12 Shocking Things I Learned by Working as a Butler at the Plaza Hotel
Old-school service is alive and well at the Plaza: High tea treats are served in brass birdcages, tuxedo-clad bellman whisk away luggage to gilded suites, and chefs bear toques that tower above their heads. But in the age of Amazon Prime—when we all want everything now—what is it really like blending vestigial aristocratic assistance with light-speed wish fulfillment?
In order to properly find out, I accepted an offer from New York’s iconic Plaza Hotel to join its team of butlers, a coterie of 10 servicemen (and one woman!) who trot around the property’s 20 floors day and night, making sure 282 rooms’ worth of guests feel like royalty. For two hot days in July, I raced around with a team that, like the city itself, seemingly never sleeps—hearing tales of the trade from the department’s director, Emma, and serving guests alongside some of her most experienced staffers.
This is an elite crew: It bears a combined 147 years of experience, and many have served as house managers for affluent families all over the world. Me? I got express credentials for my two-day residency—unprecedented for the Plaza. They included a detailed orientation of the property and a uniform fitting for my hotel-issued attire (gold-plated name tag and all).
Over my short tenure, I delivered laundry to Middle Eastern princesses and fetched lobsters out of wishing wells—and listened to colleagues delight in the oddities of their jobs, from fielding requests for Viagra or comforting a weeping woman over spilled blueberries. Serving the world’s rich and famous, it turns out, plumbs the depths of an alternative universe that readily embraces the absurd without even batting an eye. And that was only the beginning of what I learned.
Here, 12 secrets to keep in mind the next time you check into a five-star hotel.
One VIP List You Don’t Want to Be On
Hundreds of butler requests roll in each shift—mostly to fill ice buckets, handle laundry, and shine shoes. Complimentary packing and unpacking requests are also common, though they can turn into day-long affairs. A surprising number of international guests will purchase adjoining suites: one to sleep in and one for their luggage.
By matter of corporate philosophy, every guest should feel like a VIP at the Plaza. But a hierarchy still exists among those who check-in at reception. At the top of the pyramid are kings, queens, and heads of state—or as butlers call them: V1s, and they are ever-present on the property. Then come high-payers, long-stayers, guests booking a large block of rooms, and recognizable celebs. They’re called DVs, or distinguished visitors. On the bottom of the VIP totem pole is the SA group, known complainers or otherwise difficult and demanding guests who require “special assistance.”
Bath Time Can Be Awkward
Another common request for the butler team is to draw baths with a signature blend of salt, oil, and roses—especially during the colder months of the year. But the butler’s duties aren’t necessarily complete once the tub is full. Bal, the Plaza’s resident bath-time specialist, said that 95 percent of the time, he’s asked to remain within arm’s reach as bathers suds-up. Most of them, he said, want more hot water or scented oil, and are happy to keep him on hand while they relax in the nude. He is often left to pull the plug from the drain, elbow-deep in leftover water.
It gets weirder. One of my butler colleagues at a previous job in London was asked to ship in and set up a guest’s order of fresh oysters in the bathtub. He diligently filled the tub with ice and laid the oysters out, only to discover that the guest wanted the oysters placed in the tub around his soaking body. Eventually, the client seemed satisfied: He purchased the room next door for his butler so he’d always be near.
Hotel Guests Are Pretty Predictable …
The Plaza’s guest relations team researches everyone staying at the hotel on an individual basis, using a variety of social media tools. (The favorite is LinkedIn.com.) Butlers, on the other hand, often use past trends to size people up on the spot. They send electric kettles to the rooms of arriving Asian guests, who often bring noodles from home to cook in their suite. They keep an eye on the minibar when tending to Americans in their thirties and forties—they’re considered the partiers of the hotel, likeliest to plow through the booze. Middle Eastern VIPs get what is called an “Arabic Amenity”—a tray of dates, dried fruit, and nuts; they tend to prefer these to chocolates, cakes, or other sweet desserts. And the butler staff knows to immediately ask Western businessmen if they have shirts or suits that needs servicing upon checking in; they’re always the ones who treble the quantity of laundry in the basement.
… Except When They’re Totally Unpredictable
Despite the overwhelming regularity of guest behaviors, travelers can mystify even the most experienced of butlers. During my shifts, lobster shells kept appearing in the fountains of the hotel’s interior courtyard. Every day, the staff would fish them out, only to find a new one a few hours later. It turned out that a Middle Eastern prince was ordering cooked lobster from room service for every meal and then throwing the empty shells out the window to land in a fountain below. (Emma asked him to stop—nicely—but pieced together the mystery only on the day of his departure.)
Another time, a woman called Emma hysterically crying “as though her husband died and she just discovered the body.” When Emma finally calmed her down, she comprehended the real reason for the guest’s tears: There was no more Kleenex in her suite, and her young daughter had been forced to blow her nose on toilet paper.
Sex, Drugs and … Come Again?
As at any hotel, requests for drugs and prostitutes do happen—but not frequently. Bal has been asked for drugs only two or three times in his 10 years at the Plaza, and he is careful to stick within the boundaries of the law. Condom needs are another story: Mouhsine, one of the other butlers, always carries a pack with him, especially in the evenings. On being called to fulfill one such late-night request, no one answered the door after several knocks; he gently entered the room to find the two guests in the “go” position, waiting to be walked-in on.
Far more interesting than sex and drugs are the more outlandish client requests. Recently, Emma fielded a service call from a woman searching for some missing chocolate-covered blueberries, which had fallen off a window ledge. Emma offered to obtain replacements from the same brand and store, but the guest was adamant about retrieving her exact snack. Emma and the security team trawled the hotel’s interior courtyard for hours, blueberry-hunting, to no avail. During my brief tenure, the weirdest request was for two liters of intravenous saline solution—meant for a doctor’s ailing wife, who was presumably on the wrong side of a stunning hangover.
Some requests are even more bizarre. One butler told the story of how he was asked to replace all the furniture in a suite because the guest didn’t like the color blue. Another was sent off to scout the city’s reliquaries for a justice of the peace trophy—a prize for a newly minted lawyer. Another arranged for a live tarantula flown in from Africa to be served as a meal. Of course, butlers always deliver with a straight face.
Mind the Pillowcases
Missing pillowcases can be a real issue at the Plaza. But it’s not the tourists that have sticky fingers. And it’s not hotel pillowcases that are getting stolen. At least once a week, a white pillowcase that was brought from a guest’s home gets mistaken for a hotel-issued version and is sent out for cleaning. Sometimes they’re never seen again, in which case Emma dispatches a bellman to purchase new coverings, drawing on the hotel’s coffers, no matter the price.
Christmastime: Not so Merry
“Party season,” which spans October to December, feels like a constant carousel of functions, banquets, and events at the Plaza. Every evening, there are four or five requests for assistance at looping bow ties and zipping up cocktail dresses. And in the last few years, requests for holiday-themed decorations in the rooms have become so commonplace that the hotel now offers a standard Christmas package that includes a fresh, fully decorated tree, assembled by the butlers pre-check-in for $500.
The Customer Is Not Always Right
Complaints follow regular patterns. Every day, a guest will complain about too-slow laundry service. Though forms clearly offer standard and expedited return times, they’re not fast enough for some.
Minibar charges also lead to regular disputes. A full raid of your room’s bar runs $600 at the Plaza—something that happens at least once a week. The likelihood that guests will not want to pay is almost guaranteed.
This requires butlers to document everything with pocket cameras, whether it’s open booze bottles spread across the room, stains on laundry that existed before washing, or evidence of damaged furniture. Every ticket is verified on a computer and photos are attached, so when TripAdvisor.com lights up with a fiery review, the butlers are able to provide evidence to dispel any falsehoods.
The Easiest Way to Get Banned
It’s a lot easier than you might think. The hotel has a strict anti-discrimination policy, and zero tolerance is given to guests who mistreat the staff because of race, gender, age, or creed. Even now, guests sometimes request that staff of a certain ethnic extraction not be allowed to service their rooms; others will ask service members if they are legal in America. Emma, the director of the butler team, cited several incidents of sexism, too, such as the time guests asked to speak with a manager but grew angrier when she showed up instead of a man.
The refusal of services goes all the way up the ladder to DVs. At least two specific celebrities are permanently banned from the Plaza—one, a pop diva expelled for excessive drug and alcohol use and a belligerent attitude towards the staff, the other a sitcom star who took his anger issues out on a suite’s worth of furnishings.
Afternoon Tea Leftovers Don’t Go to Waste
Hidden within the Plaza’s secret back-of-house corridors and tunnels is a cafeteria reserved for the staff. Open during lunch, dinner, and late-night hours for (surprisingly good!) hot meal service, the canteen offers bagels and drinks for the peckish throughout the entirety of the day. But the savviest snackers know to visit the cafeteria at exactly 5:30 p.m., because that’s when the leftovers from high tea at the Palm Court upstairs are put out for the staff. (They serve only the food that was prepped but not plated.) Emma said she practically lives off mini cucumber sandwiches. I liked the tiny blueberry cheesecakes.
A Good Tip Can Make It Worthwhile
New York City’s hospitality workers are protected under a spectrum of different unions. While bellmen and room service are considered “tipping staff,” the butlers do not expect fiscal rewards for their work, beyond the Plaza’s paycheck. But Bal and his colleagues still see a few ex-presidents from time to time.
His biggest tip during the last 10 years? It came from a French model-actress keen on setting up a romantic weekend for her boyfriend, a well-known fashion magnate. Bal placed flowers on every flat surface throughout their suite, organized lunch in a helicopter over Central Park, and tracked down a very specific, very expensive bottle from a specialist store off-site. By the end of the weekend, she handed him $8,000 in cash.
Seven months later, the founder of the fashion label was back at the hotel with a different girlfriend.
When to Call It a Night
The Plaza maintains a Betsey Johnson-designed suite in honor of Eloise, the capricious six-year-old that fictionally lived on the property. It was here that Nimer, another member of the butler team, had his most bizarre service experience to date. A request was put in for someone to come up and read the beloved children’s book as a bedtime story, but when Nimer arrived there were no children to be found. Four thirtysomethings were neatly tucked into one, large bed. Concealing his shock, Nimer read to them for 90 minutes—then tracked down Eloise on video, in case they hadn’t had enough.