Monty the butler looks the part as he motions to enter the room, with his dark suit, burnished shoes and white gloves. But apart from the solicitous attitude he's nothing like the cynical valet Jeeves or Batman's haughty manservant Alfred Pennyworth.
He has prepared a bowl of your favorite fruits and because it's teatime there are also cakes and biscuits. He shows you around the suite, unpacks your bag and enquires if you would like a lavender and lemon tree oil scented bath before dinner. He synchronizes his watch with yours and offers his mobile number, so you can call him any time, day or night.
He then goes through his routine of establishing what you want and when you want it, ending with the words, “Is there anything else, sir?”
“Yeah, do you like your job?”
“I like it with a passion,” he answers emphatically, then beams his megawatt smile and closes the door quietly behind him.
While servants and masters have been out of fashion for about a hundred years the butler has recently made a comeback. But he is more likely to be found in an international hotel than on an English country estate. And he is just as likely to be a she.
At the Sheraton Taipei, 10 of the 20 full-time butlers who this month started servicing its three executive floors are women, partly because some of its well-off clients are Japanese ladies who may be put out by a man in their room.
“You have to understand Asian culture and what is comfortable for our guests,” says Sheraton Taipei general manager Josef Dolp, who lists Rain, Japan's top sumo wrestlers, Jet Li (李連杰) and captains of industry among his clients. “Many business women, wherever they're from, will feel more at ease with a female, since they more easily understand their needs.”
“When we were planning to introduce this service I was surprised at how many women wanted to be a butler. But it's a service culture we have here and of course women are often more sensitive to people's needs, so it's a natural progression.”
Wei Zhang (張梧雨) is the head butler at the hotel and talks about “creating a different image” and “intelligent service.” She says the focus of her job is not so much making guests feel special as “enabling them to conduct business,” adding there can be an “embarrassment factor” for those who are not used to the level of service she provides. Knowing when to leave a guest alone, she says, is most important.
“I'm a young professional and I take this job very seriously,” she says. “Obviously communication skills are most important, that and having an eye for detail. If I notice the small things and do something about them the guest will appreciate it.”
She keeps a surreptitious eye on what guests eat so she can offer restaurant suggestions; and takes notes on the preferred climate control settings of the room so it's always the right temperature. If her guest smokes she will remember the make of cigarette and when the packet is nearly finished, set another carton next to it. She helps buy gifts for the businessperson's family, thus saving time. “If I do these things then I will wow the guest. The wow factor is what I work for,” Zhang says.
It's a long way from the traditional concept of the butler, as described by Bertie Wooster in P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves novels:
“As I stood in my lonely bedroom at the hotel, trying to tie my white tie myself, it struck me for the first time that there must be whole squads of chappies in the world who had to get along without a man to look after them.”