- 22-year-old Carmen Barbera is a receptionist at Burj Al Arab, “the best hotel in the world.”
- She started out in the luxury hospitality industry two years ago as a butler in the Maldives.
- Here’s what it’s like to work in the iconic Dubai resort, where suites cost up to $25,000 a night.
The difference between a five-star hotel and Burj Al Arab, which has been described as the world’s “only seven-star hotel,” is not the gold-plated ceilings or complimentary Hermès perfume. Once you’re at the top, true luxury is defined by service.
That’s what Carmen Barbera, a 22-year-old receptionist from France, tells me. Recently crowned the UAE’s 2021 Receptionist of the Year, the young pro speaks fluent French, Spanish, and English. On the phone, even her voice sounds luxurious.
It’s a repertoire that comes in handy when she checks in jet-setting guests to 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 could imagine that catering to Dubai’s affluent travelers would become tiresome, Barbera said talking to Burj Al Arab’s guests is her favorite part of the job.
“From the first day I stepped in, I realized that I was so passionate about it … I love to meet people from all over the world,” she told Insider.
“What is amazing about this hotel is the fascination that it creates in people’s eyes,” she later added.
Barbera started working for Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts, which owns 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 was in the middle of the Indian Ocean where she earned her stripes. For six months, Barbera completed butler training at Jumeirah Vittaveli, famous for its private overwater villas with water slides connecting them to the sea.
When the hotel permanently closed during COVID-19, she transferred to Ozen Life on Maadhoo island. The all-inclusive luxury resort with 24/7 service has a separate, smaller island for staff, according to satellite imagery.
During training, Barbera said she rotated through the beverage, housekeeping, and front office departments, adding that butlers are expected to memorize the entire hotel layout.
Beyond logistics and operations, Barbera said the key to success in the hospitality industry is emotional intelligence, as every day — and every guest — is different.
“You can’t really predict anything and you have to always react very fast to any situation,” she told Insider. “Because when you are a butler, you are the person in the eyes of the guest who is able to solve everything and make anything happen.”
A few rules of thumb when it comes to guest interactions, according to Barbera: respect privacy and confidentiality, read the room, and go to the guest (never have 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 have to really use your emotional skills to understand the expectations.”
In her current role as a receptionist, a typical work day starts at 7 a.m. and ends at 4 or 5 p.m. In order for reception to remain open 24/7, staff rotate between day and night shifts. Burj Al Arab’s hotel staff outnumbers guests with a 6:1 ratio, as Insider has previously reported.
Preparation leading up to guest arrival begins a day or two before they arrive. There are dinner reservations to be booked, suite preferences to organize, and transportation from the airport to arrange.
While Barbera was hesitant to disclose her salary, she said Jumeirah has an active interest in ensuring employees can afford to live in Dubai, as it impacts staff attitude at work.
Glassdoor estimates that butlers at Jumeirah’s Dubai location make between $544.51 and $816.77 a month, with additional pay of $3,267.08 a year. There is no current data available estimating the hotel’s receptionist salaries. A spokesperson from Burj Al Arab 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 expectations,'” Barbera said. “This is where hospitality professionals can make a difference … you can change a journey from a pleasing or comfortable journey to an exceptional one.”
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