So your hotel room comes with a butler: Here’s what you need to know

Sep 30, 2019

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High-end hotels often provide butlers for guests in certain tiers of suites. And assuming you didn’t grow up in Downton Abbey or Wayne Manor, having a butler probably isn’t something you are familiar with.

So, what do you do when you have a butler for the first time, thanks to the hotel you’re staying at? Put away your P.G. Wodehouse — here’s your quick guide to hotel butlers.

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Do you actually need to do anything?

Nope.

Really?

Yes. Well, kind of.

Technically, you shouldn’t have to do anything to ease into life with a butler, the idea being that the ultimate attendant and status symbol should be able to anticipate your every desire and need, and address them before they’re even on your radar. But as with any new staff (or, in the case of a hotel butler, in which he or she is likely overseeing the comfort of an entire floor of guests), there’s an understandable settling-in period you could make shorter and more painless.

So, no, if you don’t want to, you don’t have to do anything to adjust to having a butler for the first time, because it’s his or her job to do all that for you. That said, you’ll help your butler by starting off on the right foot together. That means making it clear to your new butler what you expect from him or her when, or even before, you meet for the first time.

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With hotel butlers, you can often expect an email or phone call before you arrive at the hotel asking you a series of questions designed to make your hotel experience as smooth as possible. That’ll include both the basics of your stay and your preferences, so there’s no delay in service once you arrive.

“They’ll want to know what time you’re arriving, if you’ve got children, how old are the children, do they need a baby seat in the car,” said Martin Higgins, a former Buckingham Palace butler who now trains butlers around the world as the founder of House of Martin of London. He’s currently developing an app for estate managers for butlers and other household staff. “Have they remembered to bring all of their bottles and baby food, all the nappies — all these things? You need to be one step ahead all the time.”

Besides the essentials you’d like right off the bat during your stay, be sure to clearly state what you hope to get our of your stay — and what you’d like to avoid. Want to sleep in every day? Or need a 6 a.m. wakeup call? Let your butler know that. Are you dying to surprise your kids with tickets to “Frozen: The Musical”? The sooner you tell your butler, the more time he or she has to make calls and arrangements for you. How much privacy do you need? Is there anything that definitely can’t be in any food sent to the room? What newspaper do you like to read in the morning?

The key is clear communication. To that end, possibly the most important question you’ll have to answer for your butler is how you want to be reached when you’re not in your room. Do you prefer to be called on your cellphone or via text? Or are you traveling abroad and trying to avoid extra phone charges? In that case, is email a better way for your butler to reach you? It can even be something as mundane and specific as whether you prefer blueberries to strawberries with breakfast, or which side of the bed you sleep on.

“The more information you have, the better you serve your guests,” Higgins said during a phone interview. “You take out the guesswork.”

At a hotel, once you’ve established your preferences with a butler, he or she will start a file on you so staff can remember what you like and dislike every time you return. Still, the butler should reach out to you on every visit to update any preferences that have changed since you’ve been away.

(Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy)
A butler serving at the Kempinski Hotel Mall of the Emirates, Dubai. (Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy.)

What’s the difference between a hotel butler and a concierge?

At hotels, the distinction between a butler and a concierge isn’t as clear as it used to be.

“It is true that the lines between concierge and butler are blurring,” said Kevin G. Johnson, who served in illustrious households including those of the Saudi royal family, the Rothschilds and disgraced British newspaper publisher (and baron) Conrad Black. He now works as a consultant and helps train butlers around the world as director of Green Baize Door, a London-based recruiter of specialty domestic staff. “Some five-star hotel brands are providing butlers who are expected to provide concierge service, such as booking tickets to Wimbledon, reserving flights, arranging for super-high-end tour guides, right through arranging any truly unique, breathtaking money-can’t-buy experience.”

Johnson defined a concierge as “a doorkeeper, errand runner, a fixer, a person who welcomes people to the establishment,” and in that sense, a hotel butler is all that, as well. But think of the concierge work as only a subset of your butler’s duties, who is there to attend to every need of yours that the hotel can provide. Think of the butler as the personal face the hotel wears for you alone, including acting as concierge for you and your group instead of the entire hotel.

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What’s the difference between a hotel butler and a household butler?

For one thing, a hotel butler is likely to be attending to guests in a number of suites, often one floor of suites per butler. A household butler, on the other hands, takes care of a single family or estate and its staff.

“At the purest, the butler in a large, private household which employs many staff is akin to a conductor of an orchestra, ensuring the perfect, timely delivery of service across every department, not only food and beverage, but also possessing considerable influence in housekeeping and kitchen, etc., ” Johnson explained in an email. “Whereas a hotel butler (depending on the establishment) will generally provide valet services (packing and unpacking), food and drink service in the room or suite, while acting as the client’s interface with all the other hotel departments.”

Another key difference? The hotel butler’s employer is the hotel, not you. Therefore, his or her loyalty ultimately lies with the hotel.

“Unlike a household butler, the hotel butler’s unspoken goal is to upsell services, including laundry, concierge, bar and room service, etc.,” Johnson said.

What should you ask your butler?

Anything within the bounds of the law and etiquette is up for grabs when it comes to what you can ask of your butler.

“For instance, for one guest who has a rather bizarre turndown time, I might bring in a special cashmere blanket and instruct the housekeeping staff how to put the blanket, which side to keep the phone on, how there should be no chocolate in the room because they’re on a diet and how they like oat milk, so when they get to the suites, the oat milk is there and they don’t have to sort through all the flavors of espresso,” Higgins said. “They have their New York Times, the blanket turned down the way they like — those perfect little touches.”

If your stay at the hotel is centered around leisure, your butler will be your portal for coordinating activities, making dinner and show reservations, even arranging childcare as needed. If it’s a business trip, it’s your butler’s job to make sure you can focus entirely on the business at hand. That means making sure you get fed and enough rest before important meetings, and that your Wi-Fi is up and running so you don’t lose precious working hours to a bad connection.

And all that extends to telling your butler what you want to do yourself, as well.

“At the end of the day, the client is king,” Johnson said. “If the client wants to unpack [or] pack their own bag, pour their own whisky and soda or put on their jacket unaided, it is for the client to inform their butler accordingly.”

When you make a request that requires the butler to make a purchase on your behalf, be clear about what the limits are.

“You need to be honest,” Higgins said. “If you’ve asked to see the top show, you can say you want tickets, but only if they’re in the region of 300 to 400 pounds. You don’t [want] a situation where the guest says after the fact, ‘Why didn’t you tell me it was 600 pounds? I wouldn’t have done it then!'”

But whatever you ask, you should do so politely.

Politeness and civility are paramount,” Higgins said. “Try to create a nice rapport. The better the rapport, the more you’re going to add to the service. In service, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are everything.”

What should you never ask a butler to do?

Johnson once had a client who asked him to break the law.

“When a client received a speeding fine … (that would have lost him his license along with supporting photos that showed him at the wheel of the car), I was instructed to commit perjury by contacting the sheriff to explain that my client had 30 guests in residence who all had access to the car, and we had no idea who was shown in the photo, and/or no record of who was at the wheel of the car at the stated time,” he said.

That person is now an ex-client of Johnson’s.

When you’re talking about hotel butlers, the duty they have is even clearer: They’re going to protect their employer, the hotel.

“Don’t ask a butler to go get cocaine for you,” Higgins said. “Don’t ask for anything illegal, like drugs or prostitutes. If somebody’s doing criminal activity in the room, it’s something which should be reported. They’d have to report it to a hotel manager, and that person can take it up with the guest directly or call the police.”

And that includes playing rockstar and trashing your room.

Another definite no-no?

“Delivering a breakfast tray to a guest in her bedroom, I was confronted by that guest, splayed naked across the bed, tapping her thighs suggestively,” Johnson recalled of one client.

In other words, whatever fantasies about butlers you have, keep them to yourself. Your butler is not your personal toy.

Is it OK to fraternize with your butler?

Even if you’re not trying to seduce your butler, it’s generally not appropriate to develop a personal relationship.

“It’s unprofessional,” Higgins said. “You can’t sit down and have a drink and talk about stuff with your butler. If you get too familiar, if they’ve done something wrong, it’s really hard to reprimand them even if they work for you.”

If you’re the kind of chatty person who feels uncomfortable not keeping things, at least on the surface, friendly and relaxed, then you can’t go wrong keeping to small talk. And if you’re celebrating a special occasion? The kind where everyone’s expected to take part in the good cheer — a first grandchild, or someone buying your company for $83 million, for instance?

“A celebratory glass of Champagne?” Higgins said. “That’s fine. You should expect the butler to take one sip.”

(Photo by kickimages/Getty Images)
A good butler will even know how you like your pillows arranged at night. (Photo by kickimages/Getty Images)

How could you be a nightmare butler client?

Pretty much do the opposite of everything we’ve told you.

“A nightmare guest would be somebody who always sleeps in and then doesn’t answer the door, doesn’t answer the phone when they’ve asked for a call, asks for breakfast and then puts on the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign,” Higgins said. “They shout, they’re rude and obnoxious — that’s the worst ones. Thankfully, nightmare guests are one in a million.”

What should you tip a butler?

Yes, your hotel butler expects a tip. Unless your stay has gone disastrously and it’s his or her fault, you should be leaving a generous tip — more if your butler has gone the extra mile and done more than just maintaining your suite for you during your stay. You can leave it with reception or put it in an envelope and leave in the room.

“It’s generally going to be a minimum of 10 to 20 pounds a day, maybe more,” Higgins said. “Fifty to 100 pounds for a weekend stay — the minimum, but if they’ve done this and this and this for you, then more.”

Higgins said he’s heard stories of people leaving Rolex watches in place of a tip — “which is lovely, but completely over the top for a couple of days.”

One free thing that you should consider an essential part of your tip? A thank-you note.

“A lovely note and a thank you — that means the world, it really does,” he said.

Related: What travelers need to know about tipping hotel staff

Are there cultural differences among hotel butlers around the world?

Yes, and it could mean your experience with hotel butlers will vary significantly from region to region.

For example, Higgins said hotel butlers in much of Asia tend to have less training than those in, say, Europe, and you may not be able to rely on them for the speed or as wide a range of services as you’d expect elsewhere.

“Asian butlers tend to be glorified room waiters, to be honest,” he said.

A notable exception is in India, where the “standards are phenomenal — the service is fantastic.” On the other end of the spectrum from there, however, is the U.S., where the culture’s ingrained informality means butler service tends to take a hit.

“I’ve rarely even seen a footman wearing a good-fitting uniform, and the shoes are never polished,” he said. “No one knows how to tie a tie, and the slouching! They’re a lot more laid-back and they don’t know the etiquette.”

Featured photo courtesy of Rosewood Hotels & Resorts.

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