English Butler Leads China’s Latest Cultural Revolution

The austere refinement and discreet assistance long associated with a traditional English butler is now a commodity available globally. In the past decade, Robert Watson has taken his business – training aspiring manservants in ettiquette, wine-tasting, table-dressing and other skills – to numerous continents. Watson's latest expansion is in the Far East, where Chinese authorities have tapped him to help instruct locals on the art of serving the super-rich. Experts predict China will become the world's number one tourist destination in just 15 years, and local officials are keen to make good on the promise of their five-star service industry. The nation's economic boom, Olympic bid, and large foreign population make China an attractive arena for developing this industry. As a marked departure from the values of the communist era, private wealth has become more mainstream. This cultural shift could change the perception of social hierarchy in China. –YaleGlobal

English Butler Leads China's Latest Cultural Revolution

Booming economy and influx of foreigners require an upmarket service sector
Jonathan Watts
Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Chinese tourist chiefs and luxury hotel managers are reinterpreting the old communist dictum, Serve the People, with help from an unusual source: an English butler.

When Robert Watson entered service in 1974, China was in the midst of the cultural revolution. If he had ventured to Beijing at that time, his profession would have condemned him as a class traitor.

Today, however, the English manservant has been recruited by the authorities to instruct local staff in the finer points of etiquette and customer satisfaction in response to a boom in the five-star service industry.

Thanks to a surging economy, an influx of foreign professionals and a government campaign to improve manners ahead of the Olympics in 2008, Beijing is calling on outside expertise to lift the standards of its service sector.

Mr Watson served at a private home and the Lanesborough Hotel in London before embarking on a jet-setting career as founder and director of the Guild of Professional English Butlers.

With international salaries for top manservants as high as £90,000 a year, his advice does not come cheap. The cost of his courses, which can cover anything from traditional white-glove service to modern hotel management, range from £2,000 to £6,000 a week.

In the past 10 years, he has arranged visits to top tailors and makers of china, organised lectures by toastmasters and wine specialists and run training programmes in Las Vegas, the Caribbean, Saudi Arabia and Mexico.

But his eyes are now on China, which he sees as a major area of expansion. "This market could be huge. China is the destination now, and it will be for years to come. Hotel work will spiral and so will the market for property management. There are huge numbers of luxury apartments in Beijing but no one with great skill to service them," he said.

Mr Watson was hired by Beijing Tourism Group, which operates state-owned hotels and sightseeing facilities in the capital. He is also running a five-day course for 20 staff of a private luxury development.

Towering over his students and cracking jokes, the bespectacled Englishman with the salt-and-pepper beard comes across as more Basil Fawlty than Jeeves, but Mr Watson says the modern global age requires something more than the stiff formality of the traditional English butler.

"Throughout the world, the big market is new money; people who have bought lots of luxury items but lack staff who know how to clean and use them properly. They need experts who can do this and organise superb dinner parties with all the right food and drinks," he said. "We need to educate wealthy Chinese about the value of having a butler. It not only enhances their status, it means that they have someone to organise their lives in the way they want."

Mr Watson's short visit to Beijing is a small part of the city's preparations for an expected increase of high-rolling tourists and wealthy investors. According to the World Tourism Organisation, China will be the world's leading tourist destination by 2020, generating an income of more than 3.6 trillion yuan (£260bn).

The rising economic clout of China's new rich has also led to an explosion in the number of luxury businesses, such as the new Pine Valley golf club near the Great Wall, which features courses designed by Jack Nicklaus and a presidential suite with a 24-hour butler service.

"All this is new to us. You have to understand that the concept of private ownership is only 20 years old in China. Before that everything was owned by the state or the collective," said Tony Azarias, general manager of L'Accueil Resident, a luxury property-management company that has also hired Mr Watson to train staff. The Taiwanese-owned firm is about to open a development in the upmarket Zhongguangcun district of Beijing. The price of one-bedroom serviced suites at the property start from 1 million yuan (£71,000).

Mr Azarias believes a week's staff training with a British butler will add value. "The five-star hotel business is very competitive. We must find new ways to enhance our service. That is why we have turned to an English butler," he said.

Thirty years ago, servants would have been criticised as class traitors and polite manners dismissed as devices used to maintain a social hierarchy. But Mr Watson's predominantly young trainees appeared to be enjoying their re-education.

"In the old days, our concept of service was very basic," said Frankle Guo, a 25-year-old reception manager. "It was just a job. We didn't try to anticipate what our customers wanted. But Robert has really opened my mind. He's shown me how to put the 'Wow!' factor into service."

© 2005 Guardian Newspapers Ltd.


Indeed, the "new money" families need a professional household staff and a butler to make their life easier but also to show their high lifestyle. However, the recruitment market is still a "baby" as the recruitment agencies are not focused on the employer needs or the fit of the candidate. Rarely a recruiter can identify a suitable butler as they don't really know what is it about the private service. Recently, a household staff community was born and their advice in recruitment can be precious, not to speak that they are all household professionals (at least is what they say). Ressource: https://butler-club.com/