Top butler school opens China branch as rich demand better service

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 August, 2014, 5:57am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 August, 2014, 11:18am

A top school for butlers opened its first overseas branch on the mainland this month, hoping to cultivate a culture of service in a country that is, it says, beginning to appreciate the finer points of presentation.

The International Butler Academy, based in the Netherlands, said its new school in Chengdu, Sichuan province, would cater to the "huge increase" in the super-rich on the mainland, many of whom yearn for royalty-standard service.

"I think China has the best food in the world, but, unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the standard of service here," said Thomas Kaufmann, a seasoned Swiss trainer of butlers.

Watch: International Butler Academy opens in China's Sichuan province

"That's why we are here, to show people in China - not necessarily better - but a different way of doing things," Kaufmann said.

The school hopes to get its students from the staff working at the city's luxury hotels and high-end property developers, and that the same places will hire its graduates.

"Unlike a couple of years ago, now clients increasingly ask for butler service. So, properties in the city are in need of a lot of butlers, and they are extremely happy that we are here now," he said. "The prospects look promising."

The school is a joint venture between the academy and Chengdu-based Langji Real Estate Company. The academy claims it has trained staff for many wealthy families, including the royal family of Jordan and companies including American Express and champagne maker Veuve Clicquot.

The mainland's well-heeled are used to relying on domestic helpers - typically middle-aged women coming from less-developed provinces - but as their tastes grow more diverse, in everything from wine to clothes, the skill set of most maids falls short.

The rising demand for butlers in Asia follows a long decline in their popularity in the West. There are about 10,000 butlers in Britain, down from 30,000 in the late 1930s, although their numbers have recovered from a low in the 1980s, according to the International Guild of Professional Butlers.

In one training session at the school recently, students learned the differences between dozens of plates, in different shapes and sizes, laid out on a long table. Some plates are not meant to be eaten from directly, while others, like a bread plate, has very specific uses.

Francois Courberand, an instructor from France, showed them how to serve from a platter.

"Your plate must overlap the guest's; you don't want to dirty your guest or the expensive linen on the table," he said, showing how it's done. "You must also keep your plate flat so the gravy doesn't slide onto your elbow."

Hu Cheng, a 27-year-old who works for a five-star hotel, gave the new move a try and apparently needed more practice as he did not get close enough to the guest. He also did not hold the plate flat, despite taking some time to compose himself.

"You're only about 5km away from the guest, and the gravy is sliding towards your elbow," Courberand said. "No hurry, we have a spare bedroom."

Hu works at the front desk and isn't required to serve food, but he said it was good training to know a bit about everything.

"These things aren't important at all to many people, but learning them has made a difference to me. I have become more presentable," he said.

Classes come in two varieties: hospitality and butler training. The three-week hospitality class targets hotel employees and costs 27,000 yuan (HK$34,000), with living expenses included. The six-week butler training, for those who want to be house managers, costs 40,000 yuan. Each class is limited to 25 students.

In addition to its four instructors from Europe and the US, the Chengdu school plans to hire local instructors and will have a localised curriculum - for instance Chinese table-setting.

Before they opened the school, Kaufmann and his team reached out to five-star hotels in the city and offered a free three-week course for selected staff in an attempt to hit the ground running.

The gesture was appreciated and the 24 places were quickly snapped up, but as the date for the class neared many of the hotels said guests would be arriving and their staff would not be able to take part.

"As the old saying goes, everything that is given for free is worth nothing. A lot of the hotels agreed to send their staff, a lot of them then pulled out. Today, a hotel called me saying a VIP guest was coming and their staff had to stay. That's totally understandable, but how would it have looked if they had paid for it? I'm sure they wouldn't have pulled out," Kaufmann said.