in-cabin cocktail party.”
It’s not that guests can’t make their own reservations or book their own tours; rather, it’s that luxury hotel and cruise patrons paying top dollar simply want to minimize hassles. Why worry about busy signals or lines at the concierge desk when you can just summon your butler and have him do all that arranging—and waiting—for you?
Of course, butlers do more than just stand and wait. On one Silversea cruise to Venice, a couple staying in a Grand Suite wished to take a private plane into the Alps, do some skiing and then be back on board before the ship sailed. Planning the excursion was the couple’s job, but it was the butler who coordinated all the arrangements with the concierge and shore excursion desk.
While butler service is always expanding, it is also changing in character. These days, butlers must still perform all the roles of the traditional butler without seeming too, well, butler-ish.
“Traditional butler service has been revived and reinvented in a less starched and stiff manner,” explains Shan Kanagasingham, general manager at the Tides South Beach in Miami (where butlers are called “Personal Assistants”). “But they still have the utmost commitment to going above and beyond the call of duty.”
Many butlers receive professional training—either within the hotel chain itself or through an organization like the Guild of Professional English Butlers—but they must also possess certain natural character traits in order to excel at their job. They should be flexible and accommodating to a guest’s needs; capable of dealing with people of all ages and from different cultures; friendly, loyal and immaculate in their grooming; and, yes, very discreet.
“We can fulfill any need a guest has—as long as it won’t break the law,” says Tania Pardo-Koehler, a Personal Assistant at the Tides South Beach. Thus, when one Middle Eastern family decided at 6 p.m. that it needed an 80-foot yacht by the next morning, Pardo-Koehler found one in Puerto Rico, had it brought to South Beach overnight, and made sure that it was sparkling clean by the time the guests took possession.
Another time, says Pardo-Koehler, she obtained all the items on a royal shopping list (e.g., $500,000 worth of Hermes products, two cases of Cakebread Chardonnay, 80 cases of corn flakes) and had everything on the guest’s private plane in less than 24 hours. “That one put me on my toes,” she recalls.
As butler service becomes de rigueur at a certain class of establishment, hotels are seeking to differentiate themselves by inventing new types of specialized butler services. Jumby Bay, a Rosewood Resort on a private island off the Antigua mainland, has “sorbet butlers” who walk the beach each day at 11 a.m. offering the iced dessert to guests. The Conrad Chicago, meanwhile, employs a “bath butler” on its executive floor, whose task it is to fill the tub, add the right scent, sprinkle rose petals on the water and even place champagne and strawberries within easy reach.
Having such a never-say-never helper at your constant service may be priceless, but it usually won’t cost you a dime (unless you choose to present your butler with a “thank you” gift or gratuity). That’s not to say that you should forget about money entirely. Remember, you may not have to pay your butler for arranging a private helicopter tour, but you still have to pay for the helicopter.
Still, you won’t see a line item on your bill marked “Butler.” So take advantage of the extra help—have your butler press your clothes, shine your shoes and dust a few specks of lint from your jacket while helping you to get ready. Then invite some friends over to your suite for cocktails and canapés. And when your guests ask you how you manage to mix such a perfect martini, just give a discreet nod to your Man Friday and tell them, “The butler did it.”