At Halekulani, service gets a fine-tuning

At the Halekulani, the butlers recently underwent a special training program that included lessons on meditation and tai chi,.
At the Halekulani, the butlers recently underwent a special training program that included lessons on meditation and tai chi,.
Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

Halekulani is a luxury hotel steeped in history and known for its top-notch service right in the heart of Waikiki. The property's nine butlers are hand-selected from other departments and reflect the epitome of service at the hotel.

In March 2016, with a new slate of butlers joining the ranks and service in need of a tune-up, the hotel decided to bring in some advisers on refinement. Halekulani hired Heilbron Hospitality, a South African company, to provide a special training course to all of its butlers and some of the management staff. The comprehensive course not only goes over the finer points of service, but also includes meditation, tai chi and confidence-building exercises. All of which, according to the staff at Halekulani, helps them better serve the hotel guests.

The program was a week of full-time work, eight hours a day for five days. At times, the course could be nerve-wracking, according to participants.

"Every morning we had to line up for inspections, and they would go over how we looked and presented ourselves," said Mark Miyashiro, Halekulani's director of guest experiences. "They didn't differentiate between managers and butlers. I was under a lot of pressure to produce. I have to admit I made a lot of mistakes, but you learn from your mistakes."

The butlers are trained on the fine points of service, setting a table, etiquette, and looking out for guests needs, but also learn mindfulness techniques. While the days started with a fingernail-biting full inspection, they concluded with a meditation session, breathing exercise or tai chi lesson.

"The training was not simple, and was beyond what a typical hotelier would go through. It was quite intense," said Geoff Pearson, Halekulani's director of sales. "It's a benefit to have some of the international experts come, and show us how the international hotels are doing things."

At a luxury hotel where some accommodations cost thousands of dollars per night, that extra level of service and attention is important. Three of the premium suites have included butler service.

"Our premier suite guests are paying $8,000 a night for room, and so they expect the best," Miyashiro said. "The butlers are under a lot of pressure, and the training helps you keep calm and focused on the job at hand. I know a lot of the butlers will take a deep breath and center themselves just before guests arrive to help focus on the things we need to do."

The original Halekulani began in 1907 as a small residential hotel with a beachfront home and five bungalows. It was purchased in 1917, officially named the Halekulani and expanded into a stylish resort. It grew and expanded over the decades, and then was sold again in 1962.

Approximately two decades later the current owners, the Honolulu-based Halekulani Corp., purchased, temporarily closed and renovated the property. Today the 453-room hotel features a range of accommodations, pool, spa, fitness center, numerous programs and activities, business center and beach access.

In addition to the nine butlers, who are typically invited to join the team after demonstrating exemplary work in another department, several managers also participated in the training program.

"They broke down what it means to be a great butler, and I can apply this to my position as director of guest services," Miyashiro said. "I do take care of VIP guests a lot, and you have to offer great hospitality, knowledge, experience and an eye for detail. The training applies to everything in the hospitality industry. You must know your guest, know your product and know the hotel well."

Moving forward the hotel plans to have quarterly training sessions with the butlers to learn about other areas of service, such as concierge duties or how to serve and recommend wines.

"After the graduation for the program you could see the pride in the staff," Pearson said. "They walked a little taller, and were anxious to put the lessons they learned into practice. I feel like it expanded the horizons of the staff and gave them an additional sense of accomplishment."

Miyashiro says he has seen the benefits in his own life, as the training has helped his confidence and focus, and in the level of service at Halekulani.

"Several guests, when they leave, mention that they wish they could take their butler home with them, or say they will hire them away from us," he said.
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