When Carson the butler returned to British television screens last weekend in the third series of Downton Abbey, the Crawley family’s dour and resolute servant might not have seemed the most obvious arbiter of fashion. Yet in his neatly pressed tailcoat and carefully slicked hair, he embodies a trend creeping with utmost decorum through hotels across Britain.
In June, the 21-room Plas Rhianfa boutique hotel in Anglesey opened offering a £300 per day butler service, while Brides Manor at Stanbrook Abbey in Worcestershire did likewise, charging £250 per day with a minimum two-day booking.
Meanwhile, Cameron House, a baronial mansion on the banks of Loch Lomond in Scotland, has hired George Telford, a butler with 30 years experience of serving wealthy families and royalty. Guests staying in the £1,025 per night Whisky Suite can now enjoy a “luxury butler experience” – Telford will unpack their bags, serve afternoon tea, iron their clothes, run a bath and even arrange cocktails on an island in the loch. If you mention Downton when booking, they’ll even throw in a complimentary chauffeur service from Glasgow station or airport.
In December, the Café Royal on Regent Street in London will reopen as a luxury hotel offering complimentary butler service to guests in all 159 rooms, which start from £450 per night. Even those staying in the five new yurts at the Priory Bay hotel on the Isle of Wight are attended to by a dedicated “yurt butler”. What is going on? Why have we suddenly fallen for the traditional Edwardian approach to hospitality? And is the hotel butler really anything more than a marketing ploy?
“Butler service is a very British thing and the increasing interest in British lifestyle and traditions (particularly this year with the diamond jubilee and Olympics) contributes to the growing trend,” says Thomas Ashley, one of four butlers who look after guests in the 23 suites at London’s recently launched Bulgari Hotel.
“The butlers will help with all aspects of your stay; arranging the room to suit a guest’s preferences prior to arrival; assisting with dietary requirements; unpacking on arrival and packing prior to departure; helping a guest choose an outfit; dressing; serving food and beverage in the suite and so on.”
A short walk from the Bulgari is the Lanesborough Hotel at Hyde Park Corner. When it opened in 1991 it was the first hotel in London to offer a full butler service and, in many ways, laid the foundations of the current trend. Regardless of whether they are staying in the £415 per night deluxe queen room or the £15,000 per night Lanesborough Suite, all guests have 24-hour access to one of the 23-strong team of butlers stationed – for ease and speed of service – in a pantry on each floor.
“We see ourselves as internal concierges,” says Daniel Jordaan, the Lanesborough’s head butler. “We are the link between the guests and the rest of the hotel. It’s not in many hotels that you have someone who is on standby to come and assist you in the room. Room service has its role – they focus on food. Concierge has their specific role – they focus on external. We have our specific role – we focus on internal.”
Some guests find the idea of having a butler on call too awkward, others embrace it as if to the manor born. “The Downton Abbey effect has been great for us because we have more people who understand what we do now and so use us more,” says Jordaan. “I can certainly say in the past, with our British guests, we didn’t get used a lot in terms of the services we deliver but recently that’s changed.”
Is there anything he wouldn’t do for a guest? “We don’t know the word ‘No’, ” he says. “There’s only one line we won’t cross: when it becomes morally unacceptable or illegal.”
But not everyone is convinced by the hotels’ sudden enthusiasm for butlers. “They wouldn’t thank me for saying this but I always think it’s a bit of a sham,” says Andrew Loyd, who worked in the US as personal butler to a member of the Mellon dynasty and now runs bespoke travel company Loyd & Townsend Rose. He draws a distinction between the professional private butler and some of those now being offered by hotels. “You can’t take some nice young guy, put him in a butler’s jacket, plonk him in a pantry and call him a butler,” he says. “It’s actually a very specific job. The hotels can call them what they want but, essentially, what they are offering are waiters.”
A real butler, he argues, is someone dedicated to the job round the clock, rather than working shifts as most modern hotel butlers do. “You’re on call 24/7 – even on holiday they’ll call you,” says Loyd who eventually gave up after being run ragged working for Wall Street tycoons. “You have to travel with them – my boss had five homes. I was organising all the staff and decorators and outdoor people and gardens and landscaping. You really do give your life to them. That is the butler’s role in a nutshell.”
Yet while many hotels are clearly stretching the term – a “Bath Butler” to ensure the right type of bubbles, an “Adventure Butler” to help book day trips or even a “Perfume Butler”, who will come to your room with a selection of scents on a silver tray – for some top hotels the addition of a butler allows a return to the kind of bespoke service that was once de rigueur.
“Most hotels at the moment have butler service as a sales gimmick,” says Jordaan. Simply calling your staff butlers doesn’t raise a hotel’s level of service, he argues. What does, for example, is the extensive dossier the Lanesborough’s butlers keep on each guest, listing preference for flowers, pillows, water and so on that allows them to tailor the service they offer. “It needs to be done properly or it should be left alone,” says Jordaan. Carson would probably agree.