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  • Andrew Thacker


Branding & the Guest : Hospitality in Japan series no.7

As border restrictions finally loosen and tourism becomes a more reasonable proposition again, let’s look at who will most likely travel to Japan, and where we can find them as they make their choices about where to stay, what to do, and how to connect with them. What’s interesting about the post-pandemic period is that the playing field is perhaps more level than it has ever been.

While there will always be a hard core of brand loyalists, Aman Junkies for example, or those that seek comfort in what they know, the past two years has reset the landscape. As discussed previously, guests have changed - what’s important to them, what influences their decisions - and this means that all hotel brands have the chance to attract new sets of guests with their offer, their services and the way they communicate.


Where are in the world are they?


Let’s look at this logically and examine where Japan’s travellers traditionally arrive from. It’s reasonable that these markets retain the largest potential numbers of visitors hungry for the Japan experience again, and where we should focus our attention today.


According to the 2021 Development Bank of Japan and Japan Travel Bureau Foundation survey asking travellers in 12 countries how the pandemic is affecting travel sentiment, 82% would travel overseas when they could do so safely. Japan topped the list of post-pandemic travel destinations with 46%, and South Korea second at 22%, followed by Taiwan with 17%.

In 2019 nearly 10 million visitors were from China and Taiwan while a further 10 million from Korea, Hong Kong and the rest of APAC, while only 4 million travel from the US and Europe. At the same time, Japan (and Thailand) is the most popular destination for Chinese travellers, and at the high-end of the market post-pandemic (the Maldives) and Japan. Chinese travellers are also the highest net spenders when they travel.


Even if you discount business travel that may not bounce back as robustly as leisure travel, the numbers from Chinese points of origin are overwhelming, and yet the investment into communications and services for Chinese travellers, making them feel more welcome, lag far behind what the numbers demand.


A “strong wave” in Chinese outbound travel will begin in 2023 and return to 2019 numbers by 2024, according to new projections. “The preparation, acquisition of knowledge and adaptation of services need to be done now, before the wave,” said Wolfgang Arlt, CEO of the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute. Even as quarantine on return, safety and destination friendliness remain top concerns, only 10% said they wouldn’t go abroad


With three years of information collected online and on social media, exchanging information, discovering new destinations, tourists will want a better, more bespoke service, moving away from package tours, with an increasing interest in independent travel, offering exclusivity, authentic culinary and cultural experiences, adventures in wellness and nature – meaningful tourism. Destination and hotel experiences must speak to these interests to inspire bookings.


Where do we find them?


Online, in a word. A survey by and Market Sampler generated interesting results from 2,000 recent travellers. During booking, price clarity and value were key factors as you might expect, but interestingly, 41% prefer OTAs, only 29% booked direct and another 29% with agents or operators. Nearly half of regular travellers book OTAs as they offer an easy way to book and reward travellers. Nearly half of infrequent travellers used agents or operators, the rest OTAs (30%) and direct booking. Most frequent travellers book OTAs and direct, only 21% with tour operators. Observing data by age, under 35s mainly use OTAs for hotels. Direct bookers are millennials in 30s and 40s, while most agency customers are 45+

Let’s look at some hard data on the importance of online booking:

  • 83% of US adults prefer to book their trips online

  • 82% of all global travel bookings took place without human interaction in 2018

  • 72% of mobile bookings happen within 48 hours of last-minute Google searches.

  • 70% of all customers do their research on a smartphone

  • 700 million people will make a booking online by 2023


Online, and specifically mobile channels, are here to stay:

  • In 2022, 64% of online bookings are on desktop, 44% on a mobile device

  • In 2021, 59% of bookings were on desktop, 41% on a mobile device

  • In 2020, 37% of bookings were on mobile, and in 2019, 31%


63% of travellers believe technology has a key role in controlling health risks during trips and reduces travel anxiety in a post-pandemic world. Factors expected to boost travel intent:

  • Mobile apps offering on-trip alerts (44%)

  • Self-service check-in (41%)

  • Contactless payments (41%)

  • Flexible cancellations (40%)


What do we do when we find them?


Conventional wisdom in travel is that the marketing “funnel” starts from inspiration, research and discovery, to booking, and then retention, and is built around flights because that’s where travellers start planning. As hospitality people, I think we have always known this is not true – it’s always about the destination and where you stay, particularly at the high-end of the market. Cheap flights to new destinations drive bookings there, but that’s not the type of tourism that Japan is after…


A lot of people think that the way to be top of the funnel in travel is to sell flights because it’s the first purchase you make. I think the top of funnel is inspiring people where to travel. Where should I go? We can inspire them to where to go, and this allows us to be top of funnel and be in the inspiration business.

 Brian Chesky, CEO Airbnb, Goldman Sachs Technology Conference.


Destination vs Brand Marketing


APAC markets, like China, are more comfortable with Japanese brands and culture, and can often be found discussing the virtues of individual Japanese hotels brands online, despite not investing as much as their Western counterparts into local channels and communications. Whereas in the West decisions are made by location – so the conversation will be whether Shinjuku or Shibuya are the best places to stay in Tokyo, for example, and then hotels in those areas are sought, gravitating towards better known western brands.

Reading reviews in online communities, Japanese hotels are more generally selected when pricing is an issue, and guests are often surprised at aspects of the offer that differ from what they may be used to back home, and these become issues usually because of poor initial communication.


Managing the digital guest journey


Over 40% of travellers say they bounce back and forth between dreaming about and planning their next trip – zooming in on one destination and zooming out to consider all options again.

 Think with Google


1 Dream

Digital channels inspire travellers to explore new destinations and discover new experiences – online search, social media feeds, recommendations from friends and trusted influencers. Expedia found over 50% of travellers are open to ideas, and particularly true for Chinese travellers - 82% seek recommendations online, followed closely by Americans (72%).


For hotels, this stage is all about being discoverable, accessible and inspiring. Focus on improving your SEO, invest in SEM and your activity on Social Media.

 2 Plan

Beyond inspiration online has a strategic role in planning among younger affluent Millennial and Gen Z travellers – comparing prices, reviews, recommendations where to stay and what to do, and validating choices on social media. Nielsen and Google found travellers spent an average of 53 days visiting 28 different websites to plan trips. More than 50% rely on social media during travel planning.


This is where your website must be firing on all cylinders – functional, inspiring, SEO-friendly, optimised for all devices, especially mobile – and your social media authentic, engaging and inspiring. Ask yourself how compelling your content is, how powerful your imagery and video, how authenticity your experiences are. Just as important is your OTA page; perfect your profile and manage your reviews properly.


3 Book

Affluent travellers expect seamless and frictionless booking across all their devices, at the moment they want it, so the user experience is essential, not only in terms of the clarity of the offer but also in its ease of use.


The quality of the booking engine is critical at this point, enabling completion in a few clicks with a clear and accessible suite of options – its integration with the hotel website and other distribution needs to be seamless.


According to great photos and videos are extremely important in making a good first impression, and interestingly, even the hotel name was a key factor to 23%. Product presentations and food photos scored highly and location, style, uniqueness less so. Hotels were marked down for boring rooms, unappealing food photos and pretentious content.


4 Stay

The immediate post-booking period is peak excitement for the pending guest and is a clear opportunity to inspire and manage expectations During a stay, it goes without saying that every member of staff will go out of their way to ensure every guest experience is exceptional.


Capitalise on this with regular, inspiring and useful communication via email or the hotel app with information, advice and recommendations for the destination and local experience. Even if you’re using automated CRM make sure the content is curated, personalised and relevant. Digital tools such as social media and messaging services can enhance the guest experience by offering engagement and access to services and information, on the guest’s terms.


5 Share

The happier the guest, the more they are enjoying themselves, the more likely they’ll share their experiences while travelling. 97% of milliennials say they share pictures while travelling, on channels like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Tiktok, and in China this also means WeChat, Weibo, Douyin and Red.


Guests are sharing their experiences on social media offers hospitality brand manages to engage with their guests in real-time in innovative ways – focus on giving travellers a reason to share their experiences at your hotel, help them, reward them. But first, if you’re serious about your guest acquisition and retention, you need to establish local social media channels in the markets you’re after, and invest in them!


6 Return

The best managed hotels know that relationships with guests should never end. While the concept of loyalty may be fading, many travellers still return to the same hotel if they enjoyed it. Returning guests are cheaper to acquire than new ones and means you’re providing exceptional service. This means reviews will improve and engagement online increases, which builds the brand’s reputation.


Use digital communications tools like email marketing, retargeting and rewards programmes to keep in touch with guests so you’re top of mind when they are thinking of their next trip. Pay attention to review sites like Tripadvisor with personal replies to individual reviews.


Tune in next month, when we take this step further and ask who your guest is, and what they actually want, now we know where they are and how to find them!





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