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  • Andrew Thacker


Branding & the Guest : Hospitality in Japan series no.4

Omotenashi. Much was made of this deep-rooted culture of Japanese hospitality, describing the spirit of looking after a guest wholeheartedly, honestly, selflessly – it’s hard to do the meaning justice in English very elegantly - in the run up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, where it entered the international hospitality lexicon. And indeed, few would disagree that Japanese service sets standards for good manners and politeness, or quibble with the thoughtfulness that goes into a traditional tea ceremony or the craft of a master sushiya, each examplars of Omotenashi at work, designed for the ultimate experience of the guest enjoying it.


However, rather paradoxically, this paragon of service philosophy, sometimes finds itself at odds with the guest experience at some of even the finest Japanese hotels. Now, this is not a debate on the virtues or otherwise of Omotenashi, but it does question how hospitality that prides itself on a culture of putting the guest before self, often appears reluctant to either understand the simple needs of its guest, particularly the international traveller, or change their practices to meet them.


And this experience, as we discussed last month, is the key to your brand, the reputation you earn and your standing in the market place, affecting your desirability and ultimately the ADR you generate. It’s what keeps your guests returning and makes them your champions. It’s the holy grail of hospitality.


Welcome to the third article in our series on hospitality Branding and the Guest. This month we look at the gap between western and Japanese hotel brand experiences. The 'hardware' gap for international class hotels may be narrowing, with notable exceptions on either side, but there is still a substantial opportunity for Japanese brands to embrace a change in approach to their 'software' that would give them advantages over international luxury chain brand  experiences -  marrying the best of Japanese Omotenashi hospitality culture, and the authenticity this offers, with the high standards in brand communications, application of tech, and understanding the needs of the modern international traveller that international brands do so well.

The internationally renowned symbol of Japanese hospitality in action as a guest departs a restaurant © Hyoki

A Tale of Two Trips


Perhaps the best way to illustrate the differences in the Japanese and the Western hotel experience is to give you two examples. To set the scene, both references are 5 Star hotels that, according to their respective GMs, want to target wealthy international business and leisure travellers, as well as being a gathering point for local opinion leaders and residents. Both want to improve their ADR in respect of their competitor set and improve guest loyalty. In the segment they occupy, much of the decision-making is driven by cost when they want to be top of mind.


One hotel is a Tokyo ‘grand dame’ and is owned and operated by a well-respected Japanese conglomerate spanning property, retail and transport, in a fantastic downtown location in one of the major lifestyle hubs of the city. The other is a Western hotel, also owned and operated by a well-respected Western conglomerate spanning property, retail and transport, and also located in one of the major lifestyle hubs of the city (another major Asian capital).


There the similarities end. The Japanese hotel is twice the size and number of keys as the Western hotel, which brings some logistical challenges relative to smaller properties, but operates at a similar rate per room size in the premium/executive room categories. The Western hotel is designed by a world-famous Japanese architect, incidentally. To qualify this comparison, the experiences related here are the result of multiple stays including long stays over a number of years as a representative of the hotels’ stated target audiences.



The Japanese Hotel



The Western Hotel






Tripadvisor 4.5

Traveller’s Choice,

Local social media only




Tripadvisor 5.0

Traveller’s Choice: Best of the Best,

International social media platform,

Reviews; Awards





Preferential rates,

Confirmed upgrade,

BUT room category/rates fluctuated with demand…



Preferential rates,

Confirmed upgrade,

Rates always honoured with

further upgrade if unavailable






No correspondence



Pre-arrival welcome,

Airport transfer invitation, Airline/Arrival time check,

Dining recommendations,

Special requests




/ Transfer



No airport greeting

(unless private car booked)



Plane-side assistance

(or arrivals hall assistance)



/ Check-in  



Occasional greeting

Standard reception queue; long documentation/sign in process,

Deposit required (always)



Personal greeting

Greeting at reception; complete check-in in-room or club lounge,

No deposit (first stay only)




/ Amenities 

/ Media

/ Technology

/ Information

/ Turn down 

/ Mini bar



Good size; corporate furnishings

Generic, single-use plastics

Local TV


Hotel information, area map




Generous size; interior designed

Branded; environmentally friendly

Free movies, major news services

iPad info, bookings, room service

Area guide/recommendations

Daily turn-down + Gift




/ Charges




Additional charges to use Pool


Courtesy car (first come first serve)

No unexpected charges





Vouchers required for everything; breakfast, executive club lounge, gym access…



All managers recognize/greet by name; available but unobtrusive



/ What’s On



Reactive concierge desk

Lobby / lift notices; tent cards


Proactive guest experience manager

Personal invitations during stay




/ Check out



Standard reception queue; long check-out process; no transfer assistance


Fast paperless check -out; luggage pre-loaded into transport with refreshments



Post Stay



No follow-up


Thank you note, anniversaries, etc.

If you removed the hotel origin from each column, the individual and specific practicalities of each property aside, which brand do you think has made the effort to really understand the needs of the international traveller, and wholeheartedly put the guest’s experience first?


Ironically, it’s the Western hotel that best reflects the spirit of traditional Japanese hospitality. Of course, some of the processes are inefficient, and may not make sense economically, but this misses the point. If you consider this an investment into the hotel brand, the result is a more emotional connection with the guest that creates a cohort of loyal guests that seek out the same brand in other destinations first and recommends it to anyone that asks.


The Japanese hotel is a terrific hotel, and a firm favourite, but it has the potential to be great, if it just makes the decision to build a brand experience that takes time to understand the needs of its target audience and delivers it across all the steps along the guest journey…

Diagram 1 – the Guest Journey and the ‘Virtuous Circle of Retention’. This maps the typical brand touch points in the Guest Journey that hotels should try and manage so that the guest experience is consistent and ‘on-brand’ at every step, so that guest retention – rebooking – is an automatic result of the journey.

As ever, we leave you with a question to ponder.


If the ‘value’ of your brand is the function of the overall experience you provide your guest on each step of the guest journey, from attraction through acquisition, from arrival to departure and rebooking, and this value is reflected in your reputation and desirability, ie, what people say about you, how often the return and how much they are willing to spend…


So, how will you bridge that gap?



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