Spending big chunks of your 20s and 30s backpacking around the world prepares you for many things in life. But submitting graciously to some aspects of five-star service isn’t necessarily one of them. Arriving at any upscale hotel always means a tussle, as a well-meaning porter tries to relieve me of my luggage, and I — conditioned by the DIY years — refuse to let it go. On a trip to one ultra-luxe Maldives resort, it was almost a relief when my case and I parted company en route, so I didn’t have to battle with a butler bent on unpacking my clothes, when I’d really rather do it myself.
So it’s with some trepidation I decide to give the Bath Butler service at The Lowry Hotel in Manchester a go. I’m not as nervous as my other half, mind; he’s busy muttering darkly about how no butler’s going to be scrubbing his back, thank you very much. But after battling through the Manchester rush hour traffic and being directed to the wrong hotel by a sulky satnav, by the time we make it to the Lowry, we’re more than ready for a bit of pampering. There’s a little last-minute dithering, as we toy with the idea of disappearing to the bar while Bath Butler does his thing. But when there’s a knock on the door, and a smiling Nsingi enters with a trolley table full of goodies, we decide leaving would be too rude.
And, as it turns out, there are questions that need answering. What temperature would I like my bath? asks Nsingi. Who knows? Having never taken the temperature of my baths before, I plump for, “Not too hot, not too cold — somewhere in between.” And how deep do I like the water? “Maybe not too deep, not too shallow — somewhere in between?” Clearly, I’m the Goldilocks of the bath world; incapable of delivering a straight answer.
Unperturbed, Nsingi disappears into the bathroom with the tools of his trade — key among them his trusty thermometer. When he emerges again 10 minutes later, the room has been transformed into a softly lit cocoon, with tea lights round the bath, bowl of chocolate-dipped strawberries to hand, slippers and foot mat laid out ready for later, and the bath itself filled with just-right water and Elemis Skin Nourishing Milk Bath. Still smiling, he hands the boyfriend a glass of Champagne with instructions that it’s to be delivered to me romantically once I’m comfortably ensconced beneath the bubbles. And then he’s off, leaving behind a little bag of Elemis goodies to take home. Bath butling, it transpires, is something I could get used to.
Not everyone’s a fan. In an article for The Daily Telegraph last year, hotelier Alex Polizzi, of The Hotel Inspector fame, counted bath butlers among her top 10 hotel hates, along with towel art and pillow menus. Nonetheless, when the service was introduced at the Lowry, it proved so popular, it was rolled out across the other Rocco Forte Hotels group properties. The night we stay, ours is the third bath of the night for Nsingi; with another two to follow.
Bath butlers have a precedent: in the late 90s, A-list favourite Las Ventanas al Paraíso, A Rosewood Resort in Los Cabos, Mexico, introduced Pool Butlers. I don’t doubt they too were received with scorn from certain hoteliers, but these fellows are a poolside fixture today, adjusting loungers to just the right height, dishing out sorbet cups and fluffy towels, and spritzing guests with mists of chilled Evian in between keeping them supplied with magazines, novels and pre-loaded iPods.
Bath and pool butlers are well established now, but in the past few years, high-end hotels have introduced even more niche variants. There’s the Kitesurfing Butler at The St Regis Mauritius Resort, who’ll help prepare your equipment, check your lines and provide picnic lunches at sea. Or the Cava Concierge at Hotel Arts Barcelona, who guides guests through a cava tasting, explains about local producers and arranges vineyard visits. Taj Boston and Taj Palace Marrakech keep things cosy over the winter months by employing Fireplace Butlers to bring a basket of logs to your room, lay a fire and make sure it’s nicely blazing by the time you return from dinner. Need a spritz of something fragrant but forgotten to pack perfume? If you’re staying at one of the Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, simply call for the 24-hour Fragrance Butler, who’ll appear at your door bearing a silver tray with a range of scents.
And why not?
So what’s driving this trend towards such specialised concierge and butler services? It might be tempting to dismiss some as little more than gimmicks dreamt up by a creative marketing department, but Clarence McLeod, spokesman for Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, feels that, on the contrary, they tend to grow out of customer demand. “I think what happens is that each hotel specialises according to the needs of their guests,” he says. “So certain duties might originally be part of the general concierge or butler role, but they’d notice which are the biggest requests from guests and one person might then become an expert in that particular area.”
Virginia Casale, concierge of the Hotel Sofitel Montreal Golden Mile and president of Les Clefs d’Or, a global organisation made up of 4,000 of the world’s top concierges, agrees: “If hotels come up with things like this, it means there’s a demand. The Riviera Maya, in Mexico, for example, is such a big weddings destination, there are plenty of hotels offering wedding concierges. And why not?”
The high level of requests from British tourists wanting to know more about the burgeoning food truck scene in New York recently led Thompson Hotels to introduce a dedicated Food Truck Concierge in each of its NYC properties. With over 3,000 of these mobile kitchens on the move in the city, the concierge will guide you towards the best, pick out local favourites and let you know where to find them. In India, ITC Hotels responded to the increasing number of single female business travellers by introducing Lady Butlers to its women-only EVA floors a few years ago. In Ireland, The Ritz-Carlton Powerscourt is nicely in tune with the post-Olympics cycling boom, having recently introduced a Bicycle Butler to help guests who want to do a bit of two-wheeled touring, and in Florence, Villa San Michele is reinforcing its family-friendly approach by appointing a new Kids’ Concierge this summer to help plan activities and advise on restaurants that welcome children.
“Guests will always delight in being pampered,” says a Rosewood Hotels & Resorts representative, “and they desire once-in-a-lifetime experiences enabling them to connect with the local community and culture in an authentic way they wouldn’t otherwise be able to. These special concierges allow guests these unusual experiences.” San Miguel de Allende, for example, is noted for its art scene, so the Rosewood property there has an Art Concierge, who can arrange artistic workshops, private guided tours of local galleries and excursions to nearby dealers.
The same Mexican town is also home to Hotel Matilda, which introduced an Apothecary Concierge to its spa last summer. After a skin consultation with the guest, the concierge runs through the beneficial properties of natural local ingredients, then helps create personalised face- or body-care products.
There must be something in the Mexican air that encourages creative concierge concepts. On the Yucatan coast, the Viceroy Riviera Maya has a Soap Concierge who knocks on your door shortly after check-in, bearing an array of soap blocks, ready to slice off a bar or two of whichever takes your fancy. “There were five to choose from,” says recent guest Sue Lowell, “all handmade and produced locally. I went for a mint one, which was a natural insect repellent, and a chocolate one to rehydrate my skin. They were lovely. So lovely, in fact, I ended up bringing a slab or two home as gifts for friends.”
Not all specialised concierge and butler services stand the test of time. The Loews New Orleans Hotel, for instance, used to have a Recovery Concierge (aka the Hangover Concierge) for guests who’d been ‘over-served’ the night before (ginger-root tea, po-boys sandwiches and bath salts were among the tools of her trade). But in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when the word ‘recovery’ became so strongly associated with getting the city back on its feet, the role was scrapped. And The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company dispensed with Technology Butlers once they realised so many of their staff had become so tech-savvy there was no longer a need for a specialist service.
Others, though, are thriving. Ski concierges remain popular with skiers who love whizzing down the pistes but aren’t so keen on the dull before and after bits — carrying and cleaning skis, buying lift passes, etc. When Julie Collins and her family stayed at the Kristiania in the Austrian resort of Lech last winter, they were looked after by the hotel’s Ski Concierge and Boot Butler. “It probably sounds a bit lazy,” says Julie, “but it really made a difference to the holiday. All the hassle of lugging skis back and forth and dealing with wet boots in the morning was taken away like a dream. It made the whole experience instantly more relaxing.”
And that, of course, is what it all comes down to — adding an extra layer of pampering to an already luxurious experience. There may be a certain novelty value to some of these job titles, and in an increasingly competitive five-star world — where high thread-count linens and designer toiletries are par for the course, and in-house gyms, spas and pools 10-a-penny — creating a ‘unique service role’ is one way to grab a bit of attention and set yourself apart from your rivals. But there’s also clearly a demand for ever more attentive levels of service at the top end of the hotel scale.
“Today, the battle out there is service,” says Virginia Casale. “That’s what makes or breaks a company, a brand or anything — it comes down to service. Everybody can have a million-dollar lobby with gold and marble, but in the luxury sector what makes the difference is attention to detail, true hospitality and the personal touch. People today want experience — and the concierge staff are the experience-makers.”
THREE OF THE BEST
• TARTAN BUTLER
At The Balmoral in Edinburgh, Tartan Butler Andy Fraser helps guests who want to trace their Scottish ancestry. “It came about,” he says, “when a guest with the surname Grant asked if I could find out any information about her family history and get a kilt made in the clan tartan.” Andy organised a driver and guide to take her to Urquhart Castle, once held by the Grant clan, and arranged a fitting at local kilt-makers Kinloch Anderson. The guest was delighted and a new service was born. “This is now my third year of doing it,” says Andy, “Sometimes guests want me to prepare everything before their arrival. Sometimes they prefer to research their family history themselves, so I’ll take them to the nearby ScotlandsPeople Centre and get them started.” Andy is particularly in demand with US visitors: “I’ve had a few Europeans, Australians and Canadians,” he says, “but 80% of the queries I get are from the States.”
• BABY CONCIERGE
The role of the Baby Concierge team at Almyra, in Cyprus, is all about making life easier for holidaying parents, as the hotel’s Maria Christodoulou explains. “It starts at the reservations stage, when parents can pre-order all sorts of equipment to be ready for them when they arrive. We provide everything, from car seats waiting at the airport to cots, nappies, bottle warmers and baby wipes in the room.” Unsurprisingly, it’s an extremely popular service, especially during the peak summer months, with many guests so hooked on the idea of not having to lug the usual cumbersome supplies all the way from the UK they become regulars. “It allows parents to travel fuss-free,” says Maria. “And if they ask for something new that’s not on our list of the most popular requests, we can probably obtain that too. Everything is possible!”
• SLEEP CONCIERGE
They take sleep seriously at The Benjamin, in New York — even employing a Sleep Concierge to make sure guests get their full share of shut-eye every night. “Everybody loves the service,” says Anya Orlanska, who’s been in the role for five years. “After all, a lot of people come to New York to do business the next day, and if you don’t get enough sleep, you won’t perform at your best.” As well as benefiting from custom-made mattresses, aromatherapy bathroom amenities and double-glazed, argon-filled windows, guests can choose from a menu that runs to a dozen different pillows — the Snore No More, which helps stop snoring, is a popular option (particularly with long-suffering wives), as is the satin pillow, designed to prevent skin from wrinkling. Do people ever ask to buy them? “Oh yes,” says Anya. “I’ve actually had guests come down to the lobby, holding their pillow and telling me they’re not going home without it!”
The Lowry Hotel. www.roccofortehotels.com/hotels-and-resorts/the-lowry-hotel
Rosewood Hotels & Resorts. www.rosewoodhotels.com
The St Regis Mauritius Resort. www.stregismauritius.com
Hotel Arts Barcelona. www.hotelartsbarcelona.com
Taj Group. www.tajhotels.com
Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. www.fairmont.com
Sofitel Montreal Golden Mile. www.sofitel.com
Thompson Hotels. www.thompsonhotels.com
ITC Hotels. www.itchotels.in
The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. www.ritzcarlton.com
Villa San Michele. www.villasanmichele.com
Hotel Matilda. www.hotelmatilda.com
Viceroy Riviera Maya. www.viceroyhotelsandresorts.com
Loews New Orleans. www.loewshotels.com
The Benjamin. www.thebenjamin.com
Published in the National Geographic Traveller – Luxury 2013 special issue