While unpacking the luggage of a head a state, Sofitel’s head butler Robert Viana noticed that the sole of VIP’s black shoe was peeling off. Viana couldn’t help but overhear the leader’s dilemma: What would he wear to the gala dinner?
The problem seemed trivial compared to the issues the head of state had to face in a slew of meetings. Still, his only option—a pair of brown shoes —would look out of place in a formal event.
As the VIP and his delegation headed to the Philippine International Convention Center, Viana had the shoes resoled in a repair shop near the hotel. When the VIP returned to his suite, he hardly recognized the black shoes—they looked so new.
“A butler must be observant, and think ahead,” Viana says. “I always tell students to be attentive to details. Put themselves in the shoes of the guest. Anticipate the guest’s needs. Deliver right away.”
Full darkness for Mariah
In his 25-year career as butler, Viana has served heads of state, royalty, celebrities, long-staying and affluent guests.
A licensed nurse, Viana found work as part-time waiter at the then Westin Philippine Plaza. The opportunity to learn about civility and meet prominent personalities spurred him to become a hotelier.
A quick learner who has empathy for people, he was sent by the management to train under Charlie Dang, a former butler of the Sultan of Brunei who turned hotelier.
“He taught us how to stand, not to put the hand in the pocket or behind our back and how to second guess the VIP’s needs, how to speak, pack and unpack luggage, hang clothes,” Viana recalls.
When Westin was put under Sofitel management, Viana had a butler’s training program with Wayne Fitzharris, a former butler at Buckingham Palace. He learned about handling female VIPs under former butler Josephine Ives.
Viana has done everything, from holding the VIP’s hand towels to fulfilling unusual requests such as buying a shisha (a Middle Eastern water pipe) in Malate at midnight for a head of state.
When Mariah Carey stayed at Sofitel’s Imperial Suite, she requested that the whole room be in total darkness so that she could sleep. Viana covered the room with black cardboard and made sure that the tiny TV button was shut.
His career’s turning point came recently when he received the 2018 Hotelier Award Asia for Concierge Hotelier of the Year.
Two colleagues from Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila also received awards: Yasmin Hidalgo for Marketing and Communications and Larsey Guieb for Human Resources.
A video of Viana’s interview was sent to an international panel of judges from different fields. Asked to cite the high points of his career in 2017, Viana pointed out being a finalist in the local hotelier honors, the Mabuhay Awards for Front of House/Operations, and training the butlers of sister hotel Premier Village Resort on how to serve the heads of state at the recent Asia Pacific Economic (Apec) Forum in Vietnam.
He also talked of patriotism by looking after President Duterte in his villa during the Apec summit.
“I was able to serve my country by assisting our country’s VIPs,” he says.
AccorHotels, the French global hospitality company that owns and manages Sofitel, among other brands, had assigned Viana to share his expertise with the young staff of Premier Village Resort in Da Nang who was tasked to serve top-level Apec guests.
Never say no
Malacañang protocol office had asked the Sofitel management if Viana could attend to Mr. Duterte’s accommodation needs during his stay at the Premier Village.
Following hotel procedure, Viana researches on the special guest’s profile before the VIP arrives in the property. If the hotel doesn’t have what the guest needs, the butler finds a way.
Malacañang’s protocol office informed Viana of Duterte’s requirements. He preferred a specific water brand. He liked space around the bed so he could walk around. Moreover, he liked to wake up and see the wall clock without having to get up.
Since Duterte’s preferred water brand was not available in Da Nang, Viana suggested that it be brought from Manila.
Viana had to convince the hotel engineering to move Duterte’s bed, including the electrical wiring, to free up the space in the suite. He searched in vain for a wall clock around the city, only to find it in the hotel kitchen. He had it installed using a contraption on the cabinet door.
“I had to explain to the staff that we have to give the heads of state whatever they want. We can never say no or it’s impossible, and only make do with what is there. We have to improvise,” Viana stresses.
One of the challenges was organizing the presidential wardrobe. The presidential staff is always in a rush, so that it barely has time to prepare his clothes. At times, Duterte would change his mind about his outfit at the last minute. The challenge was how to leave the clothes wrinkle-free, and there was no time to send them to the laundry.
Viana worked with the presidential staff on how to prepare Duterte’s clothes and hang them wrinkle-free.
Duterte’s meal requirements are simple—he preferred soup in small portions. Breakfast was bread and coffee. Duterte and his staff would order for sandwich or packed lunch since they were always on the go.
The President craved for Filipino food. Since fresh tamarind was not available in Da Nang, Viana found tamarind paste in a store for the sinigang.
Since Duterte is fond of bananas, Viana had to look up the recipe for maruya. The hotel chef made two versions, the authentic flavor with jackfruit and a Vietnamese-spiced banana fritter.
Two days before Duterte flew to Manila, he was gracious enough to ask Viana to have a selfie with him as souvenir.
Viana will never forget how Jose Ramos-Horta, then president of East Timor, treated him like a son.
When he first served Ramos-Horta in 2009, the butler talked about his great-grandmother who was also Portuguese. The butler and his VIP guest also shared a love of football.
On his next visit in 2010, Ramos-Horta looked for Viana upon his arrival in the hotel. He gave Viana a hug in front of the hotel staff when they met in the suite.
“I didn’t feel like a butler and he didn’t seem like a guest,” Viana recalls.
The butler has had his share of encounters with flashy music celebrities who displayed more idiosyncrasies than heads of states did. Although he is given tickets to their concerts, Viana ends up passing them to the other staff.
“I can’t do everything myself,” he says in modesty.
Despite the perks of his job, Viana keeps a simple life. He would rather commute six hours every day from Binangonan to Sofitel and be with his family than rent space in Manila.
There are days he stays in the hotel to be at the guest’s beck and call. In those moments, Viana looks at the bay and wistfully imagines he is in a faraway place. –CONTRIBUTED