Sheila Tonui, the head butler at Hemingways Nairobi, has worked for virtually every top hotel brand in Kenya. She has had a stint at Serena, Sarova White Sands and Safari Park among other.
But even with this rich experience, she was never inspired by mainstream hospitality dimensions. From the moment she graduated from Kenya Utalii College in 2012, Sheila set out to follow a different path.
Thankfully, Hemingways Nairobi had just opened its doors and introduced butler services to enhance guest experience. For Sheila, this was an irresistible chance to venture into a new concept, especially for a woman.
She did a butler course at the NovusLuxus Innovative Luxury, a UK-based company that trains top-class butlers globally.
Within two years, she ascended to the role of head butler, managing a team of 12.
So, what does the job of a butler entail?
“It’s about attending to guests in a personalised way. This service is also not requested, and as a butler, I’ve to be ahead of the guest and to anticipate their need and to deliver that,’’ Sheila says.
“When I notice that your shoes need to be polished, I’ll do it before you ask. I’ll also arrange your wardrobe and your items in the suite,” she adds, noting that butlers work closely with housekeepers.
I’m curious to know what the difference between a butler and a room service personnel is.
“Butler service is more of a wow service,’’ she notes. “When a guest checks in, they’re assigned someone who’ll attend to all their needs during their stay. This person becomes their point of contact.”
Butlers even go out of their way to recommend exciting attractions such as safari that the guest may want to sample.
“With normal room service, the guest has to request for a service. In this case, one person will take their order and another will deliver it. Clearance is also done by a different person. This way, the guest gets to interact with multiple personnel.”
Guest orientation is part of Sheila’s job description. Listening to her describe the hotel’s facilities is like sitting through a memorised recital. “Each of our suites is themed differently based on the country’s history. The Kenyan wing, for instance, features the way of life in pre-colonial Kenya,” she says with a sprinkling of finesse as she takes me for a tour of the furnished suites.
I ask her if saying these repeatedly sounds like a mechanical drill rather than a passionate orientation. Does she rehearse what she is going to say every time?
“I don’t,” she replies coyly, “because I have every aspect of the brand at my fingertips. Each orientation is unique.’’
Butler service has its origin in the UK, where it is predominantly male-dominated. I wonder if women make better butlers.
“Some guests are surprised when they’re attended to by female butlers. Being a butler is an intimate role that suits women because of their keen eye for detail.”
During her time as a butler, Sheila has attended to VIPs and VVIPs. It is not an easy task, she admits, and it comes with anxiety.
“Their security detail will limit your access to them while at the same you have to engage them to ensure that they’re comfortable during their stay. Sometimes, you can only access the person through their assistant.”
With controlled access to the presidential suite, service is done through a private butler service door attached to a private kitchenette, she explains.
“You have to be discreet and to give the guest maximum privacy. As such, all in-room dining and beverage orders and laundry are delivered through this door.”
Some guests though are flexible enough and will engage in small talk. Still, others have radioactive personalities and are hard to please. I ask how she handles outright rude guests, for instance.
“In hospitality, we say the guest’s always right. We align our duties and service to that thinking. You can’t say a curt ‘no’ to a guest’s request whatever the circumstance.”
When I ask her to tell me about the most intimate services she has ever rendered to a guest, Sheila looks across the lush lawn, seemingly rummaging in her memory.
These are many, she says finally. “I play a critical role during guests’ special occasions such as birthdays, honeymoons, and marriage proposals. The guest will let me know beforehand, especially if it’s meant to be a surprise to their fiancée. I have to be strictly discreet and to not let away hints that might spoil the moment.”
The role has its challenges too. “Some guests demand to be served by a male servant. You have to respect their wish. Others still will insist on a female servant,” says the only girl in her family, who grew up with six brothers.
Guests, she notes, base their impression of the hotel on the butler. “I must do my best with confidence and composure. You learn this as you go. For a public figure, it helps to do a background check and to find out what their preferences are,” she says.
Hospitality has taken the worst hit from the Covid-19 pandemic, with most hotels receiving between only a handful and no guests at all in the last three months.
I am eager to know how the pandemic, rules of social distancing, and minimal contact have affected the highly intimate butler service.
“Registration is now being done at the reception unlike before when butlers did it inside the guest’s room,” Sheila explains. “We’re now doing laundry at 70 degrees and sanitising it before delivering it back to the suites. All guest luggage is sanitised from arrival to departure to avoid cross-contamination.”
Minibars in guest rooms have also been suspended to minimise the level of contact.
“We disinfect and lock suites until our guests check-in. No access is allowed before the guest,” she adds.
Would she advise someone to take up this profession? Does it pay well? “It does. Butler service exposes you to different experiences. As a waiter, for instance, you’re only confined within the restaurant. A butler will check in a guest, wait at a table, offer room service and organise events as well.”
Having started working at 23, she says the hospitality industry is about flexibility.
“When I started, I worked in an eight-hour shift which left me with nearly no time to party.”
Now 30, and as the head of her department, is she where she wants to be? “I’m happy but not limited. I could grow within the organisation to become the operations manager. I’d also move on to work in a different capacity but within the industry.’’
The mother-of-two is also passionate about photography, and if it all came to a dead-end, she says she would click away to her survival.
Lessons from this period of lockdown? “Tomorrow is never assured. Make the most of your time when you can.”
Her most treasured possession? Friends, she says without pausing to think. ‘’I like the sense of belonging that friends give. I’ve kept a close-knit circle of friends from my former college mates.’’
As we wrap up, I enquire if she suffers any insecurities.
“None, other than unsuccessfully having tried to gain some weight,’’ she says and adds quickly, “I’m disturbed to see professionals in the hospitality space lose jobs and the industry’s survival threatened.”