Features | From Pivot Magazine

Why butlers are making a comeback in 2019

Butlers are becoming the must-have amenity at high-end hotels. And they handle a lot more than your luggage and laundry

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Butler unpacking, drawing bath, serving teaToronto’s St. Regis hotel has five butlers who unpack bags, draw your bath and bring you tea (Photographs by Kayla Rocca)

You never forget your first butler. Mine was a plucky and gallant young fellow named Oat, and, to be perfectly honest, I had no idea what I was supposed to do with him.

Oat was employed by the Siam, a luxurious hotel in Bangkok where they like to say, “Life without a butler is barely worth living at all.” 

After some gentle coaxing on his part, I agreed to let Oat unpack my suitcase and arrange for my clothes to be pressed. Eventually, I let him run me a bath and, before the trip was up, he organized a visit for me to one of Bangkok’s best street food stalls. He fixed things so I could skip the hours-long lineup, then ordered a bottle of Chablis that chilled in a silver ice bucket—definitely not the standard offering at a rickety roadside stall—while I waited for my kai-jeaw poo and char keow teow.

Back home, it took me two weeks to unpack my suitcase on my own without a butler’s help and some of the clothes from that trip haven’t been properly pressed since. 

That was in 2013, when it felt like hotel butlers were still something of a novelty. But three years earlier, the trend forecasting group TrendWatching.com coined the term “brand butlers” and suggested brands “focus on assisting consumers in making the most of their daily lives versus the old model of selling them a lifestyle if not an identity.”

Today, butlers are fast becoming the must-have amenity for high-end hotels, cruise lines and even some airlines. The International Guild of Professional Butlers estimates that there are currently a few million professional butlers in the world, and notes that while there has been a steady increase of butlers in the last 30 years, the past decade has seen a surge in the profession. 

In New York, the St. Regis has offered butler service for more than 100 years. And when the chain opened in Toronto in November 2018, it went full bore on the butler front, offering the amenity to every one of its 258 guest suites. 

“The goal of our butlers is to create a very bespoke and highly personalized experience for our guests.”

“Think of them as a personal point of contact,” Heather Wadel, executive butler at the new St. Regis Toronto, says of the hotel’s roster of five who can deliver your morning coffee, unpack your bags, press your shirt and are available online to answer questions around the clock. “The goal of our butlers is to create a very bespoke and highly personalized experience for our guests,” Wadel explains. “We would have reached out to the guest before their arrival to find out why they’re coming, what time they’re coming, what their needs are, be it dietary restrictions or mobility issues, and doing everything we can to truly make their stay seamless.” 

High-end cruise lines like Silversea and Crystal Esprit, a boutique, all-suite yacht in the Crystal Cruises fleet, provide butlers to all of their guests, and Etihad Airways offers Savoy Academy-trained butlers to passengers flying in the airline’s luxurious three-room flying apartment, the Residence. 

“The luxury market is competitive,” says Melanie Brandman, founder and CEO of luxury travel experts the Brandman Agency, “and one way for high-end hotels to differentiate themselves from the competition is with service. Even the nicest Airbnb isn’t going to have someone there to unpack your bags for you or bring you Aspirin in the middle of the night.”

Steven Ferry, chairman of the International Institute of Modern Butlers, based in Clearwater, Fla., says the expansion of butlers beyond their traditional roles is changing the profession. “You have a vision of the butler as old-style, stuffy,” he says. “Some hotels still have that idea, but more and more hotels are waking up to the fact that the baby boomers and the silent generation are no longer the major market.” 

An instagram butler will tell you the best spots for selfies. A skyloft butler will create a bespoke playlist just for you.

The Conrad Maldives Rangali Island, for instance, meets the needs of younger clientele by keeping an Instagram Butler on staff. This photo wizard knows where all the most click-worthy vistas are and when to hit them to make sure the light is ideal for increasing your influencer status. The service is complimentary. 

Meanwhile, guests staying at the Skyloft suites in the MGM Grand in Las Vegas have access to a dedicated 24-hour butler who can handle any and all off-hour cravings. In addition to keeping the party rolling by making sure bars are stocked with clients’ favourite beverages, Skyloft butlers also make bespoke playlists to set the mood.

Guests of the Balmoral Hotel in Scotland who would like to get in touch with their inner William Wallace only have to ring up the Tartan Butler. This specialized butler, whose research services are gratis, will do a deep dive into your ancestry to figure out which clan you belonged to and arrange to have a custom kilt made (kilt costs not included). And high up in the Pyrenees, La Pleta Hotel and Spa offers guests their very own Ski Butler. Drop your steamy boots with him at the end of a long day on the slopes and they’ll be polished, sterilized, dried and presented to you warm and raring to go for first tracks the next morning. 

Not to be outdone, the Dorchester provides an e-Butler to help out with any technological challenges, the Viceroy Riviera Maya in Mexico contracts a soap concierge to help guests find their ideal artisanal soap blend, and the tanning butler at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, South Beach makes sure all of the hotel’s poolside guests are sufficiently lubed and properly SPFed. At Las Ventanas al Paraiso in Los Cabos, “dog butlers” provide your pooch with everything from walks on the beach and bespoke menus to dog massages and “doga”—i.e., dog yoga—to ensure their canine chakras are in order.

Jessica Cook, a luxury hotel sales and marketing executive, says this increasing specialization reflects a change in the industry as a whole. “Luxury travel has shifted considerably in the last few years from the conspicuous to the meaningful,” she explains. “Where we see butler service now is much less about the white glove service. They’re more of a lifestyle assistant or personalized one-on-one concierge who can curate itineraries and experiences for guests on a completely bespoke basis.” While making sure, of course, that they don’t waste any precious time unpacking.