The idea of a female butler would have seemed funny to many people a few years ago. But some hotels are finding that guests prefer "a feminine touch" sometimes.
SHE knows exactly how much sugar to put in the cup of tea, how warm the water temperature in the bath should be, and which side of the bed the guest favours.
But she is neither a waitress nor a maid.
She is Tan Fooi Loo, one of three women in the Renaissance Kuala Lumpur Hotel’s team of butlers.
Yes, despite the authoritative definition by the Oxford Dictionary on the term "butler" — chief manservant of a house, Fooi Loo is a woman.
"Some guests were surprised to see me as their butler, but most usually take it in their stride now. I guess the trend of female butlers is growing everywhere," says Fooi Loo.
The 24-year-old IT-degree holder has been a butler with the five-star hotel for eight months.
"Frankly, I didn’t even know what a butler was when I first applied for the job. But a friend recommended it, saying it suits my inclination to serve others."
Serena (not her real name) is another female butler who has had her fair share of surprised guests.
"Female butlers aren’t exactly a new breed, but the general perception remains that butlers should be males," says the 28-year-old, who holds a diploma in hotel management and currently works at another five-star hotel.
The main culprit, says Serena, is conventional thinking and movies like Batman, which has made the prim and proper butler, Alfred Pennyworth, almost as recognisable a face as Bruce Wayne himself.
"Being a butler is more than just being a maid or a waitress. We are our guests’ personal assistants," says Fooi Loo.
"We don’t just serve them blindly. We need to anticipate their needs.
"A good butler is one who can serve the guest without having to be told what is needed."
Mohd Ilyas Zainol Abidin, president of the Malaysian Association of Hotels Board, says males used to dominate the scene, but the trend has now shifted.
"In the hotel line, there is no more mono-gender dominance today. Waiters used to be just males and maids, females. But it’s all mixed up now," he says.
"A butler is someone who looks after the well-being of a guest from the moment he steps into (the hotel) until he leaves. A female can carry out that duty too, as well, if not better, than her male counterpart."
In terms of neatness and attention to details, Ilyas says female butlers may have the advantage "but that doesn’t preclude male butlers from doing their job well".
Serena says the increase in female butlers could also be in tandem with the increasing number of female travellers around the world today.
There are also more female travellers from conservative Muslim communities.
"Middle Eastern couples prefer female butlers because the husband will only allow a female to attend to them in the room when the wife is present, due to the sensitivity of their culture and religion."
Serena has been asked a few times by such couples to take their picture in the room, often when the lady guest has taken off her burqa.
Female butlers, she says, are also more competitive than their male counterparts.
"Most of us jostle to serve the guests better and compare notes to see who are those favoured."
She says the competitiveness among her colleagues is healthy, "because it spurs us on to outperform each other and up the quality of service".
So what makes a good butler?
A paramount requirement, to Fooi Loo is learning not to "see" stuff.
"For example, I unpack for a guest and his luggage is filled with packs of condoms. I cannot show alarm or surprise. I must just smile and get on with work."
One must also have a strong stomach — when unpacking dirty clothes or checking the guests’ bathroom for any stray hair or towel out of place.
Serena says a butler also needs to be fluent in English, patient, hardworking, committed, able to anticipate needs, discreet, soft spoken, efficient and most of all — friendly.
The days when butlers must be stiff and serious are over.
"Guests want butlers who smile at them, someone whom they can have a conversation with. Someone who is almost a friend but also an assistant because that makes it easier for them to tell us their needs," says Fooi Loo.
The butler service at the Renaissance is only offered to the hotel’s VIP suites from the 24th to the 27th floors. The hotel has nine butlers in its team and each of the four floors is serviced by at least two butlers at one time.
"I’m proud to be one of the few female butlers on the team. I think I’ve done my job well and guests generally like me more than other male butlers because I smile more and seem a lot more approachable."
There are three butling shifts, 7am to 3pm, 3pm to 11pm, and 11pm to 7am, but "women never take the graveyard shift of 11pm to 7am", says Fooi Loo.
The same goes for female butlers in The Ritz-Carlton Kuala Lumpur, unless they are on a 24-hour shift, says one of its nine female butlers, Elaine Tan.
"If we have been specifically asked to serve someone for 24 hours, we sleep in a separate room in the hotel."
The Ritz has 35 butlers in total and is the first and only hotel in town with a personalised butler service on all its 15 floors.
"We don’t select our butlers on technical skills — that we can teach them. The most important thing we look for is a person who is naturally warm and caring towards others," says Stephen A. Cokkinias, the hotel’s general manager.
After the managerial staff, butlers are the ones with the best knowledge on the workings of a hotel.
"They are also the ones closest to our guests as they deal directly and exclusively with them. They are the only ones who know what’s going on and how best to serve our guests," says Cokkinias.
If the wastepaper basket in a room is filled with sweet wrappers, Elaine knows that the guest has a sweet tooth, and will leave some candies on the table the next time she goes in for inspection.
As a result of the nature of the job, butlers don’t have much time to themselves, but many love their job for its uniqueness, says Serena, who has been in the line for four years.
"I’m on call 24 hours a day, and as such, I’ve to adapt my lifestyle to suit the guests. When they have their meals, I’ll quickly have mine, and when they rest, I rest.
"Should they need anything at any time of the day, I have to be there to provide it."
There were occasions when she had to go out to get souvenirs, Malaysian delicacies, as well as personal items such as contraceptives and sanitary napkins.
But the job has its rewards.
"I receive a lot of praises and tips from guests who are generous," says Serena, flashing a thank-you card with a US$100 (RM350) tip from a guest.
But for this bubbly woman, her biggest achievement is not the praise or the cash, but a simple "thank you".
"Some guests are very cold — they instruct me in a haughty manner and never say a word of thanks — but I don’t get discouraged.
"This only spurs me on to be even more warm, friendly and attentive towards them. And when they finally smile and say the two magical words, that’s what is priceless."
As it is customary for butlers to smile and look their best every day, it is probably unavoidable for some female butlers to attract extra attention from guests of the opposite sex.
Serena has come across a handful of young, rich guests who have tried to flirt with her.
"They don’t dare to make physical contact with us, knowing the dire consequences of doing so. However, they still indirectly try to work their charm on us."
She cited several occasions when some guests had asked her when she would be going off duty, "hoping that we could meet up with them somewhere".
Serena admits to having an American guest as an admirer for quite some time.
"He is in his mid-forties and always asks me out whenever he is in town but I always decline because work still comes first."
Some male guests who had sought her company did so not because they were attracted to her.
"Once, this male guest asked me into his room and I was quite apprehensive at first. But it turned out that he only wanted someone to talk to because he missed talking to his wife and proceeded to tell me all about her.
"Still, we have to keep a certain distance from the guests whenever we are in a room with them."
As far as she knows, there have been no cases of sexual harassment in her hotel involving female butlers, as the staff take precautions such as leaving the door open while in a room with a guest.
During the first few months of her job, Fooi Loo encountered a male guest who insisted that she unpack his luggage with the door closed, while he hovered nearby in only his bathrobe.
"It was a little scary actually. I didn’t know what to do because he refused to listen to my explanations.
"The matter was only settled when I called my manager and had him confirm for me that the door must never be closed — that it’s a strict hotel policy."
Source : NST
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