What do we imagine when we think of a butler? Perhaps a stoic figure in a bygone world of period drama, a silver platter ahead of every wish and command of the master?
Lazlo Gal is a man in the know. A discreet and polished Hungarian, he began his career working in restaurants in Budapest and Ireland, becoming a professional mixologist and later graduating with distinction from the International Butler Academy in Holland. After 10 years working on board superyachts - eight as a chief steward and private butler with the same family - Lazlo now trains interior teams to perfect the art of service at the highest level.
We asked Lazlo what it takes to succeed and what it means to create a truly memorable guest experience.
What first attracted you to hospitality?
During my first summer job in a restaurant in my hometown when I was 14, I quickly decided that I wanted to further my studies in a hotel and restaurant school, which I attended until I was 18. Following that I decided to move to Budapest where I worked in an Irish pub for eighteen months as a waiter and bartender, and meeting tourists and local Irish people gave me the confidence to move to Ireland to further my career in the restaurant industry. While I was there I was keen to discover the country and to learn English, and I stayed there for six years.
It was during that time that I had the chance to work alongside a mixologist which inspired my own passion. In 2008 I competed in the Irish National Cocktail Championship, and many more competitions followed, which led to a job as bar manager in a French fine dining restaurant for the next three years.
I specialised in mixology and worked behind the bar most of the time, but I learned a lot about gastronomy and fine wines from the chefs and the sommelier which helped me get my first job in the yachting industry in 2010.
You first worked as a steward on board a 70m yacht – how did that come about?
It was quite a ride! It was very hard to get my first job in the industry - it's one thing how hard you work at it, but luck is also a key factor. The captain of that vessel hired me first as a dayworker on deck and I worked on heavy jobs like sanding the tender-garage and caulking the deck in a Marseille shipyard in October/November. Then after work I did cocktail and wine tastings for the crew, which was my entry into the service department and to the owner's service team.
That was when I did my first Atlantic crossing and I will never forget it. We had a very busy charter season and moved around the Caribbean a lot. Overall it was an outstanding experience, both challenging and fulfilling, and it confirmed to me that it was the right decision to move into yachting.
What were your first impressions compared to working on land?
I discovered that instead of working for profit, you work in order to make the magic happen for the owner’s family and guests. The range of possibilities are infinite and it makes the job much more interesting. It’s also more challenging as you move around a lot and have to work with many different suppliers depending on your location.
Compared to work on land, working on board requires much more flexibility but, as the sky is the limit, it makes it much more exciting. It is also the people who make the yachting experience stand out. There’s a strong mix of nationalities and different cultures on board, and what we can learn from one another by working together makes it more interesting.
In 2012 you enrolled at the International Butler Academy in Holland – what did this involve and what was the most useful thing you learned?
It covered everything we needed to know to become a modern butler in today’s world. We learnt house management, silver service, protocol and etiquette, valet and how to run a property. It also prepared you psychologically for any kind of interaction and situation. It really helped me to provide a better quality service.
The most useful thing I learnt was how to deal with 10 different things at the same time, but still smile and be professional in front of the guests, to always give our best and never bring issues that might be happening backstage to the front.
Have you kept in touch with your fellow alumni to exchange knowledge and mutual support?
I've kept in touch with a few fellow alumni - most of them are working in private households but some are also working on boats and we do call from time to time to share our experiences and help each other out if needed.
Over the next eight years you worked as a private butler for an American family both onboard and ashore – what was the extent of your role and what were some of the highlights?
Being part of their everyday life was extremely challenging for many reasons. As well as having the chance to deal with the owner, his family, close friends and business partners, I was also part of many business meetings and family reunions. My role involved various tasks, from driver to house manager, organising wardrobes, dinner parties, transportation, deliveries and a lot more.
What attracted you to become a trainer and how did you come to join LH?
During my time working on board, I realised that a lot of staff members don’t have any hospitality background and are learning on the job. I also discovered that I'm passionate about passing on my knowledge to make the standard of service better and better.
I was drawn to LH because they are the leaders in hospitality training. I also had the chance to do leadership training with them and loved how they worked. Their approach to motivation and building more cohesive teams, as well as their technical training, are definitely helping to create a better work environment for crew.
As a Specialist Trainer, which courses do you deliver and which do you most enjoy?
I deliver cocktail, coffee, cigar and service training, both at the LH Academy and on board yachts located in France, Florida and Holland.
Beverage and silver service training are my favorites, as I like to see the crew improve their art of service. Silver service is a fun and engaging way to see the potential of people and it helps them to learn how to provide a high level of service while being synchronised as a team.
Cocktail and spirits training is also one of my favorites, as most of the crew discover flavours and techniques during the practical lesson and it’s fulfilling to see much they improve throughout. I also like to share some history behind the cocktails to make it more engaging and fun.
In luxury hospitality, which is more important, technical skills or an individual’s attitude and motivation?
Both are as important as each other - you need to have a good spirit and attitude in order to deliver and showcase your best technical skills. This is why all LH trainers use Talent Dynamics to understand ourselves, our team members and also our students.
This is essential because, as a trainer, your dynamic, energy and motivation are reflected in your training. Students need to feel that you have a positive energy as well as excellent technical skills in order to deliver the best training. It also helps trainers to detect any problems that may occur within a group and can therefore help to improve the spirit of the team.
When an interior team is under-performing, what are the most common reasons?
For me it’s a mix between a lack of communication, bad attitudes or energies within the team, and when people are unclear of their roles. Poor management skills can also be a reason but, again, the trainer should be equipped with the necessary tools to help improve this.
A team 'in flow' knows exactly who is doing what, communication is clear and crew voluntary help others when needed. The guests’ experience can only be excellent if the team is confident and everyone knows their job inside out.
Can you describe some of the most memorable or meaningful experiences you’ve helped to create onboard?
I remember organising several last-minute parties. Once, for a VIP charter guest in Naples, I needed to find a rabbi to ‘kosher’ the galley before the party, which involved a last-minute plane trip to fly in the closest rabbi for Rome in order to ensure the guest’s request was met.
Another example was during a winter season in the Bahamas when we hosted a two week charter and had to provide an outstanding beach set up in a different location everyday. I remember how challenging but exciting it was to look for places, put everything in place differently and be creative.
What is the most important lesson you have learnt in your career so far?
Always be open minded, flexible, and prepared for any kind of situation. Also, everything is possible with the right attitude.
Who has most inspired or influenced you?
My first chief steward who was extremely skilled, passionate and, most importantly, a great leader!
What’s your motto?
In the service industry, everything is possible with the right attitude.