- Carmen Barbera, 22, is a receptionist at the Burj Al Arab, “the best hotel in the world”.
- She started in the luxury hotel business two years ago as a butler in the Maldives.
- Here’s what it’s like to work at the iconic Dubai resort, where suites cost up to $25,000 a night.
The difference between a five-star hotel and the Burj Al Arab, which has been described as “the only seven-star hotel in the world”, is not the gold-plated ceilings or the complimentary Hermès perfume. Once at the top, true luxury is defined by service.
That’s what Carmen Barbera, a 22-year-old French receptionist, tells me. Recently crowned receptionist of the year 2021 in the United Arab Emirates, the young professional is fluent in French, Spanish and English. On the phone, even his voice is luxurious.
It’s a repertoire that comes in handy when she checks in jet-set guests into their Burj Al Arab suites, which range from $1,200 to $25,000 a night. To enter the hotel property, visitors cross a guarded bridge, and guests frequently arrive via a chauffeured Rolls-Royce escort or private helicopter.
While one would imagine catering to Dubai’s affluent travelers would become tedious, Barbera said speaking to guests at Burj Al Arab was her favorite part of the job.
“From the first day I stepped in, I realized I was so passionate about it…I love meeting people from all over the world,” she told Insider.
“What’s amazing about this hotel is the fascination it creates in people’s eyes,” she later added.
Barbera started working for Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts, owner of Burj Al Arab, two years ago as a butler in the Maldives. Before that, she worked part-time at the Four Seasons in Paris while studying entrepreneurship at Emlyon Business School.
But it is in the middle of the Indian Ocean that she earned her stripes. For six months, Barbera trained as a butler at Jumeirah Vittaveli, famous for its private overwater villas with slides connecting them to the sea.
When the hotel closed permanently during COVID-19, she was moved to Ozen Life on Maadhoo Island. The luxury all-inclusive resort with 24/7 service has a separate small island for staff, satellite imagery shows.
During the training, Barbera said she alternated between the beverage, housekeeping and front desk departments, adding that butlers had to memorize the entire layout of the hotel.
Beyond logistics and operations, Barbera said the key to success in the hospitality industry is emotional intelligence, because every day — and every guest — is different.
“You can’t really predict anything and you always have to react very quickly to any situation,” she told Insider. “Because when you’re a butler, you’re the person in the customer’s eyes who can solve anything and make it all happen.”
Some ground rules when it comes to guest interactions, according to Barbera: respect privacy and confidentiality, read the room, and approach the guest (never make them feel the need to come to you).
“Some guests would like to have a strong presence during their day from their butlers and some guests would like to have more discretion,” she said. “So you really have to use your emotional skills to understand expectations.”
In her current role as a receptionist, a typical workday starts at 7 a.m. and ends at 4 or 5 p.m. To keep reception open 24/7, staff alternate between day and night shifts. Staff at the Burj Al Arab hotel outnumber guests by a ratio of 6:1, as Insider previously reported.
Preparation leading up to guests’ arrival begins a day or two before their arrival. There are dinner reservations to book, suite preferences to arrange, and airport transportation to arrange.
While Barbera was reluctant to disclose her salary, she said Jumeirah has an active interest in ensuring employees can afford to live in Dubai, as it impacts staff attitudes to work.
Glassdoor estimates that butlers at the Jumeirah location in Dubai earn between $544.51 and $816.77 per month, with an additional salary of $3,267.08 per year. There is no current data available to estimate salaries for hotel receptionists. A Burj Al Arab spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the accuracy of this estimate.
“Here at Burj Al Arab, we aim to provide what we call ‘service beyond expectation,'” Barbera said. “This is where hospitality professionals can make a difference…you can turn a trip from an enjoyable or comfortable trip into an exceptional trip.”
Do you work in a luxury resort or a unique hotel? Contact this reporter at [email protected] to share your story.