A tradition at the Oriental, an innovation at the Dusit, personal caretakers guarantee added value
The news media duly took note last year when a slew of posh hotels in England began offering guests the very human services of a butler. It seemed a reassuring counterpoint to the boom in hi-tech options being deployed in the digital age.
Forgive Chatchai Klinpirom for smirking.
“I’ve been a butler at the Oriental Hotel for 37 years,” he says in that soft, gentlemanly voice that every butler in every classic film always seems to have.
Chatchai might not provide the daftly personal services being touted in Britain, where there are “bath butlers” to orchestrate your bubbles, “perfume butlers” to scent the room and “adventure butlers” to keep your adrenaline pumping (outside the hotel, of course). Hotels and resorts in Thailand have picked up on the trend, offering guests a butler along with the usual technologically advanced features installed in their rooms.
There’s no denying the appeal of the warm and heartfelt human touch, not to mention the sense that, however briefly, you can act like an aristocrat – just like in the movies. Think of Dudley Moore in “Arthur”, with Sir John Gielgud, no less, playing his devoted amanuensis Hobson.
At the Mandarin Oriental, Chatchai can only chuckle over the “latest trend” in the West. Thailand, he points, was probably the first country in the world to offer hotel guests a butler service.
“I started out as a personal butler, taking care of only VIPs – royalty and other very special guests – and now I’m a floor butler, taking care of all the guests on my floor. It’s the best job I could ever think of doing. It gives me great pleasure, honour and joy to be of service.”
The job parameters have certainly changed over the years, he says.
“Back then we did everything for the guests – unpacking and cleaning the clothes, cooking meals and tending to their every need and demand. It was almost like being part of their family. I even bathed my disabled guests, and I was happy to do so because it was part of my job.”
Chatchai winces at any suggestion his job is less than dignified.
“Many people think a butler is a servant and that the job is petty and dishonourable, but they are wrong,” he says. “This is a job that changes people’s minds, perceptions and feelings about anything and everything. I dare say that the Mandarin Oriental has come this far because of the service given by people of flesh and blood, not by machines. Many guests come back again and again because they feel like they’re at home here. And that’s not just speaking figuratively – we make a home away from home for them here.”
Chatchai has looked after presidents, statesmen and celebrities from around the world, but of course the Oriental – long regarded as one of the planet’s best hotels – is renowned for its discretion, so he’s not about to name any of them.
The 137-year hotel currently employs about 40 floor butlers working in two shifts that together run from 6.30am to 11pm. “A good butler needs to be alert at all times, and how to prioritise, because you’re multitasking,” Chatchai says. “It’s physically and emotional very demanding, and you have to have the biggest ‘service mind’ possible to do well in the job, and most importantly to benefit your guests.”
Atchara Noysapum goes into butler mode at the Six Senses Yao Noi even before the guests show up in the parking lot. But she’s known as a GEM – a Guest Experience Maker – rather than a butler.
“We get the guests’ profile before they arrive to make sure they’ll have the best first impressions,” says Atchara, who invites the farang customers to call her Alice. “The GEMs are the guests’ main contact people. We plan their arrival and departure as well as all their activities within the resort. And because we’re way out on an island, we have to watch out for their wellbeing and health as well.
“It’s much different from being a butler in a city hotel, where you tend to the guests mainly in their rooms,” she says. “It’s a big property here, so our responsibility is bigger.
“Here we mostly have vacationers, honeymooners and globetrotters. They pay a lot of money for their holiday and naturally they want it to be perfect in the way they define it.”
One of her guests crashed his motorcycle and called Alice. A couple on honeymoon split up in the middle of the night after a ferocious row and Alice was there to arrange a spare villa. If anyone’s unhappy about the food, the choice of newspapers, a spa treatment or even the view, Alice gets to hear about it.
“You never know what kinds of guests you’ll get – it’s like buying a lottery ticket – but you learn new things every day,” she says.
“I like the job because, no matter what you have to go through and what headaches you have to overcome, it always pays off when you see the guests happy, wanting to come back, and thanking you for making their vacation the best time of their lives. On a personal level it’s a very challenging job. If you survive as a butler, I assure you there’s nothing in the hospitality and service business that you can’t stomach.”
The Dusit Thani Bangkok introduced a butler service last year – after 43 years in the trade – for members of its Dusit Club, who book the expensive suites and usually have corporate affairs in mind.
“Our main responsibility is tending to their business arrangements, not so much personal care, because most of them are here on business,” says Dusit Club manager Sudanuch Ampornchatchawan.
“We never considered having this kind of service before, but then a VIP guest asked for it, and we thought, ‘Why not?’ It enhances the guests’ experience and makes life more convenient when they’re balancing business and leisure. In its two years the butler service has been a big hit with the guests. They like that we can handle the small arrangements, leaving them more free time.”
The Dusit butlers aren’t like those in most other hotels, Sudanuch says.
“Our butlers have to be very efficient, fast, resourceful and good at solving problems. Right now butlers – or whatever you label them – are very much sought after in the hospitality sector. If you like to serve and want a real challenge in your career, consider being a butler!”