Monday 26 February 2018

Top Irish butler still a high-flier after career in secret service

From the Savoy Hotel to Etihad Airways, Sean Davoren is flying the flag for Irish hospitality.

SAVOY STYLE: Limerick-born Sean Davoren is head butler at the Savoy Hotel in London
SAVOY STYLE: Limerick-born Sean Davoren is head butler at the Savoy Hotel in London

Simon Rowe

No matter how bizarre or unusual, there is nothing butler Sean Davoren won't do for a guest at London's swanky Savoy Hotel - as long as it's legal.

The Limerick-born man is head butler at the five-star hotel that counts billionaire businessmen, rock stars, heads of state and royalty among its regular guests.

Over a 35-year career, he has handled many strange requests: from ensuring that a pop star's bath was filled correctly with heated goat's milk and Evian water, to sourcing zebra milk at a moment's notice, or collecting a £1.4m pink diamond from a nearby Bond Street jewellers as a gift for a guest's mistress. But through it all, Davoren never bats an eyelid.

"Is it for me to question? No," he says simply.

The unflappable father of five still sees the funny side of it all, however. Indeed, one suspects that behind his steely reserve lies a gregarious storyteller bursting to get out.

True to form, he recalls a story of one guest who complained to him about having endured a bad night's sleep - despite having slept on one of the hotel's £25,000 luxury mattresses which boasts of "springs wound with cashmere wool", no less.

"One of our guests complained about that bed, so I had to find another mattress. And I'm thinking, 'Jesus, if you only slept in the bed I slept in last night'," he laughs. But, of course, the consummate butler adds: "I did empathise with them, naturally."

Davoren is arguably one of the world's most famous butlers - apart from Paul Burrell, Princess Diana's ex-butler who wrote a book about his years working in Kensington Palace. But Davoren's insistence on omerta in the butler profession puts him at odds with Burrell's more confessional approach. Indeed, Davoren is famously quoted as saying, "the Paul Burrells of this world should be shot".

Davoren insists butlers should be the epitome of discretion. His rules are simple: butlers should be seen and not heard, and be available at a moment's notice.

Yet, Davoren is no stranger to the media spotlight himself. He has featured in TV shows, runs a world-renowned butler training academy, and has written a book on etiquette. His CV also includes stints working for a European royal family and at Claridge's.

It was no surprise, therefore, when Etihad Airways turned to the Irishman to train its team of butlers ahead of the launch of its new Residence service.

The Gulf state airline offers high-fliers their own in-flight butler and chef on routes between Abu Dhabi and London for the knockdown price of £12,500.

Davoren relished the opportunity to pass on his skills to Etihad's 12 flying butlers. "It's the only way to travel. Aer Lingus will be doing this very soon, I'm sure," he laughs.

Perhaps it's the Downton Abbey effect - the popular BBC drama series - but butlers are back in fashion with many luxury hotels re-introducing the service for guests.

When the Savoy re-opened in 2010, after a €290m refurbishment, the owners re-introduced traditional butlers after a 50-year hiatus and Davoren now manages a team of 30 butlers offering a 24-hour service to 73 suites - including the sumptuous Royal Suite that costs £10,000 per night.

"People like that personalised service. People like that attention. What has happened in a lot of hotels is that there are too many faces: you talk to a receptionist and nothing happens, and then they talk to lots more people and your request seems to get diluted.

"If you have a face to say 'That lightbulb is out, I want it replaced' - then I, as a butler, have the responsibility to get the engineer and make sure that I check it and it's done.

"It's that follow-through that guests want," says Davoren.

Impeccably dressed in a three-piece pinstripe suit and gold silk tie, Davoren and his team offer "effortless service" to guests. "We are the wind beneath their wings," he says.

A butler's tasks include everything from packing and unpacking suitcases, running a bath, polishing shoes, managing a guest's laundry, to booking travel arrangements and doing personal shopping - no matter how exotic the requests.

"I had to send a chauffeur to Wales to pick up goat's milk once after a guest asked for it," recalls Davoren. "The chauffeur cost £670 and the milk cost £25.

"When the milk arrived back here it was for somebody to bathe in, so I had to heat the goat's milk and bring it upstairs and put it in the bath.

"After that I had to get 46 bottles of Evian water, boil those up and empty the goat's milk out of the bath and put in the Evian water. That is the type of detail that we have to go to," he says.

"Another time, Lisa Minnelli's ex-husband David Gest asked me for zebra milk. I'm looking at the gentleman and asking myself, 'are you trying to rattle my cage?' But we never say 'no'. And I did manage to get some. Alas, it was frozen - it wasn't fresh," he says, sounding a little crestfallen.

"The secret to this milk apparently - and I haven't tried it myself - is that it's for the older gentleman with a younger wife," adds Davoren with a lusty laugh.

It's the only time that Davoren reveals a guest's name during our interview. And I hasten to add that he only does so because Gest has referred to the story himself in media interviews.

It's not just discretion that makes a good butler, a degree of formality is also vital, insists Davoren.

"Of course you must build up a relationship with a client but as a butler you must remember that you are employed by this person. We get a lot of American guests staying with us and they say, 'call me Paul' or 'call me Mike'. But I could not call someone by their first name. I have to call them 'Mr Paul'. I need to keep that formality. I am not their friend. I am employed by them," he says.

Closer to home, Lionel Chadwick, the head butler at Ballyfin - Ireland's most expensive five-star hotel with luxury suites costing €1,700 per night - has similarly learned the art of discretion.

The Laois hotel attracted worldwide attention last summer when Kim Kardashian and Kanye West reportedly stayed there on their Irish honeymoon. Julia Roberts is also known to be a fan.

But Chadwick is tight-lipped about the hotel's rollcall of wealthy guests. As if to stress the point, he says the key to being a good butler is knowing when to speak and when to remain in the background.

"One of the most valuable lessons that you need to learn in this job, and you learn it pretty quick, is a bit like that Kenny Rogers song - 'You've got to know when to hold 'em and known when to fold 'em' - you need to know when to step forward and have the chat and conversation with the guests, but you also need to know when to leave people alone."

Located on a sprawling 600-acre estate, Ballyfin boasts six reception rooms, a library with over 5,000 books, and a swimming pool. Guests can enjoy coarse fishing, clay pigeon shooting, archery, tennis, falconry, and pony and trap rides.

At Ballyfin - the brainchild of Chicago-born tech billionaire Fred Krehbiel and his Kerry-born wife Kay - the hotel's team of butlers are central to its hospitality.

"We are a big part of the entertainment for the guests. We give a daily tour of the house, or indicate to guests where to go in the grounds, and show them round on golf buggies and bicycles," says Chadwick.

International guests at Ballyfin are treated to a more informal style of butlering, says Chadwick, and one that is uniquely Irish.

"The last thing we want is paddywhackery and shillelaghs, as there is no need for that, but the friendliness and homeliness of Ireland does shine through in all that we do."

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