The other-worldly Raffles hotel is an almost mythical place. Evoking a time long past, the genteel service and exclusive atmosphere is one beloved by guests and visitors alike. Colonial history is rooted in this hotel and today we peel back the curtains on this intriguingly beautiful hotel and see what it takes to run a hotel unlike any other on earth.
Executive Chef Pierre Burgade (left)
Pierre Burgade is the Raffles Hotel's executive chef and is a man that is in demand. It is Sunday, one of the hotel's busiest days and the kitchen is awash with controlled activity. Three types of scones are being baked in the oven - these are for the famous Raffles Hotel afternoon tea. The hotel has eight food outlets that they manage themselves, not including room service and the shops and restaurants at the Raffles Shopping Arcade and they will all require his attention today.
Pierre hails from near Toulouse in France and has been in Singapore for 7 years and at the hotel for 5 years. He has a large task overseeing budgets and menus and at Raffles all items except for the dim sum are made fresh in house. It's not a behemoth hotel with just over 100 rooms (all suites) but Raffles Hotel goes through 400 Billecart-Salmon Champagne bottles in a month, 450 oysters weekly at the Sunday brunch and 40kg of Maine Lobster weekly. At this hour breakfast comes and goes with some guests preferring to eat it from the comfort of their suite and then they need to set up for lunch.
I ask Pierre what makes guests happy at a hotel like this apart from great food? He smiles, "A lot of service and attention". Luxury hotels like the Raffles have a staff ratio of almost 1:1, that is, one staff member per guest. And in terms of food, they tend to stick to classics here rather than fusion as Raffles guests prefer that.
Florist Albert Chun
It's the start of the work day and Albert Chan, the Raffles Hotel's resident florist is busy spraying and touching up the hotel's enormous flower arrangement in the lobby. He sprays the large leaves and then polishes them. His job as the in-house florist at Charles florist means that he works from 9am-7pm, 5 days a week. His job is to exchange, set up and create floral arrangements in the suites and public areas as well as for weddings and corporates with his other team member.
He relies on suppliers to deliver the flowers that he orders. And in rooms like the Sarkies Presidential Suite they can furnish it with up to $,1000SGD worth of blooms. The top 7 suites are more elaborate than the rest and can be customisable to suit guests' personal taste. As he sets up flowers in the Presidential Suite he explains that when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge stayed here they steered clear of providing classic English roses in favour of more white tropical flowers. If guests have allergies he ensures that the flowers are cleared 1 day prior to their stay to try and ensure that there are no traces of the pollen or scent.
Placing flowers in the Sarkies Presidential Suite
In the Presidential Suite, if guests want an extravagant arrangement that is no problem. He can create anything and their length of stay determines the amount that he spends on the flowers. For a $17,000SG stay he can spend up to $2-3,000 on flowers without charging this onto the client.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were guests that received white exotics in their room instead of English roses
And his favourite flower? The Antorium because it is strong and durable and he can bend the stems to sit them in all manners of vases. "Not all women like these flowers," he says, "Strong women prefer these," he explains and he can read personalities through the flowers that they like.
Spa therapist Sophia bte Alias
At the spa, the busiest times are in the afternoons but guests that are jetlagged also make use of the spa. Spa therapist Sophia has worked here for 1 year and 6 months and there are 4-5 therapists on staff. The exclusive nature of the hotel means that the spa is only open to hotel guests which ensures that there are usually treatment rooms free and that it doesn't book up as quickly. And being the Raffles hotel, there is one special VIP room for couples.
The spa in the VIP room
It's 12 o'clock - check out time at the Raffles Hotel and room attendant Alis Darmayandi is one of the 45 room attendants at the hotel. Every day she and the rest of the team polish and sparkle rooms so that they are spotless. Each room attendant is allocated 1 hour and 15 minutes to clean each room for check out. For an overnight stay they are given 50 minutes. For suites like the Presidential Suite, they are allocated the equivalent time for three suites.
Housekeeper Alis Darmayandi
What is the most time intensive aspect in cleaning a room? Why it's making the bed. They have 11-12 minutes to make each bed. Eight minutes is taken up making up the bed but three minutes is spent inspecting the sheets to ensure that they are pressed perfectly and that they are mark free. The hotel changes the sheets every day unless a guest specifically asks for them to be reused although it is not an advertised policy of theirs as they don't feel comfortable reusing sheets given the premium that the guests pay.
The hotel outsources the laundry and the sheets are 200 thread count 100% Egyptian cotton. Each sheet lasts the hotel about 1 year and they are in a constant rotation with one set in the room, another in the pantry, another in storage and another in the laundry. The company that washes the sheets has a Raffles program setting where they need to be washed above 100C/212F to keep it sanitary and they also strictly control the whiteness of the sheets. Sheets tend to yellow over time so they tag each sheet with the year of circulation and use a white meter to measure the whiteness. They maintain a 85-90 degree of whiteness for all of their sheets.
Apart from the bed the bathroom takes up the next largest amount of time. And because the floors are floorboards and not carpet this requires more cleaning. The floors have to be swept and then mopped every day. Even outside areas must be maintained with the marble being a glossy white colour. The housekeeping staff work from 11:30am until 9pm every day. And which gender is messier? Women I'm afraid!
Lunch is over and at 2:30pm the hotel's most hard working restaurant the Tiffin Room is about to transform. Staff from other outlets come to assist the room transition from an Indian curry buffet to one of the hotel's most signature experiences, the Raffles Hotel afternoon tea. Guests receive a three tier stand as well as access to the dessert and dim sum buffet for $62SG a person. The stand can be replenished if the guest wishes.
Just before 3pm there is a large queue that has formed outside the doors. The staff conduct a briefing and are handed out the seating arrangements. In-house guests are always marked clearly with their names so that staff address them by name and any tour groups and invoicing or billing arrangements are discussed with the staff. A harpist sets up and plays in the background and come 3pm guests file in and are shown their seats.
Pre service briefing
Guests waiting outside for afternoon tea
44 years ago when the Raffles Hotel's resident historian Leslie Danker first worked at the hotel, he started as a maintenance supervisor. He has seen much in his time there and has seen the hotel pre, during and post renovation. Twice a day at 10:30am and 3:30pm the Raffles hotel holds historical tours for guests only sometimes helmed by Leslie who at age 70 works part time.
Resident historian Leslie Danker
He has always been a keen student of history. This was of course before the availability of the internet and there wasn't a lot of information on the history of the hotel so he scoured as many newspapers as he could, carefully clipping articles. The hotel originally started with 10 bungalow rooms and was the brainchild of the Sarkies brothers, a family of Armenian hoteliers. They had the foresight to name the hotel after Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore.
He tells of a time in 1902 when there was a circus located near the beach. One day a tiger escaped, "had a good swim" in the ocean and then crossed the road to the Raffles Hotel's Bar and Billiards Room and proceeded to rest underneath one of the buildings. There has been debate about whether the tiger was under a billiard table but Leslie clarifies that it was resting underneath the building which was at the time raised above the ground. What happened to the tiger? Well, deemed a threat, it was subsequently shot between the eyes.
A photo from when the lobby was a restaurant
The hotel was also the first in Singapore to have electric lights. Over that time the hotel has played host to a range of celebrities including presidents, diplomats, royalty and actors. Leslie's favourite celebrity guest was John Wayne of which he says, "He was very humble and tall". And it's amusing to think that the lobby of today was previously where they had a restaurant, dancing and rollerskating in the early 1900s.
Leslie with Michael Jackson
Leslie progressed to the role of duty manager during his time and during the final restoration he saw the original 10 room bungalow foundations when they removed the marble foundation as well as the skeleton of a fully grown horse along with horse shoes.
Some of the more recent guests
In 2005 Leslie moved from the guest relations manager to become the hotel's first resident historian. He tells me that the typical Raffles Hotel guest is interested in the historical aspect of the hotel and he loves taking them around and showing them the wall of guests and regaling them with historical tales.
He also gets to know long term guests like one female guest that is such a frequent visitor visiting three to four times a year staying for 3 weeks at a time. She has her own table at the restaurants, her own monogrammed napkin and cutlery to eat with and stays in her favourite room.
Swaran Pal Singh and Roslee Sukar
The afternoon is a busy time for the hotel as the official check in time is 2pm and by now most guests will have checked into the hotel. Roslee Sukar from the Front Office team explains that for some guests, a stay at the Raffles Hotel is a treat either at the beginning or the end of the stay and they may already be in Singapore at the time so they try to accommodate early arrivals. For Director of Marketing Communications Jesmine Hall, an occupancy rate of 70-80% is ideal for their type of clientele which gives them room to maneuver to accommodate guests that want late check outs and early check ins.
Roslee's station is usually at the front of the hotel and when guests have a scheduled pick up with the Raffles the driver calls them twice. First to let them know that the guest has been picked up and second once they are 10-15 minutes away. When they arrive by themselves, they are escorted into the lobby (an area that is restricted to hotel guests only) and everyone is offered a welcome drink and if it is in the late morning or afterwards it is usually a Singapore Sling.
The FCS system
Roslee explains that it is important that they read each guests' needs. Corporate travellers want to go straight to their room with minimum fuss whereas first time travellers or leisure travellers want a bit more attention and pampering. They take guests to their room where they will take passports and a credit card imprint. 60% of their guests are leisure travellers. The bellhops and staff communicate through phones using a FCS system that alerts them to when their services are needed to transfer bags.
One of the first faces that will greet them is one of "The Generals" in their distinctive uniform. Swaran Pal Singh has been here for 25 years or as he says, "From black hair to grey hair." The uniform they wear is of an Imperial Indian soldier made by Gieves and Hawkes of London. He and the other Generals Narajan Singh and Sarjit Singh greet guests and shake their hands and have been doing so since 1990. From there Roslee, the butlers and the rest of the front of house team take over.
Roslee remembers when Michael Jackson visited the hotel and stayed in one of the biggest suites (although interestingly not the Presidential Suite). Concierge Roslee is a member of the Les Clefs d'Or but some of the requests are a bit more challenging. Michael Jackson wanted to see the Singapore Zoo to himself but he had to be content with an orangutan whom he recalls was quite a sight wandering the lobby of the Raffles.
Roslee checking in some guests
There is one consistent request from travellers and that is a helicopter tour of Singapore. However this can be arranged but only with 2 weeks in advance as it isn't a common practice and airspace rules hinder this. In another case a friend of Sir Ian McKellen was staying at the Raffles Hotel and wanted to see him in a play. Roslee was tasked with obtaining two tickets to the sold out show. As luck would have it a good long lost friend was working at the theatre and they gave up their two tickets so his guest could attend. He later heard that Sir Ian was so delighted to see his friends in the audience that he called them onto the stage. Roslee is still delighted at the memory. "I didn't know what the outcome would be but we work on the principle 'service through friendship'".
Butler Yujun Cao
When guests go out for dinner, the butlers spring into action. Every single room in the hotel has a butler assigned to it and Yujun Cao is one of the dozen butlers. She says, "Some are shocked to see ladies as butlers" but it just happens that many of the butlers are female here. She comes from a work background of information technology but when the opening came up for a butler she jumped at it. She loves her job and says, "I have a passion for it," that she wanted to address "before I get too old." She has been a butler for 3 years. Butlers are first trained with a mentor for the first month. Fast learners can take 3 weeks particularly if they have a background in hospitality. And in the last few years, two butlers were sent to the royal palace in England for training.
They work in three shifts per day and butlers also tidy rooms. Like the other staff they are trained to notice things from how guests like their tea or coffee to how they like their room laid out. The job description of a butler is broad - they are to be of service to the guest so it can be keeping track of their appointments, pressing or laundering outfits to fetching tea or packing and unpacking suitcases. Even things like the fruit bowl are observed - if a guest seems to eat grapes they will fill it with more grapes. The butlers are central to keeping the files on each guest so that next time they stay their preferences will be recorded, even 10 years later. They communicate with guests through handwritten notes and share tips with each other.
The toothpick tip
One fantastic tip that the butlers came up with was to keep track of when guests are in their room. Guests like privacy and don't want to be disturbed when they are in their suites. So the team here devised a system using toothpicks, painted to resemble the teak wood on the doors. If guests are in house they place a toothpick against the door to indicate so. When the guest opens the door the toothpick falls away and they don't notice it but the butler will know whether they have departed or not.
If the toothpick falls, then the guest has entered or left the room
"You become friends with them (guests)," Yujun says and there was one honeymoon couple that comes to mind. She had left a note wishing them well and hoping to see them again. They returned a few years later with their daughter and remembered Yujun and made a point of introducing each other.
And what to do with difficult guests that can't be pleased? Luckily most guests are happy but there are occasionally difficult guests. The key is to try a different approach with their personality. But sometimes it is a matter of switching butlers. In the case of one female guest, she would only be served by a male butler!
It's dinner time and wine director Stephanie Rigourd is busy. Hers is a relatively new role and she started working at the Raffles Hotel in September 2015. Her job is sourcing, selecting and purchasing wines and she also works with vineyards as well as leading the team of sommeliers. This evening she is helping a table choose matching wines for their dinner in the Raffles Grill. The hotel holds 350 labels and 2,500 bottles of wine.
Settings for special occasions using rose petals
She tells us that guests don't necessarily want to know about the technical aspects of wine or the percentage of alcohol. "You talk from the heart," she says as guests want to know the story behind the wine and wine makers. And for her there is nothing more rewarding than when people try a wine that they would have never tried before because she tells them about it. "I am the messenger of the wine maker and the wine apprentice bringing them more down to earth. It is also my job to make sure no guest is thirsty ever."
The cheese selection at brunch
That transforms to this display
It's time for dinner and chef Pierre is busy inspecting each restaurant. The Raffles Hotel does on average around 600 covers a day. The formal fine dining restaurant is the Raffles Grill that serves French food with an Asian twist with a degustation or an a la carte. On Sundays that cover number swells because of their renowned Sunday brunch buffet. Pierre's job is to control the budgets, something that comes easily to him. All menus must be approved by him and at any one time there may be 200 menus currently being used.
A sketch of bartender Ngiam Tong Boon, inventor of the Singapore Sling
It's 12:30 in the morning and the hotel's Long Bar is about to close. Bartender Rizvan of the Long Bar serves up hundreds of Singapore Slings to customers every day. The drink consisting of gin, Cherry Heering, Cointreau, Benedictine, grenadine, pineapple juice and lime juice and a dash of bitters was created in 1915 by bartender Ngiam Tong Boon. It was a way for women to be able to drink alcohol - at the time etiquette dictated that they were not allowed to consume alcohol in public. The clever bartender created a drink that resembled fruit punch and the Singapore Sling was born. On today's menu there are several slings to choose from: the original, six seasonal Slings, a Sling 1887 and a Sakura Sling.
Guests are given a bag of unshelled peanuts to eat with their cocktail. And for a tidy city like Singapore this may be the only chance that they will ever be allowed to litter-because you are supposed to throw the shells onto the floor like they British planters did in the past. The current bar is actually its second home. It was initially housed in the ballroom of the Raffles hotel (located at the current driveway). There are punak wallah fans on the ceiling. Guests will go back to their homes, hotels or if they're very lucky, their very own suite at the Raffles Hotel.
So what is it like to stay there? Look out for an upcoming review on the Raffles Hotel!
So tell me Dear Reader, have you ever visited the Raffles Hotel? Have you ever stayed there and if so what did you think of it? Is there a hotel in the world where a stay is on your bucket list?
NQN was given exclusive access by the Raffles Hotel.
1 Beach Rd, Singapore 189673
Phone: +65 6337 1886