The German Penchant for Fine Service | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 22.09.2004
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The German Penchant for Fine Service

Germany might not have a flawless record as a service-providing society, but recent trends show that an increasing number of Germans want to be waited on in the finest possible way.

Are you being served, sir?

Are you being served, sir?

Like much of Europe, Germany was once home to a flourishing private service industry, with housemaids, butlers, cooks and gardeners filling the halls, kitchens and grounds of not only seriously wealthy, but also moderately prosperous homes. Service was a cheap social must. But it wasn't to last, and with the outbreak of World War I the booming era of domestic staff was thrust into demise.

That, as they say, is history, but it is a history which is beginning to repeat itself, albeit in a more moderate fashion.

Robert Wennekes, Chairman of the International Butler academy in the Netherlands has been watching the developments with a keen eye. He said that although the first signs of a comeback were in the seventies, it is only in the past few years that Germans have really begun to feel at ease with paying for private assistance in the home.

Butlerschule in den Niederlanden

The modern-day butler still has to know how to lay the perfect table

Wennekes cited Germany as the leading continental employer of high-level private staff such as butlers and household managers, and he believes the trend is set to continue.

"Money is allowed again, and people are longing for a return to old norms, ethics and values, and butlers are a part of that," Wennekes told DW-WORLD.

Official figures from the German Federal Statistics Bureau only show a slight increase in the number of domestic staff working in homes across the country over the past years -- 36,000 in 2003 compared to 32,000 in 1995 -- but they do not take into account what could be hundreds of thousands of unregistered casual workers.

The problem of black market domestic service in Germany is well-known, yet the true dimensions can only be guessed at. With the Ministry of Finance estimating a loss of €54.6 billion ($66.9 billion) in gross domestic product (GDP) last year through unregistered domestic staff, the indication is certainly that Germany is falling comfortably back into the service style of old.

The ultimate accessory

Fons Bitter, a private consultant in the international hospitality industry believes there is great scope for the current renaissance in the top-end private service sector in Germany to develop.

"We are experiencing a new breed of rich people, and what do these people do when they already have houses around the world, a Porsche and a Bentley? The next thing is a butler," Bitter told DW-WORLD.

While there is undoubtedly some truth in the belief that for some a butler or estate manager is the perfect luxury lifestyle accessory, Wennekes was at pains to point out that it is not only the filthy rich who are opting for a touch of white-gloved service.

"Take the family of doctors, they have busy lives and they can afford to have somebody to take care of their home situation," he said. "Now they are allowed to do so again."

The modern Jeeves

Butlerschule in den Niederlanden

Butlers are far from a dying breed on the stairs and halls of houses in Germany

But just how do these black-clad relics of the past fit into the 21st century? Although a hundred years have done little to change the visible appearance of butlers, Wennekes said that the contemporary version is not about ironing newspapers and laying out the masters' morning attire -- at least not exclusively.

"The modern-day butler often operates as a house manager or personal assistant," he said. "There are many different duties, from overseeing the employers' schedule to accounting and budgeting or taking care of household maintenance and hiring, firing and managing staff."

And it goes even further than that. On call day and night, the 21st century butler is expected to organize large-scale events, arrange foreign trips at a moment's notice, or even double up as a bodyguard. It's hard work, but often generally richly rewarded. Wennekes said a butler can earn anything between €40,000 and €120,000 annually.

Service less fine

Eventhough such extensive and expensive service is clearly the preserve of the wealthy, the upward turn in the domestic service industry does not stop there. These days it is quite commonplace for German families and young professionals to have at least one person in their employ.

Au Pair Mädchen, Waschmaschine

Au Pairs and cleaners are employed widely across Germany

Klaus Schütz who works for a casting agency in Cologne, has employed a cleaner for the past couple of years.

"I have two children and both my wife and I work and don't have time for cleaning. We prefer to spend our time working," Schütz told DW-WORLD.

Although he grew up in a household which had no hired help, Schütz said he considers it perfectly normal to pay for domestic help.

"Most of my friends have cleaning women and nannies for their children," he said.

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