Secrets Of A Peninsula Hotel Butler
June 9, 2017 | BY Matthew Keegan
Demanding guests, unusual requests, special memories and overnight companions—it’s all in a day’s work for a butler at the Pen
Paul Leung is head butler at the Peninsula hotel, one of Hong Kong's most prestigious establishments. In a career of more than 40 years, he's has seen many a VIP come and go.
With enough tatler_stories to write his own bestseller, we sat down with Paul to hear a few tales, and to get an insight into a life spent waiting on the world’s most rich and famous.
What makes an ideal guest?
I’m not so keen on demanding guests who keep me on my toes all the time. I like to keep busy, but not too busy. Generally speaking, I like to serve the guests and keep them happy.
What are some of the more unusual or extreme requests you’ve had?
My most memorable experience was when the daughter of one of our guests was celebrating her birthday, and the night before I was asked to decorate the Penthouse Suite. I waited until everyone was asleep and decorated the room with balloons, a chocolate wonderland and a candy paradise. When she woke up the next morning, she was over the moon. It remains such a special memory for me.
Are there ever times when you don’t feel like smiling and being friendly?
I’ve been working as a butler at the Peninsula for almost 40 years, and I can honestly say that I’ve never had a day when I didn’t feel like smiling or being friendly towards guests. Perhaps I’ve just been lucky, but no guest has ever made me feel angry enough that I felt that I couldn’t do my job properly. I greet all guests with a smile.
Do you ever want to switch places with your guests?
I’ve never thought about switching places with the guests before. However, I have been to other hotels and I often observe how the hotel staff treat me when I am a guest, and from this I can learn a lot—both in the things I can improve, and the things I never want to repeat myself.
Do you ever have to tell hotel guests “no”?
Yes, I do. For example, if you want to bring a friend or someone who wants to stay with you overnight, you need to register them first. We have quite a few guests who don’t want to register their overnight companions and so I have to turn them away.
Do you cater for the big stars who stay here too?
When there’s a big star here, I will serve the star’s team, but usually the really big stars bring their own entourage, and so it’s seldom that we even get to see them. I will serve the star’s assistants and they usually tell me what to do. I always have to help them with the requests that the star makes.
Has this job changed the way you view people and the world?
I’m more optimistic and positive after working here. I used to be very conservative and quiet, but this job requires me to talk more and so it’s made me come out of my shell. My knowledge has also greatly increased because I’m meeting people from different backgrounds and cultures.
What is the secret to being a successful butler?
You have to be honest and genuine with the guests. You have to be very observant and be in tune with the guests’ individual preferences, hobbies, interests, likes and dislikes. I also treat the guests and their friends equally and ensure that they’re well taken care of. There have even been times when I have been taking care of a friend of the guest, and they were so impressed that they later came to stay with us too.
Are you good at keeping secrets?
I have to be. I've witnessed a lot of strange and unusual things over the last 40 years. Sometimes, if it’s really unusual or on the borderline of breaking a hotel rule, then I have to discuss it with the department head in order to know how to proceed. But a good butler never tells on his guests.
Do you have any favourite guests?
I have a few. I’m always excited when they come back to stay. One of the preferences of our regular guests is for steamed BBQ pork buns. As the buns are not available 24 hours on our in-room dining menu, I will personally see to it that the buns are ready when the guest arrives. I always like to be prepared.
The same is true for all guest preferences. If I know they prefer a particular brand of wine made in a certain year, I will make sure that we have it in stock before they arrive so that if and when they want it, we can deliver it to them quickly.
Which aspects of the job do you enjoy the most?
I like the challenge of my job, because I meet many different important people every single day, and they all have different preferences and requests. I first observe the guests and then tailor my approach so that I can serve them in the best possible way. The best feeling for me is when the guests leave with a smile.
What are the challenges?
Having a good memory is always a merit in this job, but in addition I carry with me a small notebook everywhere so that I can jot down everything in case I forget. Once, a guest suddenly brought over 10 people back to the suite for a lunch and they wanted quick service—it was just myself working at the time and so I had to ask for help to have the kitchens ready, the food ready and also lay the table for more than 10 people. Sometimes requests that I don’t anticipate are the most challenging, because I need to act very quickly.
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