Unsung heroes of hospitality: Butlers

What comes to mind when you think of the job title “butler”? Perhaps it is the Mr. Carson character, the butler of “Downton Abbey” fame — an impeccably attentive British sort attired in formal waistcoat. Or maybe it’s the unflappable Cecil Gaines, expertly acted by Forest Whitaker in the aptly named 2013 movie “The Butler.”

Wikipedia defines a butler as a domestic worker in a large house. The St. Regis Bal Harbour meets the large house definition with 227 guestrooms and suites. Of this total, some 40 suites have complete access to the St. Regis butler service. Having experienced this service firsthand, it was time to talk to my butler, Marc Rapp, who happens to be head butler, and shed some light on better butler-ing.

Marc Rapp
Marc Rapp

Marc’s entire life has been steeped in the world of hotels. His family owned an eight-room B&B near Lyon, France. And, like any family business, he was considered free (but essential) labor. Further travel throughout Europe and even some time spent in sales failed to deter his passion for the world of hospitality. Through work as a club manager, he moved up through the chain of command to become one of the 14 butlers currently on staff at the St. Regis Bal Harbour.

In speaking with Marc, he helped me understand the definition between the role of a butler and that of a concierge. As Marc explains, “Many confuse the two professions. But in reality the difference is very clear. The butler defines the strategy — that is, makes suggestions to the guest — whereas the concierge executes the tactics necessary to deliver the products or services that have already been called for.”

Marc continues, “Working in tandem, the butler-concierge partnership can deliver exceptional results for the guest. Think of the butler as working more closely with the guest and the concierge finding solutions to meet those requests.”

A simple example of this might be a dinner reservation, where the butler learns of the guest’s needs (strategy), and in turn, the concierge makes the reservations (tactical execution). Of course, butlers can do a lot more than just suggesting dinner reservations. Marc confides that the secret to butlers’ success is that they work with far fewer guests than a concierge. With a discrete eye towards observation, they can focus their attention on planning the stay, often with significant advanced knowledge of their guests’ specific needs. To this end, Marc keeps detailed notes on all of his past guests, noting their previous stays’ requirements. Butlers will also contact their guests well in advance of their visit to see if there are any activities that can be prearranged.

There is a saying that nothing is too complicated for a butler to manage. I asked Marc to provide an example of a creative butler solution for a well-known client that was visiting with his family. With a smile, Marc told me the story of The Backup Omelet. The client’s wife confided that he liked to cook, and wanted to make his definition of a perfect omelet in his suite (the suites at the St. Regis Bal Harbour include a luxurious mini-kitchen). Marc obtained all of the necessary ingredients to supply the guest (fry pan, eggs, ham, precut vegetables, cooking oil, seasonings, etc.). The next morning Marc received a call that smoke was filling the suite. Anticipating this potential situation, Marc arrived with a hidden precooked, ready-to-go version of the identical omelet. With a quick shift, the guest was able to present “his” finished creation to his hungry, somewhat sleepy family.

Marc has many more stories, but like all good butlers, asking merely elicits a slight smile. It’s butler-guest confidentiality, after all!

Obviously not all hotels can deliver a full butler service component to their guests, even at the suite or VIP level. But there are lessons here nonetheless.

Think of a butler as part of personalized service delivery. It’s these little touches — like the backup omelet — that will endear clients to your hotel for life. If you cannot afford the personnel necessary for a heavy dose of personalized service, then consider what software or hardware you can implement as putative substitutes. Moreover, dwell on the butler-concierge differences for a minute and generate ways in which your existing concierge department can better fit a hybrid role, fulfilling several of the more “proactive” functions normally reserved for a butler.