Green Hotels, Butler Service:Oxymoronic, or Two Sides of the Same Coin?
By Steven Ferry Chairman, International Institute of Modern Butlers | October 17, 2010
The drive to go green by hotels comes not so much from environmental concerns as from economic considerations. How then, does an expensive butler department fit into this fundamental drive to balance shrinking budgets? Perhaps a more fundamental question could be visited first: is there still a demand for luxury in the hospitality world? This may sound like a question that could only come from a Martian or a socialist or communist zealot, but at the 32nd NYU International Investor Conference held in midtown Manhattan during early June, a gathering of preeminent capitalists, the first workshop was entitled Luxury: Postmortem or Post AIG? The words of one president of one luxury chain spoke of switching from imagery of a butler holding a silver tray with sterling silver on it, to less evocative symbolism. The general consensus was that luxury had taken a beating in the media and thereafter in the public mood, following ill-advised AIG-related pronouncements by President Obama about corporate use of travel and hotels which, it turns out, only made it hard on hotels and their rank and file in hospitality whose jobs depend on corporations continuing to travel.
But just as a government cannot legislate alcoholic beverages out of existence, a tendency to strive for quality products and services among those who can afford it cannot be repressed. The majority of products in the US may be built now in China to Chinese standards-melamine in the milk powder, heavy metals in children's jewelry and who knows what in the drywall-but the same desperate effort by too many companies around the world to find the lowest price no matter the quality of the product is a no-win game in the long-run. It is ironic that the great emerging wealth in China, built in part on the sale of fake Gucci bags, speaking metaphorically, is demanding real Gucci bags (speaking real-world fashion now), not the fake stuff, and they may well funnel the much needed demand back into luxury brands. China is certainly the hope for many luxury hotel brands as they build multiple new properties in that great country. IHG alone needs to hire and train 70,000 new staff in China.
But having seen the expectations in the country of butler trainers, in terms of foreshortened training schedules demanded, the focus on the mechanical actions to the exclusion of any understanding of the persona and mindset of the butler, and in some cases, trying to take materials and make their own courses-the great effort to provide cheap imitations-one can only be concerned about the nature of the quality being provided. Still, Rome was not built in a day, and China will need more than a few years to move away from the great grey monolithic culture and find its roots again as a nation that produced the Great Wall of China (I doubt there are substandard materials or workmanship in that), and some of the world's finest porcelain, for instance.
So, even though hotels are still in retrench mode in most parts of the world (Sands just spent $6 billion on their monumental Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, and everywhere one looks in Singapore [and no doubt in many parts of China], construction cranes seem as plentiful as trees, so it is not true that retrenchment is global), luxury is still very much on the radar.
Are butlers still on the map as part of the vision for luxury? Not necessarily, as hotels have performed well without them for centuries. But whether one calls them "butlers" or "personal assistants" or whatever, if they are not performing the full duties of a hotel butler and with the correct mindset and communication skills, then hotels are missing a golden opportunity to pamper guests and give them the personalized service they expect (if they can afford it) or would like (if they cannot afford it) in their suites. Unfortunately, too many hotels have taken short cuts in establishing their butler departments and steered them off the full measure of the services they can provide. As a result, their butler programs have fallen short and may have resulted in more outgo and less income than hoped. That's a bit like adding boiled coal (melamine) to milk powder because it has a chemical signature so close to protein that it fools inspectors into thinking that the milk powder has superior protein content, and so commanding a higher sale price.
So the current downplaying and –sizing of butler departments comes in part because of misguided political efforts to rein in financial and other companies creating a public mood that eschews the luxury it actually prefers; and in part because of improperly established butler departments that did not give the guests the desired service levels or the hotel the desired returns, making them easy targets for retrenchment-minded CFOs and GMs.