Sean Gelinas boarded a bus Tuesday morning, rode 45 minutes and walked into one of the most enduring publicity gimmicks in the hotel industry. The 22-year-old cook was the first of only three people to respond to the Ritz-Carlton South Beach's well-publicized casting call for a new tanning butler — a poolside job that has fascinated the media since the hotel's publicist invented the position seven years ago.
"Calling the unemployed! Do you like pool parties, sun tan lotion and hotties?" read the report on cnnmoney.com. "If so, the South Beach Ritz-Carlton has a position for you: tanning butler. One caveat: Ladies need not apply; this job usually goes to hunky male models."
That's true. The Ritz-Carlton has lost two tanning butlers to Armani modeling campaigns.
"He was on the front page of the (Los Angeles) Times," publicist Michelle Payer boasted, recalling the first of the tanning butlers — all handsome men assigned to apply lotion to the skin of Ritz guests.
"Extra. Access Hollywood. Inside Edition. USA Today," Payer continued from her perch on a Ritz daybed near the idle applicant table. "The National Enquirer. That was the first ever — they broke the story. That was in 2004."
Few tanning butler scoops remain. For Tuesday's noontime auditions, CNN dispatched its Miami reporter, John Zarrella, to cover the hiring process.
The Associated Press was there, along with the Miami Herald, CBS Ch. 4, NBC Ch. 6 and WLRN Public Radio. In all, 14 members of the media covered the three applicants.
"It's a popular job, man," one television reporter said while pointing a microphone at Gelinas. "Everybody wants it."
At the time, Gelinas was the day's lone contender for the part-time job. He had taken the bus from his home in Aventura.
Camera operators leaned in as he put his name on a blank sign-in sheet, a piece of paper with room for dozens more potential butlers.
But 30 minutes into the casting call, no other applicant had arrived. This was despite national coverage of the pending interview sessions.
In fact, Payer speculated the sour economy may be at work during this year's tryouts. Had tough times driven away part-time models eager for the exposure the tanning butler brings?
Probably not. In the spring of 2008, during the Ritz's last butler casting call, only five applicants appeared, according to the Herald's front-page story of that event.
"Finding a tanning butler is hard," Payer said, adding the current search will continue.
The Ritz-Carlton tanning butler got its start as a public relations strategy.
When the five-star chain opened a hotel on South Beach, Payer said, executives worried about how to mesh Ritz's image with one of the country's hottest nightclub districts.
"There were a lot of conversations about how do we create a sense of place in South Beach," she said, "that we had Ritz-Carlton service in South Beach, but it's fun and approachable service. . . . That was a dotted line to creating the tanning butler."
The job description is designed to sound cushy: For $20 an hour, the butler gets paid to wander the Ritz's sprawling pool deck and beach chairs, asking guests if they'd like some tanning lotion.
The butler then offers to put the lotion on hard-to-reach places, including the shoulders and backs.
The gimmick seemed promising enough that Ritz-Carlton trademarked the term "tanning butler."
Publicity has ebbed and flowed since, with more than 100 mentions since the hotel opened in 2003, according to a Nexis news database search.
"The tanning butler is an old story. How long has it been — eight years?" said Lisa Treister, a publicist and partner at the Treister Murry Agency in Miami Beach. "They're taking it back out on the road, and it's apparently working."
One of the overlooked stories about the tanning butler is that he doesn't actually work for the Ritz.
Instead, Boucher Brothers, the Miami Beach firm that hands out beach chairs and umbrellas for hotels, employs the butler, who works four-hour shifts Friday through Sunday.
The Boucher arrangement and the limited shifts hint at the butler's primary role: publicity.
"What is your availability for photo shoots and personal appearances?" was one of the questions a pair of Boucher executives asked Gelinas and the other two applicants, a 20-year-old recent graduate and a 32-year-old hostess.
Wearing jeans, sneakers and an Izod shirt, Gelinas said he saw the butler job posted on Craigslist, and didn't expect to walk into a media event when he arrived at the Ritz-Carlton.
"I thought I was just going to go to human resources," he said.