Why do Cruise Ships Have Butlers?

| Feb. 14, 2011

What is the role of a cruise ship butler, and do we really need one?

Traveling the world with all the comforts of home is exactly what makes cruising so special. You can tour Antarctica by day and sleep in Egyptian cotton at night. But within that non-stop competition for better and better service someone, somewhere, decided what we really need on a cruise is a butler.

Do I really need a butler? I don't know anyone who has a butler in real life. So, when I am on a cruise ship that offers one - how am I supposed to know what to do with him? Even disclosing the fact that I have been on cruises where I was given a butler makes me feel pretentious and that leads to the next question, is a butler really necessary, or are they only offered for some kind of bragging rights?

To be clear, butlers are usually offered along with suites on certain upscale and luxury cruise ships. I have had four different butlers in my cruising career; the good, the bad and the obnoxious. The last one I had came with my Concierge-class suite on Azamara Journey, and that is where I had the opportunity to interview Lesley Philpott of Triple S Consultancy, purveyor of butlers to the yachting and cruise line industries. Lesley's firm was hired by Azamara to train its butlers, and its wait staff, on the finer arts of service.

Leslie Philpott of Triple S Consultancy

As a specialist in the fine tradition of butler service Lesley couldn't fit the bill any better, with her stout Irish name, indigo blue eyes, coal black hair and dandelion freckles over a perfect porcelain profile. She hails from Newport, Rhode Island, known as the playground of American royal families such as the Astors and Vanderbilts, although she disassociates herself from such aristocracy.

Unfortunately, our interview came at the end of the cruise, and I had already spent ten days with Marlon, my butler. To be clear, you do not get a dedicated butler on a cruise ship, each butler generally services about ten suites. So, I asked one of my neighbors, "What do you think of our butler?"

"Frankly, I don't really know why he is here," he replied. "Just bringing our morning coffee turns into such a ritual - it's just too much." Okay, I had to agree. Every morning Marlon would arrive with my coffee - but first he had to place a tablecloth, set the table, point out everything on the table ("Here is the coffee, the milk, the sugar, the muffin, the cream...") Then he would ask me "May I pour the coffee?" to which the answer was always "yes," even though after all that display of decorum I was actually thinking, "no, I'm ready to drink it straight from the pot." Then would come the ultimate awkwardness - he would actually place a napkin in my lap. The last thing I ever want first thing in the morning is another man placing anything in my lap! I was still in my jammies and they barely cover enough.

But, in fact, placing the napkin on a diner's lap is considered an essential element of fine dining service everywhere and butlers are highly trained in ritual and tradition that goes back for centuries. So I felt obligated to let him do his job as he was trained although it felt extremely odd to me.

And so I asked Lesley about this. "It is up to you to let your butler know what you want from him, she said. "You should never feel uncomfortable around your butler; he is there to make things more convenient for you."

This is how I realized that I was the one who needed training - on what to do with a butler. I had this accommodating gentlemen telling me to call him if I needed anything, but I actually had no idea what he could really do for me.

What is the role of a cruise ship butler?

According to the International Guild of Professional Butlers, the butler's role is to "manage" the household and the schedule of the master. If reservations need to be made, shoes need to shined, drinks need to be poured, an ice cube needs to fetched, reading glasses go missing, company is expected for tea or a bottle of champagne needs to be chilled then the butler is responsible.

The hard part for me was finding a way to make it more convenient for the butler to do anything rather than handling it myself. In fact, I often need such tasks executed during a cruise but the difference a real butler is in the household all the time; he is a fixture like the fireplace. On a cruise ship the butler only arrives when you need something, and therefore he must be paged.

On the cruise ships where I have had butlers, I have been given a phone number where I can reach him anytime, day or night, and in fact I found Marlon to be very helpful whenever I called. Here is the perfect example; one morning I had placed my breakfast order to arrive at 8:00, but I awakened at 6:45 and wanted my breakfast order immediately. On a mainstream cruise ship that could be a real problem, but I just called Marlon and he knew exactly what to do.

But is that enough to justify having a butler? I suspect that for many people that is the extent of their cruise butler experience. But in fact you should be able to get much more.

Here is Lesley's advice, "The best way to get the most out of your butler is to plan ahead. Your butler can assist you with unpacking, but you have to be ready to unpack when he is available. He will deliver food to your stateroom, which you can order at any time, but if you want the best dining service from your butler, you need to help him plan his time. The more notice you can give him the better his service will be." That is logical, and becomes even more so...

"It is best to start planning your cruise as early as possible," Lesley advises. "Don't wait until you get to the ship to find out what options are available. By the time you actually know the possibilities it may be too late to take advantage of them."

"For example, planning all of your meals in advance is an excellent idea. Most ships have main dining rooms and specialty restaurants, like Azamara Journey with two specialty restaurants that come at no extra cost to suite guests. Now, the best meals in the main dining room are served on special days, usually days at sea, because they coordinate with the "welcome aboard" party or the "farewell dinner." You probably don't want to miss the nights when they serve lobster and filet mignon in the main dining room, so make reservations for the other restaurants on other nights. Your butler can ask for these reservations for you. However, you can only be assured of getting the reservations you want if you plan well ahead."

In fact, I had a situation on the ship where I had just decided to try the Italian restaurant the next day. I was walking past the front desk at the moment and decided to ask them if they could make the reservation for me. Unfortunately, the person I asked was leaving his shift at just the time the maitre D' was starting, so he couldn't make the reservation for me. But I left assuming he would make sure someone would make the reservation for me. No one did. When I came back that night I discovered no reservation had been made, and by then all of the best times were taken.

I now know I should have asked my butler, because it is his job to make absolutely sure the rest of the ship's staff follows through for me. He would have asked for the reservation at the earliest possible moment, regardless of when his shift started or ended. That is actually the essential element of shipboard butlers - they are on a 24-hour schedule. You should feel free to call them for anything at any time.

"A butler can also book shore excursions for you, and spa appointments. But once again you should always try to plan ahead. If you going to be in port and have a grueling tour scheduled you may want to dine in your stateroom that night. Your butler can bring you dinner from the dining room. If you want something extra special, you can ask him to serve it on your verandah."

"Now, for special occasion dinners you may want your shoes shined and clothes pressed. Your butler can arrange this as well, but he doesn't do the pressing, the laundry does it, so he needs time. 24 hours is ideal, but he can usually have it done on the same day."

Azamara provides complimentary wine, water, soda and spirits to suite passengers. My suite had a bottle of scotch and a bottle of gin waiting for me when I arrived, but wine is provided by the glass. "Your butler can bring you a glass of wine at anytime, or he can bring you mixers for your liquor."

This is a nice touch - not only is the liquor provided, but with the butler Azamara makes sure you get the right mixer and fresh ice to go with it. "Your butler can also bring a cheese tray and other things to nibble on." In fact, he will bring you a special tray of hors d'ouevres every afternoon - along with regular afternoon tea if you request it.

The more I think about it, the more I like this butler idea. The trick is in knowing what you want him to do. Yes, you can call for anything at any time, but what you want must be available. To get the most out of your cruise try to plan ahead as much as possible, and let your butler know everything the first day you arrive.

Final thoughts: most people make the mistake of seeing the cruise butler as a glorified room steward - to fetch ice and deliver laundry. In fact, your butler should be more like a concierge, handling your dining plans amd shore tour and spa reservations. He is there to provide the same kind of service in your stateroom as you get when you leave your stateroom.

Of the four butlers I have had Marlon was above average and a fine butler I should have utilized more efficiently. The best I ever had was "Papa" on Crystal Serenity. Papa never felt intrusive to us. He suggested dinner to us in our stateroom on a night when he knew he could provide us with a table for the verandah. He wheeled in the table and served every dish piping hot. When we later asked for some caviar to entertain one of the guest speakers in our stateroom Papa brought us caviar, champagne, brie, fresh fruit and ended it with red wine and chocolate covered strawberries. Never have I been more spoiled. I will never forget that experience on Crystal.

Papa - our butler on Crystal Serenity - the best I ever had

The worst butler I had was younger and had several annoying habits, including answering "certainly sir" to everything I ever muttered. I made him nervous and that is a bad attribute for a butler. Of the other two all I can remember is one wore too much cologne. If that ever happens to you - do your best to relax and enjoy the butler experience. Or as Leslie advises, "it is up to you to tell your butler what you want." But naturally, you want to be courteous about it.

The ultinate butler experience - Caviar on Crystal Serenity

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