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By Michael Matthews
September 22, 2011 -- My column last month about concierges and how to use them brought a very good question from a puzzled reader.
"We were just at a hotel and they upgraded us to a suite," the reader told me. "On arrival, a gentleman introduced himself as our butler. What is a butler for and how should I have used him?"
If you heard me last week on Rudy Maxa's radio show, you already know what I think of butlers and hotels that offer them. But let me repeat it for this audience: Butlers are basically a marketing ploy and I really don't know how a traveler should (or even could) use them.
I have launched a number of hotels that offered "butler service" and featured that fact in the advertising and sales material. Ours were even trained at a school for butlers. But I'm still not sure how knowing a Burgundy from Bordeaux helps you as a butler in a hotel.
In retrospect, I don't think a single guest ever stayed at any of my hotels because we advertised and offered butler service. I suppose it did elevate the perception of the hotel's quality and sophistication in the guest's eye. But I can't even be sure of that.
You don't have to take my word for it. I'm just one hotelier. Let's take a look at one of the world's iconic hotels from the land whence came Upstairs, Downstairs, Downton Abbey and all those other shows with scads of actors playing Brits "in service." I'm referring to Claridge's in London.
Like many famous London hotels, Claridge's offers butler service. Allow me to quote from its Web site: "Our butler services make for the ultimate in relaxed, trouble-free stays … Claridge’s butlers work to our personalised recipe of traditional values and contemporary wisdom. Once you have checked in, your personal butler will meet you at your suite to familiarise you with everything. Your wish list will be complete and your every whim will be catered for."
That's a lot of bespoke advertising speak. But let's try to be savvy travelers, pull the verbiage apart and analyze it, shall we?
Does Claridge's mean that without a butler your stay won't be trouble-free? Doesn't speak well for the place if you need a butler to secure a trouble-free stay. What in the world is "our personalised recipe of contemporary wisdom"? Has someone at Claridge's actually written down how many teaspoons of groveling and how many waistcoats go into the recipe? And as for "your every whim will be catered for," it makes the mind boggle.
As I said, in my humble opinion, butlers are simply a marketing ploy. Do you really need someone to unpack for you, pack for you, run your bath for you?
Butlers do not replace bellmen, do not replace room service, do not replace maid service, do not replace engineering and certainly don't replace the concierge. So, just what do they do?
Like I said, I'm really not sure.
While opening a new hotel in Hong Kong some years ago, we were training our room boys to also function as "butlers" and anticipate the guest's every need. They had to be prepared to offer a number of basic services to guests, including running their bath for them.
Prior to the hotel's public opening, we invited more than 100 friends, gave them a free stay and asked them to tell us what we needed to fix before we officially opened our doors. One of the guinea-pig guests was the lady who ran our sales office in London. She was determined to have the room boy (uh, butler) do something for her. So she requested that he run a bath for her and even instructed him about the temperature she'd like the water.
It was all going well and she climbed into the tub. Then she looked up. Standing by the bathroom door was the room boy . She screeched and scrambled to cover the important bits as he innocently asked: "Can I wash Missy back?"
I wonder if the butler at Claridge's would scrub my back? Since they cater to every whim, I assume so. But there's still the little matter of covering the important bits …
I suppose some guests can find ways to use a butler. In fact, Chris Barnett wrote a lovely column a few years back about his butler at the magnificent Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel in Mumbai. Frankly, though, most travelers who'd have use for a butler are the oligarch type.
Still, if you're the type who needs "your every whim catered to," I suggest you go to Claridge's. The accommodations with butlers start at a 750 pounds a night. They don't say how much rooms cost without a butler. I'd suggest that proves butlers are just a marketing ploy, but that may be a whim on my part …
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ABOUT MICHAEL MATTHEWS Michael Matthews has managed and marketed fine hotels around the world for more than 45 years. He spent 14 years in Hong Kong building the legendary Regent International group. He has also worked with St. Regis, Ritz-Carlton and Rosewood hotels. Matthews is currently based in Arizona. He began writing Do Not Disturb in early 2004.
THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Michael Matthews in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Matthews. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Michael Matthews.
This column is Copyright © 2011 by Michael Matthews. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.