01 January 2000

ON CHECKING in at the Huntington Hotel in San Francisco, a complimentary tray of tea, together with some handmade petits fours, is brought to your room within minutes. On every room service tray there is a fresh rose in a silver vase, every bathroom contains high-quality Neutrogena products, and every bed has superior linen. "I try to run this hotel like a very fine private home," says Yorkshire-born executive housekeeper Jane Lee.

As a young woman, Lee spent five years at Buckingham Palace, rising from chambermaid to assistant housemaid. During her 20-year career, she has worked in domestic services for the NHS, as housemistress for Norland Nursery Training College, and for two private homes - those of Princess Michael of Kent and the Bahrain royal family. But, for her, the rigorous, regimented running of the British royal household was housekeeping at its best: "In everything I do I draw from my experience at Buckingham Palace. It was poetry in motion."

When Lee arrived in the USA four years ago to take on the role of housekeeper at the Huntington, one of the biggestsurprises for her was that the Americans did not understand the concept of service as well as they thought they did.

For example, she says, a member of staff complained to her when a guest had expected him to pour out the tea on the tray he had delivered. Lee gave him short shrift. "Americans have an attitude: ‘No one is better than I am. Why should I be subservient?' But what is wrong with pouring tea for the guests? It's not that the guests think they are any better than the room staff, they - particularly Europeans - just expect to have their tea poured. You are no less a person for having poured a cup of tea. I think Europeans are far more sensitive to service."

Lee has tried to instil her housekeeping philosophy into her 42 staff: "You have got to anticipate what is needed." But maybe that is easier for her to say, having worked in so many sectors and across three continents. During her two years with the royal family of Bahrain, for example, she had only the vaguest schedule, and one likely to change at any moment.

Sheikh Hamad, the head of the household, was known to throw a party for 200 guests at one day's notice. And, within 10 days of Lee arriving at the palace in Wasmiya, the sheikh decided to move the household to the palace in West Riffa. This was no small feat. The contents of the household were so vast that it took Lee three months to catalogue them. Though it might have been hard to anticipate what was needed with that particular household, it certainly opened her eyes to what was possible.

In practical, hotel housekeeping terms, "anticipating what is needed" means, for example, "if a guest can't find anything, like drinking glasses or towels, you don't tell them how to find them for themselves, you go up to their room and you take extra glasses or towels with you. As a housekeeper, all I want to do is make the guest's stay as perfect as possible. They should not have to be inconvenienced," she says.

The cultural changes Lee has made at the Huntington, one of San Francisco's finest old hotels, have been no less rigorous than the administrative ones. When she arrived she was stunned to find that her predecessor had, over 35 years in the post, created no department files, no inventory, and no stock-control system - she was shown into one room which contained 10,000 towels and washcloths; a little excessive for a 140-bedroom hotel.

Neither were there any formal job descriptions - a matter which Lee hastily rectified. But formulating job descriptions is a challenge in the USA, thanks to complex union regulations.

The hotel union is very strong in San Francisco. Union contracts, for example, stipulate that room cleaners are not allowed to take both feet off the floor. Short staff are not allowed to use step ladders to clean curtain pelmets or the top halves of the mirrored wardrobe doors. This means that tall staff, or maintenance staff - who are allowed to use step ladders - have to help them out.

Although she has only once had a member of staff refuse to carry out a task with the excuse "it's not my job", Lee is clearly frustrated by the rigidity of the union contracts. "Housekeeping has to be flexible," she says.

All this could change in 1994, however, because the union contract for the whole of San Francisco expires. "It will almost certainly go to a strike situation, because they have already started a strike fund," says Lee. But she is not too worried about her hotel. "I believe that as long as I treat my staff fairly, I'm not going to encounter problems."

As a brief tour of the hotel reveals, Lee's approach is very calm, down to earth and professional. A touch of British irony permeates her gentle ribbing of the maintenance staff, and all staff seem to respond to her open, breezy manner.

Despite the major changes effected over the past four years, her work is by no means over. She still hates the fact that a hotel of this standard has acrylic blankets instead of wool ones. She wants to upgrade the bed linen yet again and boost towel quality and size. Lee would also like to instigate some housekeeping procedures operated at Buckingham Palace. For example, the bedsheets would be ironed on the bed during the turn-down service, and the guest's nightclothes laid out for them. But at the Huntington, as elsewhere, she says "your hands are tied because of the unions and union contracts".

Lee is pleased that she has just been given the go-ahead for a second assistant housekeeper, which will allow her to spend more time "upstairs" and on individual training. "I still can't walk into a room and not find anything wrong - even if it's only the lampshade seam not being turned to the back."

Lee believes that, compared with the UK, pay at housekeeper level is slightly higher in the USA, but conditions in the UK appear to be better. It is typical to have to work for a year before any holiday provision is granted, and only five paid sick days are allowed in most places.

She admits to workaholism. Until recently, she worked a 12-hour day, starting at 9am, but a bout of ill health forced her to trim back her hours and now she leaves by 6pm.

In terms of personal ambition, Lee says she hopes to become involved in corporate housekeeping operations,possibly for a large chain."I'm an ideas person," she admits.

In the meantime, it will take a few more years at the Huntington before the far-seeing woman from Whitby has swept all challenges before her. o

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