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Kenya: Meet Sheila Tonui, the Female Butler Who Defied the Odds and Ventured the Male-Dominated Field

Nairobi — It is rare to meet a female butler and more so, one who manages a big hotel chain which handles a lot of visitors.

But Sheila Tonui has defied these odds and is among the pioneers in the field of butler service, an area she prides in due to her immense passion about food and beverage and guest service.

Having gained tremendous experience from several hotels across the country including Sarova Whitesands, Safaripark among others, the 29-year old is now the head butler at Hemmingways Nairobi.

In today's series of Women in Business, Sheila Tonui shared her story with Capital Business highlighting her career path, challenges and how she manages the work-life balance in her job which entails providing and maintaining a high level of management and supervision.

How did you start off your career?

I pursued a course in Hotel management from Kenya Utalii College. I had an opportunity to train and work with Safari Park Hotel, Sarova Whitesands, Nairobi Serena and currently Hemingways Nairobi. I had the chance to undertake a butler training from NovusLuxus R. Hospitality Limited based in the UK which exposed me to my current position.

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Did you always envision being a butler?

Not at all. Butler service is a new concept in the Kenyan hospitality. When Hemingways Nairobi opened its doors in 2013, I applied for the position, taking all the risk as it was the first time to learn of this unique role. I am passionate about Food and Beverage as well as Guest service and the butler position was the perfect blend of my passion.

How do you always manage work-life balance?

By accepting there in no 'perfect' work-life balance, some days you focus more on work and certain days you might have time for family and friends and balance will be achieved over time. It calls for flexibility and being open minded to redirecting and assessing my needs on any day and this is key in finding balance.

How does a typical day look like for you?

When I wake up in the morning, I prepare breakfast for my family getting my kids ready for school. I take pride in grooming and ensure my wardrobe management skills (key aspect in my career) are extended for my family before seeing them off to school. When I get to work, I attend the Managers briefing which details the arrival listing of the day, expected VIPs and any other event that may require my attention. I then brief the butlers and assign them duties. The mornings are usually busy with departures, packing and unpacking, luggage handling, valet service, laundry request, organising excursions, restaurant and spa reservation and recommendations, as well as preparing the guests suites. I always try to see guests off to get their feedback, since this enables me to know the areas in which we are doing well and those that need improvement. In the afternoons, we get to receive guests arriving and those who might have stepped out for the days' excursions. Depending on my guests' requests, I normally leave work between 5pm and 6pm. I get home to spend time with family and bond with my kids while assisting them with their school work.

What is the most interesting thing about your job?

My job entails meeting and interacting with different guests from diverse cultures. By treating each guest as an individual, their needs are varied hence not repetitive. Working closely with other departments to ensure guests stay are seamless and going out of my way to exceeding their expectations of Hemingways is what I take pride in. Our services are personal and sincere offering a luxury experience for discretion and convenience.

What are some of the challenges you face as a female butler?

Part of my duty is handling guests'luggage and this at time pose a challenge especially with male guests. Some won't accept my assistance. By knowing my guest background and about their culture plays a role in anticipating my guest needs and with this information, am better placed to seek the assistance of my male colleagues.

What do you think should be done to address them?

Teamwork plays a role in addressing such a situation and remaining professional with respect to guest wish.

How would you encourage other women in the hospitality sector who eye a position like yours?

I would encourage other women in the hospitality industry to take up the role of female butlers. We ladies, are better placed as our ability to multi-task which is vital in this role, attention to detail and anticipation of needs before a guest ask for service comes out naturally. With the right attitude and determination, we can excel in any opportunity we set ourselves to undertake.

Artmotion S.Africa

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