Are butlers making a comeback?

One aspect of hospitality that I cannot overemphasize is the imperative to foster positive relationships between guests and your staff. You need to spark an emotional connection with your consumers, and this can only really be done through physical interaction. The butler is perhaps one of the most clear-cut examples of this at work.

Unless you were born into royalty or lived abroad at some wealthy uncle’s residence, chances are you’ve had limited experience with the latest rapidly growing luxury hotel service accoutrement — the butler. A recent article in the New York Times discussed several new concierge-style amenities, all designed to take the place of meager service components in the travel sector. Whereas airlines continue to siphon every dollar out of guest services, hotels are stepping in with programs of their own, filling the void in an adept and highly creative manner.

Browsing Wikipedia, the word “butler” derives from the Old French bouteleur (cup bearer) and from bouteille (bottle). The role of the butler, for centuries, has been that of the chief steward of a household — the attendant entrusted with the care and serving of alcoholic beverages. Butlers also managed the rest of the staff and liaised matters between the patron family and cooks, maids, groundskeepers and any other tenants.

Peaking in the 1920s, there were approximately 30,000 butlers in Great Britain. Today, even with resurgences amongst wealthy households, there are still only about 5,000 trained butlers in the United Kingdom. The introduction of a butler service in luxury hotels can be a logical extension of asserting elite status and creating an opulent ambiance akin to what was felt in the 1920s. For instance, butlers and butler-style training programs have long been associated with Ritz-Carlton, undoubtedly reinforcing the hotel chain’s already outstanding reputation.

My first personal experience with a butler occurred when staying at The Lanesborough in London shortly after its opening in early 1992. This property, among the finest in the world, was known for assigning a butler to each of its guests — a practice it still does today, nearly 20 years later. I had no knowledge of what a butler could do for a traveler, and although this unexpected luxury greatly enhanced my hotel experience, I still felt at a loss. I would have appreciated knowing about the butler service in advance so that I could prepare and fully maximize my usage of the amenity.

Subsequently, I have had experiences with butlers at the St. Regis in Rome, COMO Shambhala Estate in Bali, and the COMO Metropolitan in Bangkok. In each location the butler service not only served to enhance our stay, but also was the perfect ambassador for the property and the brand. Some examples of how I utilized the amenity include:

  • Dinner reservations
  • Airport departure and transfers
  • Facility utilization including spa appointments and dry cleaning
  • Planning a last-minute surprise birthday party that included decorations and cakes, and all done with total secrecy from my spouse
  • Procuring emergency luggage when our shopping selections just couldn’t fit
  • Arranging for artwork purchased at auction to be shipped home at a later date

Butler services are not cheap, however; the costs involved in offering this service mandate a significantly higher ADR. Moreover, the decision to initiate a butler program should be tempered by the availability of appropriate staff, as properly trained butlers are both expensive and rare. Expanding your concierge services to imitate what butlers can accomplish might be another avenue to consider. Not to be confused with the concierge service already in place, butlers are truly personalized for guests, servicing one or a few, rather than the entire hotel. This allows them the flexibility to move throughout the environs, without being stationed at a desk within the lobby.

As the luxury hotel segment becomes increasingly competitive, guest services are now the ultimate means of differentiation. Adding a premium butler service is a clear method to distinguish your hotel. Furthermore, I expect most guests still have no idea how much a butler can enhance their stays. Teaching such consumers on how to use a butler and explicitly advertising this new amenity are both essential steps to implementation. Especially when considering that the number of properties offering butler services is limited at this time and that aging baby boomers (myself included) are starting to recognize the advantages of such lavish hotel pampering, better butlering will likely be a hot topic for the next few years.