Can a butler really make a hotel stay that much more extraordinary?
Yes, say a growing number of luxury properties that have butlers as an amenity for their guests.
According to Reneta McCarthy, a senior lecturer at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University, the concept of butlers dates at least to the 18th century in Europe, when a butler was a male who was in charge of the dining and entertainment in wealthy households. “Eventually, the idea of butlers seeped into the hotel space in Europe,” she said. “And more recently, in an effort to differentiate themselves in a competitive market, more and more top-end hotels are touting that they have butlers to pamper their guests.”
Many of the properties with butlers offer them only to guests staying in suites. Casa Angelina in Italy’s Amalfi Coast has butler service for those staying in its six suites, and Faena Miami Beach has butlers for guests who have booked multi-bedroom or specialty suites. Other hotels, such as the St. Regis New York and the Connaught in London provide butlers for all rooms.
My husband, Mahir, and I recently tested this concept at the St. Regis New York, a 238-room property in midtown Manhattan that had butlers long before they became more mainstream. Over the course of 36 hours, we put three different butlers through the paces with our numerous requests.
John Jacob Astor IV, the founder of the St. Regis New York, introduced butler service at the property in 1904, and it has been a hallmark for the company ever since. “His idea was to bring the butlers found at the grand hotels of Europe to the United States,” said Lisa Holladay, the global brand leader for St. Regis Hotels & Resorts.
St. Regis has its own weeklong training program for butlers where they are taught how to assist guests with a variety of tasks including unpacking and packing their luggage, getting their clothes ironed (the butlers do not actually do the ironing themselves, but they facilitate the service) and serving them nonalcoholic beverages; they are also taught how to read guests’ cues and anticipate their needs.
Most St. Regis properties offer butlers for all guest rooms, but in select locations, such as the ones in San Francisco and Majorca, they are only for those staying in suites. Traditionally, the brand had only male butlers, but Holladay said that 40 percent of the company’s butlers today are women.
The New York hotel employs 38 butlers, and typically, each butler is in charge of about 20 rooms.
Although nightly rates at the St. Regis New York officially start at $995, it is possible to find lower prices online and through travel agents. My agent was able to secure a nightly rate of $525 for my stay, along with a room upgrade, breakfast and a $100 food and beverage credit.
When I checked into the St. Regis, I was skeptical that a butler could make my stay exceptional, but I was wrong.
Our butler, Adalberto Macedo, was waiting to greet Mahir and I as soon as we stepped off the elevator on the 12th floor, where our room was. “Good afternoon,” he said, nodding.
After leading us to our temporary abode and showing us its various features like the touch button lighting, Macedo asked if he could unpack our bags. The idea of a stranger handling my personal belongings had me more than a little uncomfortable, but McCarthy, the Cornell lecturer, had told me that butlers take pride in the task of unpacking and packing. So I obliged but asked if he could do so when we planned on stepping out later that afternoon.
We could reach Macedo or another butler on duty by pushing the butler button on our room phone, and when we were not at the hotel, we could email our requests. Macedo told us that we would get an almost instant response.
As soon as he left, Mahir and I started with our requests. I called to ask for a standing fan, and Adalberto delivered one within five minutes. Shortly after, Mahir asked for a coffee. It, too, appeared promptly, in a French press and piping hot. The shirt Mahir needed ironed? A professional dry cleaner could not have done a better job, and Macedo certainly made sure it was finished faster. A shoe shine? But of course. The dental kit I wanted because I had forgotten my toothbrush? He brought me two kits, along with a half-dozen mini bottles of mouthwash.
Now would come the true test for me: When we left the property for an excursion out, I sent an email asking for two gluten-free red velvet cupcakes. Surely, our butler, who at that point was Dafa Lascu (Macedo’s shift had ended), would not be able to procure this hard-to-find treat. She emailed me back within three minutes to say that she was working on my request. A half-hour later, she called and told me that she had not found the cupcakes at any bakeries near the hotel but would be happy to search for them downtown. But she also forewarned me that the courier fee to have them delivered to the property would likely be pricey. I was not that desperate for a sugar fix so I told her not to bother.
Back at the hotel, we found our clothes and shoes immaculately organized in our closet and our toiletries spread out on the bathroom counter. Then it was time for another round of requests. I had a tear in my shirt that I needed sewn, and Mahir wanted a resistance band and exercise mat in our room. Oh, and could we get suggestions for noteworthy gluten-free restaurants to dine at that evening? Check, check and check.
We returned after dinner to a surprise: four gluten-free red velvet cupcakes. They were from Sprinkles, a bakery with three locations in Manhattan, and alongside the box, Lascu had left us a note. “Please enjoy this small treat from us, and if there is anything that you need, allow me to assist,” she wrote.
The test continued the next morning. Dainty teacups are common at high-end hotels. I happen to love sipping my coffee from an oversized mug, but I have yet to stay at a luxury property that offered me one I like. I explained my preference to Luz Carasquillo, the butler on duty. Ten minutes later, she arrived with two kinds of large mugs, both ideal.
We called Carasquillo when it was time to pack, and she did the job efficiently and impeccably. As she folded our clothes and gathered our toiletries, I chatted with her about her family and mine, and by the time she was finished, she felt like a friend.
Naturally, we wanted to leave our butlers a tip. Unsure about the right amount to give, I asked our concierge staff for help but was told that there was no need to leave one because butlers receive a full salary and do not rely on gratuities for compensation. We ended up leaving $50 anyway. McCarthy of Cornell University said that even though the butlers at the St. Regis do not expect tips, those at other hotels likely do. “Either way, leaving a tip for great service is always a good idea,” she said.
Thanks to our butlers, our stay at the St. Regis New York was flawless and personalized. The three who looked after us were obliging but also warm, and not overly formal. The cupcakes that I was not charged for were particularly thoughtful. Granted, only a rarefied set of travelers can afford to stay at luxury hotels with butlers, but I can say that based on my experience, splurging on such a stay, at least once, may be worth it.