Butler-in-training Elmer Clavijo is working hard to keep his cool as he expounds on all the nifty features of a room at the St. Regis, Los Angeles hotel.
But Benjamin Lau is being very persnickety as Clavijo escorts him to the bathroom and shows him the array of Bijan shampoos.
"I'm allergic to them! I had them at the Four Seasons and they nearly killed me," Lau complains.
"Do you have another preference?" Clavijo asks calmly.
In response, Lau peppers Clavijo with more complaints and demands, then walks to the window. "It's facing the street. It's too noisy!"
"I'll get the front office manager to see if we can change your room," Clavijo says pleasantly.
The scene unfolds during Clavijo's recent training at the St. Regis, formerly the tower portion of the Century Plaza Hotel & Tower in Century City. Though he played a guest during the training. Lau is actually the head butler at the St. Regis in New York. His mission on this day: Train new recruits to fill one of the key jobs at the ultra-upscale hotel.
Clavijo and other butler trainees are put through a series of tough tests in preparation for dealing with the various heads of state, royalty, high-powered business executives, entertainers and other VIPs expected to check into the hotel when it reopens this week after an extensive renovation.
The play-acting gives trainees a good preview of what they may encounter when they become butlers for real, starting this week.
"Some guests get too hyper and ask a lot of things," Lau tells the trainees. "The idea is, you have to keep calm all the time. Be careful about your body language."
The owner of the hotel, Pivotal Group LLC of Phoenix, hopes that in addition to the property's classy physical appointments, butlers will help set the St. Regis apart from the stiff competition among luxury hotels in L.A.
"The uniqueness is the extremely personalized service. It allows you to make each guest feel at home," said Wolf Walther, managing director of the St. Regis Los Angeles.
Nightly room rates at the St. Regis will run from $395 to as high as $5,000 for the presidential suite, so guests will likely expect personalized service.
Pivotal Group, which acquired the Century Plaza Hotel and Tower about 18 months ago, and management company Starwood Hotels & Resorts, are aiming to establish distinctive identities by splitting the property into the 297-room St. Regis and the 727-room Century Plaza Hotel & Spa.
Sporting the L.A. look
In keeping with L.A.'s casual mores, the would-be Jeeves will be clad in aubergine-colored jackets with Nehru collars, no tie, and white gloves. It's a more contemporary look than the tuxedos and tails worn by butlers at the tony St. Regis in mid-town Manhattan, which was built by Col. John Jacob Astor in 1906.
But the duties are essentially the same at all St. Regis hotels. The butler functions as a jack-of-all-trades, catering to the guest's every need.
Before guests arrive, a butler inspects the room to ensure that it's immaculate, the DVD player and other devices are functioning, the mini-bar is stocked, and every other detail is as it should be.
When guests are en route to their room, the front desk pages the butler, who is stationed to greet them as they step from the elevator. The butler shows the guests to their room and gives a brief rundown of all the special features most importantly, the touch-tone phone with a "butler" button to page him or her at any hour. (Yes, there are women butlers.) Butlers pack and unpack the guests' bags, shine their shoes, serve the morning coffee or tea, send faxes and provide information on events, restaurants and getting around the city.
"Every day, we're learning things about what a guest can possibly request. (The butlers') responsibility is to handle it or find a person who can," said Linda Guelly, executive housekeeper at the St. Regis in New York, who was in L.A. for the training sessions. "The guests in New York love it."
The butler is also responsible for the service staff on a given floor, including housekeepers. At the St. Regis L.A., each butler will be in charge of three floors, or 42 rooms. The room-butler ratio will gradually drop as the hotel gets busier and more butlers come on board.
"They own the floors. Whatever happens, they're responsible," Lau said.
Getting to know guests
To keep track of each guest's likes and dislikes, the butler maintains a detailed log on a computer in a special pantry on each floor. The guest profile is constantly updated as new information is gleaned. For instance: The husband likes to sleep under a comforter and the wife under a blanket? So noted.
A businessman prefers a certain brand of mineral water or herbal tea? Add it to the log. He's allergic to feather pillows? You get the idea.
"We go for that specific detail," Lau said. "It keeps guests coming back."
Indeed, some guests in New York even request a certain butler whose service has impressed them on past visits.
Students begin their morning with a videotape entitled "A Day in the Life of a Butler Trainee," starring none other than Lau. It reveals that butlers on the job can tell a first-time guest from a repeat customer by checking out whether the front desk leaves the card key envelope open or shut. That way, the butler knows whether to say "welcome" or "welcome back."
After the video, the butlers join the housekeepers in a guest room for a demonstration of bed-making techniques (first tuck in the sheet at the head of the bed and don't forget the perfect hospital corners). Even though butlers don't personally make guests' beds, the idea is for everyone to know the proper procedures, in keeping with the St. Regis' emphasis on teamwork.
"Who's going to help you? Everyone," stresses Lau.
The trainees later learn that inspecting a room means taking the pillows off the sofa, looking under the bed and behind the curtains, flipping through the magazines, turning on lights, sniffing and listening for anything untoward.
"Use all your senses. Is the room fresh? Bright enough? Go beyond expectations," he says.
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