Now, WhatsApp a butler

Luxury hotels are adapting to guests’ needs for minimal interactions with specially-trained butlers who help lock out the outside world while bringing in warmth and fun

Pandemic-scarred and second wave-battered, I found myself checking into The Lodhi one weekend in June, drawn by the promise of space and emotional recuperation. Just time spent doing nothing but stare at flickering images of Mughal-style jaalis that dominate the architecture of the hotel, in the deep plunge pool within my suite.

But the real reason why we stayed put for four days is not the suite’s roominess or giant TV screens, but Naveen, the personal butler assigned to my family and I. His unobtrusive care smoothened every First World problem I thought of: how to get the rooms cleaned in our absence without actually being absent? How to give laundry instructions with minimal contact? That the wine was to my liking? Above all, the Hamletian dilemma: to go or not to the rather excellent restaurants in the hotel.

“It is full today, so perhaps you wouldn’t like to,” Naveen Tiwari, 26, said quietly, from behind his mask and face shield, having gauged my need for strict privacy. He would instead bring up restaurant-style meals — from billowy baos to black cod miso — and lay them out on the dining table, edible flowers, micro greens, frills and all, with the flair of a restaurant chef and bartender. A far cry from messy “room service”.

Naveen going the extra mile at The Lodhi, Delhi
| Photo Credit: VV Krishnan

Traditional to tech

Luxury Indian hotels have always prided themselves on offering the best private butler services to special and/or high-paying guests. In the past, my own encounters with this kind of uber pampering has ranged from a butler waiting up in the wee hours till I returned from a party to ask whether I would like a glass of hot chocolate before retiring for the “night”, to helping coordinate sight-seeing.

The pandemic has altered things, though. Guests now seek privacy, minimal interactions, and the least intrusive ways of communication. Privacy, in fact, is the new luxury. And butler services are pivoting to cater to this new normal while trying to retain personalisation and warmth — with help from technology. WhatsApp is the preferred mode of communication lately. “Your plate is hot, please be careful,” Naveen would, for instance, ping to tell me, as he unobtrusively left the suite after plating our food.

A butler at one of the Taj Hotels properties

A butler at one of the Taj Hotels properties
| Photo Credit: Taj Hotels

At The Leela group of hotels, the messaging service has, in fact, been integrated into the hotel’s communications system. Apart from individual numbers that are exchanged between butlers and guests, there is an ebutler programme on a centralised number where guests can message instructions and requests. “Today, the guest has the choice to decide who they want to interact with and how much. We, as a brand, have tried to balance hi tech with hi touch,” says Anuraag Bhatnagar, Chief Operating Officer, The Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts.

But technology apart, since butlers are now more likely to be the sole representative of a hotel that guests are likely to interact with, their role has extended to ideating and suggesting unique experiences based on their intuitive understanding of the guest. Suchetna Pal Roy, a 21-year-old recent graduate from IHM Kolkata and a butler at the newly-launched Leela Jaipur, explains how she approaches her assignments. “I was recently assigned to a top corporate executive from Korean. Before he arrived, I researched his background, how many years he has worked at his job, where in Korea is he from, what his preferences are for food and drink, whether his kids are accompanying him [they were, so amenities like cup cakes were arranged]. On the basis of this, I created unique experiences for his family,” she says.

Butler in-room dining at the ITC Grand Chola, Chennai

Butler in-room dining at the ITC Grand Chola, Chennai
| Photo Credit: ITC Grand Chola

Socially-distanced experiences

Unlike earlier, when butlers oversaw a team when setting the table or offering turn down services, now Pal-Roy and her tribe are trained in every department, including the kitchen, and are sensitised adequately to new safety protocols. Their tasks include subtly reassuring guests about safety, hygiene, and vaccination status of all staff during the course of initial conversations to build confidence. At The Leela Jaipur, these include private meals on terraces, evening tea rituals, art walks or even a courtyard experience titled ‘Jhilmil sitaaron ka aangan’, where dinner is laid out al fresco in a space lit with 100 lamps.

Most hotels report a substantial jump in in-room dining revenues (with the idea of “in-room” being redefined). “Butlers suggest our many open air areas at different hotels, from gardens and rooftops to even a small jetty [at the Taj Langkawi] where a table for two can be set up,” says a spokesperson from the Taj group of hotels. “We also have features such as the ‘floor is yours’, where an entire floor can be booked for a family or small group, which can be serviced by a butler.”

Even for non leisure guests, butler services are now relevant with a “contact light” model of service. At ITC Grand Chola in Chennai, the “knock and drop” programme enables them to leave smartly-packed meals outside a room, or serve evening drinks and service via door-to-door trolley service. And tech-savvy butlers have even been fielding requests to set up Zoom sessions for older guests, concludes a spokesperson.

The writer was a guest at The Lodhi.

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