While butlers have become nearly synonymous with luxury hotels, the word actually derives from botellier, an Old French term meaning ‘officer in charge of the king’s wine bottles’, a position filled by slaves in Greco-Roman times. By the 17th century, however, butlers in England had risen to prominence as heads of the grandest households. In particular, their most valued skill was anticipating needs so that orders were unnecessary. Now adopted in Asia’s top properties, butler service runs the gamut from perfunctory key holder or glorified waiter to these highly trained, intuitive personal assistants who can singularly define the guest experience.
Rosewood Beijing: Beijing, China
At this 283-room central Beijing hotel, the butlers – trained at the British Butler School – are an exclusive perk of Manor Club guest rooms and suites. Before the guest arrives, the butler enquires about any special requests via email. While their official role covers the expected functions like unpacking, shoe shines, morning coffee delivery and itinerary planning, these young men and women are equally ready to serve as interpreters, babysitters and computer technicians. They even excel as guides to some of the least-known stretches of the Great Wall and secret spots around the Forbidden City. Top butlers at the brand’s other properties are often flown in to help indoctrinate newbies, fostering a sense of pride, consistency and identity among this global cohort.
Ceylon Tea Trails: Bogawantalawa, Sri Lanka
‘Our butlers are the cornerstone of our service culture and the key to maintaining our excellent service standard,’ says Resplendent Ceylon hotel group’s chief executive Dominique Nordmann. The Swiss hotelier trained the first butlers when this hotel, located in the tea field three hours upcountry from Colombo, opened in 2006. At the five restored colonial-era planter’s bungalows, butlers are the ones quietly coordinating guests’ days, which typically includes treks into the undulating landscape, mountain biking, whitewater rafting and guided visits through the tea-making process. The butler also acts as a cultural liaison for the mostly foreign guests, explaining Sri Lankan culture, from the bed tea and hoppers at breakfast to folk tales about the spirits believed to reside among these verdant bushes.
St Regis Macao, Cotai Central: Macao
A hallmark of the St Regis brand, the ‘allow me’ butler service dates back more than 100 years and has evolved into an around-the-clock operation. At the 400-room St Regis Macao, 40 male and female butlers are led by the head butler, Tony Sharp, an Australian who has served US President George HW Bush and the Bahraini royal family. Sharp trains them to think like personal assistants and to carefully read body language. Butlers study their guests’ needs and preferences before they arrive. Their mission, Sharp explains, is to carry out the hotel’s butler mantra: no request is too small or unattainable, no matter what the hour. In practice this means if, for example, a guest craves chocolate at midnight, Sharp’s team will place an order with the in-house patisserie, or even fly in a favourite treat.
The Oberoi, Mumbai: Mumbai, India
A handwritten note appeared during this writer’s three-night stay at The Oberoi: ‘I observed you are travelling with your laptop and charger. I have taken the liberty of placing a lens cleaner and personalised charger pouch to facilitate your travel.’ It was typical of the thoughtful initiative of Oberoi butlers like Georgette, who left the note. They are tasked with turning the imposing 941-room waterfront property into a highly personalised experience. According to the hotel’s general manager, Anupam Dasgupta, ‘Our butlers are the connection between the guest and the hotel as well as the city. It is essential they be well read on Indian art and culture, know Mumbai’s best shopping addresses and even monitor the weather.’