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 pronunciamentos 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, either. The majority of products in the US may be built now in China to Chinese standardsâ€”melamine in the milk powder, heavy metals in childrenâ€™s jewelry and who knows what in the drywallâ€”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 coursesâ€”the great effort to provide cheap imitationsâ€”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 worldâ€™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 â€œbutlersâ€ or â€œpersonal assistantsâ€ 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. Thatâ€™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 â€“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.
Yet properly established butler departments offer a whole new and vital en-suite arm of service not open to hotels until the last couple of decades. Guests are looking for value, and how better to add value than add services? And what better way to bring about increased rack rates (or justify existing ones) and increase revenue than the personalized servicing of high-end guests?
Bill Fischer of the preeminent Fischer Travel, spoke from the audience as a somewhat lonely voice (in a convention that was focused on rarified financial issues rather than the fundamental issue of service quality), noting that five-star hotels are falling too much into offering two-star service these days. The examples he gave made his point rather pithily, offering not so much a warning but a plea to keep the melamine out of the milk powder if we want to attract and service his demanding clientele. Certainly, at $600 a night, one would expect a private bar, some water to drink, and Internet access included, maybe even a butler, but this was not the case at our hotel.
For as noted by another CEO (with at least one luxury chain under his command) at the NYU conference, wealthy people do want luxury. There are two fundamental shifts with many of them, however: They are not just looking to be pampered, but also to make some connection with the environment/community/culture around them. One CEO spoke of their guests being taken to a local mosque and hearing an Imam preach on the similarities between the major religions, rather than the differences between them or the righteousness of one over the other. And the second shift is the desire to see a green component that is truly from the heart, rather than one presented Hollywoodesque, as a greenwashing PR faÃ§ade.
Which brings us back to the main theme of this article: is the push for luxury, and therefore butler departments that cost money to establish and run, compatible with the drive for greening, which is designed to save money in a tight economy? Well, it takes money to make money, and it takes money to green. Not as much as one might expect, especially when new builds are designed greenâ€¦the increased cost appears to be about 5% of construction costs over convention/non-green construction; and with energy savings alone of 20-30% of operational costs, it is easy to see that the savings do not take long to mount and surpass initial costs. The same applies in the green of existing structures.
With butlers, the initial upfront costs of hiring, training, and equipping the team are similarly higher than having no butler department. But assuming the department is doing what butler departments are meant to do (see Hotel Butlers, The Great Service Differentiators), it will increase revenue by a) building relationships that result in repeat visits; b) extra service opportunities that result in i) more charged-for services and ii) happier guests more inclined to make recommendations to others; c) discreet upselling and cross selling because of the opportunity for guest interaction; d) the opportunities for higher rack rates or to add value to existing ones and so differentiate the hotel from the competition.
In summary, paraphrasing Homi Vazifdar, Managing Director of Canyon Equity, LLC on that first workshop panel at the NYU convention, â€œluxury and green are compatible and both very much needed in hospitality today.â€ One saves money while meeting the expectations of increasing numbers of travelers at all levels, and the other makes it by attracting clientele who want to be pampered. They are two sides of the same coinâ€”a coin that goes â€œkaching.â€