High Caliber Service Requires Flexibility

TokyoBigSightThe tourism industry in Japan has developed a variety of high-quality tourism products, but there are problems in relaying the right message to potential users and providing access. The luxury travel market is an area that is just starting to gain traction, but like a newly opened restaurant in Japan, requires a training period to refine the quality of the product.

There is great potential for this sector to have a positive influence over the entire inbound tourism market, as long as it is established with a foundation of good training and adheres to sound principles to maintain sustainability by taking a long-term view on growth and industry success.

The discussion below was inspired by the symposium and displays at the four-day Tourism Expo Japan held at the Tokyo Big Sight venue pictured above. According to the Tourism Expo Daily news, the opening ceremony had speeches from leaders in the UNWTO stating how global tourism accounts for 10% of GDP and employment. The president of the WTTC, Gloria Guevara Mazo said that tourism growth must be “done in a responsible, strategic way with a vision for the longer term.”

The amount of spending at destinations is a hot topic in tourism as it relates to sustainability and overall GDP. On average, according to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Travel and Tourism Competitive Index (TTCI), Japan has climbed to #4 due to high levels of safety and efficiency in transportation (from #9 in 2015). On average, each inbound visitor to Japan spends $1,265. This is much higher than receipts for other countries in the top ten. This higher rate is spending is likely due to the amount of time most inbound tourists spend in Japan: a week to ten days for most visitors arriving from outside of Asia.

In terms of inbound tourism luxury marketing is aimed at customers who spend 1 million yen or more on their trip. This is the typical definition of luxury travelers according to a panelist from the JNTO at the Tourism Expo Japan held at Tokyo’s Big Sight. Within this luxury market, however, there are actually more than two types:

  • All luxury – every part of the trip is high-class, luxury level products
  • Selective luxury – splurge on certain types of tourist products but not on every part of the trip
  • Classic luxury – attracted to traditional packages of accommodation, high-calibre transportation and dining with a guide.
  • Modern luxury – often self-catered and self-directed travel outside of the normal routes and typical travel product offerings.

In the symposium about Luxury Travel at the conference sessions of the Expo, one of the panelists was a female concierge at a Hyatt hotel in Tokyo who raised a lot of important points. She said the challenge is not only catering to the needs of the customer within normal limitations, but going above and beyond what is actually considered possible in many cases, especially in Japan.

For example, if you have customers who are vegan but want to eat at a high-quality sushi restaurant, this is normally not possible for people who walk in off the street, but catering to luxury clients who pay premium prices and choose high-caliber hotels because of the flexible, individualized service they offer, you have to find a way.

Another example she gave was to arrange a discussion of a famous Japanese work, the Tale of Genji, between a client’s daughter who was fascinated with the story, and a Japanese expert. The client hoped to fly his daughter over for a trip to Japan if the experience could be arranged.  It was a high-hurdle, but the Hyatt trains their staff to try to fulfill the requests of customers above normal constraints. The communicative barrier was easily overcome with interpreters, but setting up a meeting between an American university student and a Japanese University Professor, or scholar of the famous Genji Monogatari was a challenge. She pursued the request and was able to deliver and persevere past the usual obstacles. Of course, being able to create these once-in-a-lifetime experiences for clients in Japan has huge pay-offs beneficial to business and tourism further down the line.

In Japan, there is still the traditional barrier to flexibility among businesses which take pride in what they do, showing great resistance not to bend to the whims of individual customers. Many travelers as well as residents in Japan have been frustrated by the phrase, moshiwakegozaimasen, a polite way to excuse rejecting a request. In catering to luxury tourists, however, saying something is impossible because it is outside the normal realm of business or service is not good enough, you have to find a way to please the customer. Being creative in approach, and flexible in design, are vital elements of high-caliber service.

Another panelist operated under the normal constraints of omotenashi, a more typical approach to catering to customers. In regards to luxury tourism, he stated that his company is often hired and given huge million yen budgets to organise big events for large groups in spectacular fashion. As an avid traveler, personally familiar with every aspect of event planning from great food to music and design, his reputation is solid and he is sought-out and trusted to take control over the planning and implementation of projects. This is more typical ‘omotenashi’ and likely a style of tourism business operations that Japanese companies prefer. Without successful products and contacts on a company’s history to establish a quality reputation, however, this style would be hard to market to inbound tourists who can’t easily trust one agency over another.

The Japan National Tourism Organisation (JNTO) panelist discussed the need to have a strong online presence to attract inbound tourism in general, but to also create mixed-media marketing campaigns such as TV commercials and printed promotional materials which correlate and complement the online content when aiming at the luxury market. They made this conclusion from a collaboration with a credit card company looking at purchasing to select those travelers who spent over 1 million yen on their trip to Japan and sent a travel survey to them. From the 250 luxury travelers who responded, they found out how they got their information to come to Japan and why they came. Many of those surveyed stated they came to visit family and friends and had seen promotion on TV and in magazines and then searched online for more information.

After listening to this session, it seems clear to me that like any other aspect of inbound tourism development and management in Japan, luxury tourism marketing needs more consistent use of terms, social media strategies and adhering to third-party certifications and accreditations to retain accountability and transparency. Currently, as the JNTO panelist pointed out there are a few different terms in use for luxury travel products aimed at the inbound market: Premium Japan and Japan Luxury Showcase.

A google search of Premium Japan brings you to this English content website : about quality made-in-Japan events and products, but it is not specifically aimed at the luxury tourist and does not have links to high-quality accommodation, restaurants, guided tours or other packages for the classic luxury market. A search for Japan Luxury Showcase brings you to a PDF listing from a management perspective, not a sleek website promotion to the target group. A visually appealling, but poor quality English content website appears soon after. This is awkward to read, the company needs to invest in good content writers who can communicate not only in clear and grammatically correct language, but who also know the soft power of persuasive communication. Without good copy, the sleek design and pictures, as well as the actual high-calibre of the product is ineffective at reaching its target audience in an effective way.

Overall it seems the luxury travel market in Japan has a lot of necessary growth and development before it can compete with established destinations in other countries. Elevating standards by going above and beyond normal expectations, from international hotel chains like the Hyatt operating above par, gives us a view of the success Japan’s industry might be able to achieve with the right mindset.

If the JNTO and industry stakeholders made the investment at this early stage in accreditation, in addition to consistent delivery of high-calibre goods and services, then future growth would have a more solid foundation to grow and thrive. Accreditation with third-party certification bodies to meet sustainability targets, in line with the Sustainability Development Goals (SDG’s), help maintain quality of life for local residents as well as improving the perceptions of value among customers, especially within the younger, modern, selective luxury market.

If one the other hand, the industry proceeds as it is viewed currently, without training, guidance, accreditation or regulation of standards, there is unlikely to be significant growth and the long-term success of luxury tourism in Japan will be threatened. 

Many thanks to JNTO, the organizers and volunteers at the Tourism Expo Japan 2018 who created such an interesting and important symposium in addition to hosting the Expo this year.

Author: ambassador

Long-time Japan resident teacher, writer, consultant and traveler passionate about promoting the three pillars of sustainable tourism in Japan (People-Planet-Profits). Research focused on sustainability-focused innovation in business and how sustainable policy, management and planning strategies can positively influence tourism in Japan.

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