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Downton Abbeys’ legacy to your office reception: “Know your guests, watch, listen and be discreet”

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Vincent Vermeulen, the founder and director of the School for Butlers and Hospitality has more than a hint of Downton Abbey’s Mr. Carson about him.

Trained at the prestigious Guild of Professional English Butlers, it is fair to say he has received one of the finest groundings in the art; attention to detail, the ability to focus, and a declared pride in achieving excellence in everything he does.


I sat with him one sunny mid-June morning at the 5* Steigenberger Wiltcher's hotel in Brussels. We were meant to have coffee but the salle hadn’t opened yet and so we stayed in the lobby and got so engaged in our conversation that we forgot about the initial plan.

 

'Private companies are now looking at us to learn a thing or two about hospitality'

Butlers in the 21st century seem obsolete to me: characters more suited to period TV shows or nostalgic British homes. Mr. Vermeulen assures me that I couldn’t be more mistaken. “There was a fall in the demand for butlers after WWII, of course,” he explains. “Supporting the sort of staff that used to work in the grandest houses in Europe became too expensive and only few families could maintain the pre-war standards. It has now changed. Proper schools have supported the resurgence of interest over the past 30 years or so. Today the profession is flourishing globally”.

“You know,” he continues, “it’s not just a domestic service anymore. The grandest hotels in the world provide a butler service. And private companies from all sorts of industries are now looking at us to learn a thing or two about hospitality”.

So much so, Mr. Vermeulen himself has written a book due to come out next Autumn: “What companies can learn from butlers”. I asked him to give me a little insight into his work and he summarized it as: “Four words: discipline, communication, training, talking”.

Mr_Vemeulen_School_for_butlers_proxyclickVincent Vermeulen, founder of the School for Butlers

It seems easy but it turns out, it isn’t. “A leading car producer engaged the School of Butlers and Hospitality to provide consultancy services to evaluate the quality of its customer service in Belgium. Posing as a ‘secret shopper’, one of the first things I noticed as a prospective client ready to buy a €70k car, was I had to wait 14 minutes before anyone noticed my presence and talked to me”.

It is an attitude which is not confined to the automobile sector, of course. “It happens all the time, in different industries. When you go to your bank you are never greeted with your name. The truth is: no one seems to know who you are”, says Mr. Vermeulen.

 

'Security should be invisible and stand at the back of the shop'

“When you walk into one of the luxury boutiques on the Champs Elysées in Paris, for instance, who greets you at the door? Security! Security should be invisible and stand at the back of the shop. What kind of hospitality is it that greets you with suspicion and lets you know you are being watched as soon as you walk through the door? It would all change if, instead, there was a hostess”.

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'A good butler should try to understand every guest prior to arrival, in the most discreet way'

A good butler – and, in general, a good host – should try to understand every guest prior to arrival, in the most discreet way. The host should be able to recognize guests and gather information about tastes, likes and dislikes, so they can be greeted in the most pleasant way. Once guests arrive, the perfect host should have an “eye for detail”, memorizing everything so it can be noted down, ensuring an even better welcome at the next visit.

“When a guest arrives at a hotel with a proper butler service, they will be greeted by name. Because high-profile guests rarely book their travel arrangements personally, the hotel will ask a personal assistant for a picture at the time of reservation. This enables the guest to be recognized without hesitation”, says Mr. Vermeulen.

“Money is never an issue at this level of hospitality,” he continues. “No guest is ever asked for a credit card upon arrival or at check-out. Everything is arranged privately and everything is based on a certain level of trust”.

“During the guests’ stay, the hotel butler watches and memorizes every single detail in the room: On which side of the bed they sleep; what are their habits. Upon departure, a picture is taken so that at the next visit the room can be laid in the exact same way, to match the guest’s preferences”.

“People might leave behind a book, or sleepwear in their hotel room. When that happens - in the best hotels - the staff will gather the forgotten items and set them aside, just so they can be put back in the room – bookmark on the right page – when the guest comes back”.

“It takes some time, of course  but it’s all well worth the effort. The personal touch is what makes great hospitality. And a sincere desire to help,” Mr. Vermeulen concludes.

So to recap, what can the office reception learn from Mr Carson? It is simple:

  • Watch carefully
  • Remember what you see
  • Listen and stick to the code of discipline 
  • And be discreet of course

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