Yesterday, at the stroke of midnight, a new logo was noticed on the rooftop of a downtown Mumbai skyscraper. Amidst much pomp and circumstance, including an impressive fireworks display, The St. Regis Mumbai was officially opened, the first St. Regis hotel in south Asia, and with it comes a bevy of luxurious traditions — afternoon tea, midnight supper, champagne sabering and more. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the hotel, the first ever St. Regis hotel dates back to 1904, in New York City, and its illustrious owner, John Jacob Astor IV, was the toast of American high society. His vision for an unmatched luxury heritage remains even today, and is proudly practised at St. Regis hotels even today. The Bloody Mary, for instance, which was invented at the King Cole Bar at The St. Regis New York, in 1934, continues to be one of the world’s most loved cocktails. But we’ll leave the cocktails and afternoon tea sessions for later. Today, I have decided to get a sneak peak into one of the most cherished traditions at any St. Regis Hotel — The Butler Service. Lest you misunderstand this as an uber-premium service offered to uber-premium suites, let me tell you that the St. Regis Butler Service is an uber-premium service offered to ALL guests across ALL room types. And that’s exactly what I have set out to discover today.
All the photos in this feature were taken on the spot, by the UrbanEye photo team, during the course of our interaction.
As my car pulls up to the lobby of the hotel, I see the butler standing there, poised and elegant, dressed and groomed to perfection. Dominik Hengge, Chief Butler at The St. Regis Bangkok, happens to be in Mumbai for a while, to train the team of new butlers at The St. Regis Mumbai. Dominik himself appears to have stepped out of the pages of a fashion magazine — impeccably groomed, tailored three piece pinstriped suit, discreet St. Regis lapel pin, chic cufflinks, perfectly coiffed hair, a disarming smile and, of course, the undeniable finesse of, well, a St. Regis butler. As we begin our walk through the hotel, he suggests that I have a cup of coffee, effortlessly suggesting a cappuccino — the truth is, I am indeed a cappuccino drinker, and the fact that he guessed it within the first few minutes of our meeting speaks volumes of the level of ‘anticipatory’ service.
Dominik, born in Germany, started his career with the Starwood Hotels & Resorts in Munich, in 2009, followed by a stint as a butler at The St. Regis San Francisco. He took a short break to travel through Asia, which inspired him so greatly that he soon found himself back with the hotel group, in 2012, heading the team of butlers at The St. Regis Bangkok, which, he says, “is such a great honour to be part of an age-old tradition of the brand”.
As I sip my cappuccino, prepared to perfection, Dominik tells me that the iconic St. Regis Butler Service dates back to 1904, in New York, when the hotel’s founder John Jacob Astor IV aspired to create the best luxury hotel ever. A rich man himself, Mr. Astor owned many residences, each of which came with their own team of butlers. “Mr. Astor believed that a luxury hotel should not only be about rooms but more about personalised service. So he decided to bring the butlers from his home to the hotel. The rest, as they say is history. The St. Regis Butler is a tradition that exists and flourishes at ever St. Regis hotel across the globe, even today. It is an additional value offered to our guests.”
What, then, should a guest expect from his butler, when he checks into The St. Regis Mumbai. Dominik explains, “Well for starters, a St. Regis butler wants to create a home away from home. And it starts at the very moment that the guest arrives. “As soon as you check in, you will have your butler greet you personally at your room. As you enter your room, we step in and take it upon ourselves to help you settle in. After showing you around your room, we let you relax while we offer you the unpacking service. When you are at home, you live out of a closet, not out of a suitcase. Isn’t it nice to see your clothes neatly hanging in a closet, even at a hotel room?” For a St. Regis guest, time is of essence, and is, arguably, the biggest luxury, which is why, added services like the packing-unpacking, only give the guest more time to relax or work.
“In addition to the unpacking service, we offer a pressing service. Two pieces complementary, per day.” While Dominik, or any other butler will not be pressing the clothes themselves, they work closely with the laundry team for this. As Dominik says, “we pull the right strings in the background to ensure that everything is done for the guest.”
A St. Regis butler is characterised by his ability to anticipate his customer’s needs — from offering an arriving guest a beverage as he or she settles in a room to taking note of specific requests like printing a boarding pass or making dinner reservations, everything is taken care of. “If you think you want a cup of camomile tea at 2 a.m, a butler will be there to serve it to you. Isn’t that so much better than simply ringing up room service? And it’s complementary.”
Dominik is quick to compare this to when one serves coffee or tea to one’s husband or wife at home and its inevitable good effect. (giggles)
I asked Dominik what The St. Regis is doing to keep the idea of the butler relevant to today’s times. “Let me introduce you to our e-butler”, he tells me, with pride beaming from his blue eyes, “if you’re outside, say stuck on the Sea Link (as I was earlier that morning), and you remember that you need to have something pressed, all you need to do is email us and we will manage it. We are always just an email away.”
While Dominik’s collection of hotel anecdotes and outrageous requests from guests could fill a library, he is discreet enough to share only a few. “There was a lady once, who checked in and her husband was due to arrive later that evening. She realised that she had forgotten to pack in his pajamas. She quickly called us and asked us to help, specifying that they needed to be navy blue or grey. We made a dash to the nearest department store, clicked a few pictures and sent them to her by email. She responded with her choice within five minutes and we came back to the hotel with the new pajamas. We pressed the pajamas to rid them of the shop creases, and neatly arranged it on the gentleman’s bedside, at the turndown service, just before he arrived. Saved by the bell, if you will.”
A St. Regis butler, Dominik tells me, needs to boast world-class soft skills. He or she could be interacting with guests from all over the world and from different cultures on a daily basis. One needs to ensure that tact, discretion, finesse and the finer aspects of service are maintained at all times. Situations and requests could crop up any minute and you need to ensure they are met. Needless to say, male guests deciding to propose to their girlfriends is a common occurrence. “For that, we need to use our creativity to ensure that the proposal is unforgettable.”
Before I leave, I had to ask Dominik about another one of the St. Regis traditions — champagne sabering. “This practice dates back to Napoleon, who would lob off the head of a champagne bottle with his sabre, to celebrate a victory. For the Astors, at The St. Regis New York, it was about getting people from the high society to come together and experience something special. Today, we use it to mark the transition from day to night, to announce the start of the evening. It is always done in the lobby, in front of everyone, and we often dim the lights and add candles for extra effect.”Does he remember the first time he sabred a bottle? “Of course, I was so nervous. There were so many people watching me in the lobby in Bangkok. Thankfully, I was successful at it.”
After my encounter with Dominik Hengge, as well as a brief chat with the other St. Regis butlers at The St. Regis Mumbai, it became clear to me, that I had to let go of my romanticised notions of the stuffy, portly, often elderly butler, as portrayed by Downton Abbey’s Mr. Carson. The St. Regis Butler, as I discovered is deeply rooted in tradition, while at the same time being the quintessence of modern hospitality. In conclusion, Dominik tells me, “At The St. Regis, we want to be modern. We are, of course, a timeless and elegant brand, but we’d like our butlers to be quintessentially modern.” And on that happy note, I bid goodbye to my polished friend, Dominik Hengge, a modern-day Mr. Carson, as I jokingly called him…
The St. Regis Mumbai – Opened September 1, 2015. www.stregismumbai.com
Exclusive experience reported by Riaan Jacob George |Photography Vishal Jolapara and Sanat Gaba