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  • Andrew Thacker


Branding & the Guest : Hospitality in Japan series no.1

Welcome to the first article in our series on hospitality Branding and the Guest Experience, written for audiences in Japanase hospitality at the invitation of Hoteres, the leading B2B hopitality news and consultancy servuce in Japan, and Taro it's luxury travel advisory.


The Japan inbound tourism market, like much of the world, has suffered a prolonged period of uncertainty and unexpected complexity; as we extend our gaze towards the recovery it's time to build some muscle, and develop international Japanese hospitality brands with resilience, for whatever the future holds.

Some 7,000+ rooms are expected to be added to the Japan hospitality market by international hotels (2019 - 2023) which adds more competitive pressure to Japanese brands. However, there are still clear opportunities. For instance, there are only 35 five-star hotels in Japan versus 80 in the UK, with demand expected to return to pre-covid-19 levels by 2023, and Japan scoring in the top 10 destinations on most international travel wish lists.


The great reset of individual priorities, and loyalties, of the pandemic has levelled the playing field for less well-known brands to win the attention and affection of guests, by paying more attention to the needs of the post-pandemic traveller.

Faced with navigating this brave new post-pandemic world, with increasing competition from experienced international brands that understand their international audiences, the very same audiences that are changing, Japanese hotel brands find themselves at a junction.


Our objective for this series is to help Japanese hospitality brands recover from the pandemic more robustly, by informing, educating and challenging how Japanese hotels can speak to international audiences more meaningfully, and deliver a holistic experience that is more in tune with their needs today.

We stand at the crossroads. Are we ready?


For the past two years the hospitality industry has been juggling two worries – how to manage the extreme challenges and impact of the crisis today, and how to plan and prepare for the recovery tomorrow.


Well, tomorrow is here. Tomorrow is today. Japan is on the eve of reopening its borders, and from what we can see in the West the recovery looks strong, and from this experience we are learning how our guests and their needs have evolved.


As all hotel operators in Japan prepare to battle for their share of the future inbound tourism market, a burning platform is whether post-pandemic travellers will choose brands they know from home, or if is this an opportunity for Japanese brands to change the narrative while offering a more authentic local experience?


How can Japanese brands set themselves up for success?


In recent weeks, there has been a lot of talk about Airbnb and their new summer release. Airbnb is pushing out a major overhaul of their website and the customer journey by putting experience to the fore, over traditional travel search metaphors of ‘location‘ or ‘destination’. Now, would be travellers can search for unusual places to stay like ‘castles’ or ‘treehouses’ for example, or by things to do, such as ‘surfing’ or ‘vineyards’, or by lifestyle, such as ‘design’ or ‘grand piano’. Airbnb have understood the evolution of travel decision drivers, accelerated by the pandemic:

People are more flexible than ever about where and when they travel. To help them take advantage of these new possibilities, we’re introducing our biggest change in a decade – including a completely new way to search, a better way to stay longer and an unmatched level of protection.


The new search feature is derived from data from 6 million homes in 100,000 cities and 2020 countries, and how guests choose where to stay and the comments and reviews they leave. As a bellwether for the travel industry, this is a development everyone involved in hospitality should take notice of, particularly as Airbnb are also working to further close the gap with the traditional hotel and hotel services.


The first initiative in this respect is the introduction of Split Stays in response to travellers now taking longer trips and wanting to experience more on their trip. This mimics the multi-stop itineraries offered by travel agents and hotel groups, like Aman for example, who like to offer guests the chance to experience the unique features of multiple resorts in a single destination.


The second, and more important development for hoteliers to watch, is the introduction of Air Cover. Airbnb recognise the value the hotel front desk provides, they understand the consistency of service the hotel reception team offers, particularly in terms of dealing with any guest concerns or issues. They are offering new front desk and reception like services, a dedicated 24/7 team to help resolve issues, guarantee the booked experience, and provide reassurance in terms of health and safety, further bridging the gap between home rentals and hotels.


So now, on a grand scale, we witness the introduction of the home as a hotel (well, closer to it anyway), whereas hotels have always aspired to make a traveller feel it’s their ‘home from home’. What does this mean for the industry, and for the industry in Japan, what do brands need to do?

Understand your guest today.


The traveller has changed. Their behaviours, needs and desires have shifted. This much is clear. Let’s have a look at the key changes and trends in 2022 here:


The importance of health and wellbeing, in mind as well as body


As we head into a new way of living, wellness focus will span beyond the gym and exercise

and there will be a continued emphasis on holistic wellness and transformational travel. International travellers are looking to spend more on travelling for wellbeing and favouring nature after too much time at home.


Sustainability and taking responsibility for the environment, people and destinations


Brands should actively seek to improve their sustainability to attract the increasingly growing group of eco-conscious tourists. Not only will this speak to purpose driven travellers, but it will also help reduce choice fatigue, ie, make the decision-making process easier for travel planners.


Flexibility, the art of simplicity and frictionless travel


There really is no need to make guests queue at reception in 2022, particularly at the luxury end of the market. Old-fashioned ways of excessive paperwork, particularly on arrival but also at checkout, should be streamlined and digitized. Communication and programming are key, reflecting the needs of today’s guest, so that their experience on-property is as smooth and effortless as possible.


Slow down, and spend more on meaningful experiences with people that matter.


Travel in 2022/23 will be all about ‘splurging’ on the things that will turn a trip from merely good into great by upgrading services and experiences. Hotels (and destinations) should offer more purpose-driven itineraries, with more unique and genuinely authentic cultural experiences for travellers to treat themselves to, that make them feel part of the community.


Make up for lost time be being adventurous, and learn something


As luxury travellers emerge from their pandemic cocoons they have rediscovered their appetite for more adventurous travel, with money to spend and a sense of “time lost”. This may mean taking the once-in-a-lifetime trips they were waiting for now, or indulging their passions, investing in their health and wellbeing, or acquiring new skills and accomplishing something meaningful so they return home with a greater sense of time well spent, of having ‘grown’ as individuals.


For a more detailed look at the key trends, please refer to the Hoteres webinar, the Luxury Traveller in a Post Pandemic World, or the accompanying report, which you can download in English here.


What Japanese brands can do now


Adjustments over the medium and long term will be covered in more depth over the series of articles following this one, but for now, since tomorrow is already here, today, here are two areas Japanese brands should focus on now.


Japan’s biggest market is on its doorstep, in China and the Asia Pacific.


Chinese travellers are the largest single source of visitors to Japan, and in a post pandemic landscape, with lower volumes of business and long-haul travel, the importance of China and APAC for the recovery increases for the near future.


Chinese and APAC travellers know Japan and appreciate Japanese brands more than their western counterparts, and greater investment into this market, in terms of communications at least, will yield results in an evolved travel market.

At the time of writing China is under a prolonged and unexpected series of covid-related lock downs, but please make no mistake, Chinese tourists will travel again with a vengeance, and Japan is one of the places they want to visit most – in fact, this hiatus gives hotel brands an opportunity to invest and be prepared!


Brands should invest in and upgrade their digital strategies and brand communications


This is the quickest and most economical, therefore best, way to prepare for and benefit from the recovery today. Developing and activating a wider and more international, and market focused, digital strategy is much easier than making wholesale changes to services (if required) and infrastructure and give you the foundation to layer improvements and communicate them effectively as you do so, while building your international community and pool of guests.


Here are some things to think about:


For 72% of travellers with smartphones, their individual needs are more important than their loyalty to a specific hospitality brand. This means the new or less well known brands have a good chance to win customers from better known brand by the quality and depth of their services online, as well as off it.


Research by Nielsen for Google found that travellers spent 53 days on average, visiting 28 different websites to plan holidays. More than 50% use social media heavily while planning, comparing pricing, reviews, recommendations before deciding, and validate their choices across various social media.


This is particularly true for Chinese travellers of which 82% will seek recommendations from social media. They are followed closely behind by American travellers (72%) and underscores the importance of digital platforms that targets audiences where they make their decisions and making the booking process easier for them.


So, for now, let us leave you with some questions:


  • Are you making the best use of available digital technologies?

  • What about social media for key markets that heavily depend on them, like China?

  • How well do you know your guest/future guest, and where to find them?

  • Are you easing cultural and language barriers, and providing the information they want, so different audiences feel understood, welcome, and more likely to book?

  • Are you investing enough in your key markets?


Branding & the Guest : Hospitality in Japan series no.1 coming next week...


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