THERE IS A PLUSH, VELVET SEAT in the lift of The St. Regis Hotel in Singapore. The trip to the 20th floor lasts mere seconds. Would anyone really need to sit down and rest their feet in this short time?
As if reading my mind, Head butler of the St. Regis Singapore, Priscila Ochoa remarks, “When The St. Regis New York first started out long ago, the lift rides took a long time. A seat was placed in the lift for guests to rest.”
After 12 years as a butler, Ochoa is almost clairvoyant in her reading of the guest experience. She has an intuitive, observational power that allows her to anticipate — like the predictive text on your iPhone — your needs before you do.
A graduate of top Swiss hospitality school Les Roches, she started out as a front office manager at St Regis Aspen in 2006. But the dynamo was more intrigued by the activities bustling around the hotel.
She did a stint as a butler and never went back.
Thanks to her uncanny ability to satisfy guests, the Mexican rose to the top to become head butler at multiple St. Regis properties, including Mexico, Doha and Singapore, her current home for five years and counting. She has even been called upon to serve notable guests, such as pop royalty Irish rock band U2, and real-life royalty Prince Harry.
The seasoned butler’s stories could go on forever. She remembers the joy derived from helping a groom propose successfully, after planting clues around Aspen for his beau. There was the nerve-wrecking moment in Mexico when super DJ David Guetta was late for his stadium show. She called for a motorbike and paid the rider off to zip Guetta through rush hour traffic to get him to his performance.
Ochoa says she observes people keenly. It’s knowing the details that makes her operate well.
“People have a lot of misunderstanding of what a butler is. They think we are their servants. We pack and unpack your clothes, serve you coffee or tea, and shine your shoe. However, it goes beyond that. It’s about the interaction with the guest. We look out for details which others don’t see.”
She gives Keyyes four hard-earned tips to anticipating a guest’s needs.
Pay Attention from the Start
Guests are given a once-over from the moment your friendly butler welcomes you. “We take note of what you are wearing, what you carry, how you move,” says Ochoa, with a glint in her eye.
No reason to be alarmed here. There is good reason for the subtle, swift scanning. Guests fill out a form stating their preferences prior to their arrival, but certain details can only be gleaned in person. The clues gathered allow butlers to anticipate your needs.
“When you serve tea to a left-handed person, you put the cup on the left side so it’s easier for them. Some people will undo their laces, others prefer to do the knot. When he is not there, if you notice the laces are not done, you do it for them.”
Read Emotions Subtly
Perceiving people’s emotions is a useful skill to have when navigating work environments.
Ocho’s way of sensing her guests’ moods come from verbal and non-verbal cues.
Take for instance the simple greeting, “How’s your day?”
She can tell if a guest wants “me” time, or a heart-to-heart talk, based on the varying responses.
“Some guests will reply ‘it’s fine’, or they don’t share much. You can tell that the person is not opening up. It’s probably not a convenient time for him. You leave him a tea with a small note instead,” says Ochoa, who maintains eye contact as we speak.
She once entered a room to find an emotional guest crying because she broke up with her boyfriend
She switched on her best friend mode — patiently listened, dished out love advice, and even brought out comfort food.
“I told her, ‘I don’t know him, I cannot tell you what to do, but I can give you advice from girl to girl. If you really love him then fight for him.’ Chocolates always make people feel better.”
“If the person needs to talk, you become their psychologist,” says Ochoa, who is wearing a crisp swallowtail jacket with an ascot neatly tucked under the collar.
Difficult customers are par for the course in the service line.
The seasoned butler sticks to the same strategy when negotiating with furious guests. “You have to be very calm,” says Ochoa matter-of-factly.
A faulty television sent a guest into a fuming rage one time. Nothing she did could make it come back to life, and she was at her wits’ end.
She says: “I kept pressing the buttons on the TV, saying ‘please work’. I tried to reboot the television with the cable. It would not work. The guest kept shouting.”
Instead she turned to work her magic on the guest while waiting for the handyman to turn up.
She let him rant all he wanted, assured him that help was on the way, and brought a warm tea to calm his nerves.
“When they are in a rage, they don’t want to listen. Sometimes they want to vent, and you just have to listen.”
Children can be a tricky bunch to please. You have to connect with kids on their level, and put yourselves in their tiny shoes.
There was a four-year-old kid called Preston, whose fascination with butlers was the main reason his parents booked a stay at The St. Regis Singapore last year.
“He loves superheroes. He watched Batman, and that was when he met Alfred. He wanted to know what a butler is like,” says Ochoa.
Understanding the psyche and curiosity of the child, she turned the stay into a role-play session.
She says: “The holiday was for Preston. I made Preston the focus. It was all about interacting with him. Instead of setting everything up, I let him help me. He was folding clothes, pressing shampoo to make bubbles for the bath. I brought him an extra tea cup to serve his parents. He was fascinated.”
Preston still sends greetings to Ochoa. “The mum sends me emails, saying Preston says hi, Preston still remembers you. He wished us happy new year.”