It might seem odd to think of Japan as an emerging destination for business events. After all, the country has been the world’s second largest economy for decades and it has long had major convention centres as well as scores of five-star hotels throughout the country. Yet, the country has been slow to turn toward its neighbours for a share of their meetings and incentives business.
Historically, Japan’s strong domestic economy meant that catering to local meetings and incentives was lucrative enough, while the US remained the prime focus for any overseas business.
However, all that has changed. The collapse of the “bubble economy” in the late 1990s meant an end to the high growth rates that Japan had been used to and the economy has now stabilised on a plateau.
Japan’s declining and ageing population is also forcing the country to profoundly rethink its future and economic structures, with China poised to eclipse it and take number two position in terms of economic size. Japan is having to re-adjust and find a new place in the world.
One of the major realignments is that north Asia is no longer awed by the Japanese miracle and, with strong economies in China and South Korea, the potential for strong corporate events means a shift in thinking.
Geraint Holt leads The J Team, a destination management company (DMC) that has brought together a fusion of Western and Japanese attitudes. Having studied Japanese in the UK, Holt is both passionate and knowledgeable about his adopted country. He does, however, point out some challenges that event planners need to consider.
“Tokyo presents a lot of problems in finding venues outside the major hotels. However, Kyoto is entirely different. Providing you seek permission early, there you can use shrines and temples. We’ve had some marvellous events there and, given its place as the cultural capital of the country, groups should really look at holding at least part of their programme there.”
Price is certainly still an issue, says Holt, and certain parts of programmes can be substantially more expensive if booked solely through hotels, such as transport and catering. However, a good DMC is worth its weight in gold, being able to negotiate on the spot with long-term partners.
“The strong yen has worked against us,” says Holt, “but overall there has been much greater price stability. It’s also the case that with a number of new non-Japanese hotels appearing on the scene in the past few years, such as the Shangri-La, The Peninsula, the Mandarin Oriental, the ability to negotiate discounts on room rates has increased dramatically. Organisers might be surprised how competitive five-star hotels can be here if you choose your dates wisely.”
At the Shangri-La, which opened last year, resident manager Marcus Bauder accepts that the perception of ultra-expensive Japan still persists.
“If you look at Bangkok or other southeast Asian cities, yes, Japan is costly. But it’s really not the case though if you compare Tokyo with similar metropolises in other parts of the world. Even if you look at prices in say Hong Kong or Singapore at certain times of the year, they can be higher. The point to emphasise is the incredibly high level of facilities and service that delegates will experience in Japan. You won’t find this in a European or North American destination.”
Japan’s other obstacle has been the widely held perception that the country is quite closed to foreign influence. This has been largely disproved by the growth of non-Japanese brands in the hotel sector but with the exception of Holt’s The J Team, conference organisers and DMCs are largely Japanese owned and Japanese run.
Misa Namikai, conference director with Japan’s largest travel company JTB, accepts that the events industry needs to adopt new thinking, as handling foreign events requires a different approach from what local companies traditionally expect.
“I feel that, unlike in other countries, Japanese hotels don’t know how to properly welcome meeting and incentive groups,” she says.
However, Namikai sees potential among the younger generation of meeting and incentive visitors.
“Japanese youth culture is very popular, especially in Asia, among teenagers but also among people in their 20s and 30s. The entertainment industry, Japanese music groups, manga cartoon books and Cosplay is seen as something hot.”
Namikai’s company can build these elements into an event programme. The idea of senior executives dressing up as Power Rangers and Ninja Warriors offers exactly the counterpoint to stiff formality that makes Japan a rewarding experience.
Holt says that he has taken small business groups for tours of the Akihabara area for example, where Cosplay takes to the streets. Young adults dress up in unusual costumes in a stark challenge to the urban conformity of older generations.
Mix the Old with the New
“In Tokyo, we have this phenomenon called Maido cafes, where the serving staff are dressed as maids, it’s one of those strange things you won’t find anywhere else but Japan. Foreign delegates are always intrigued by this,” Holt says
Like the geishas of old, the emphasis is on pampered service and has no sexual connotation, he stresses.
One Japanese-foreign joint venture is a recent link-up between the Europe-based MCI and Japan Convention Services (JCS). One of its aims is to act as a bridge between overseas organisers and a local network that is deeply embedded in Japanese culture.
MCI’s Japan director Chika Takahashi says: “MCI is the first foreign-owned professional conference organiser in Japan.
“This does give us an advantage in being able to work with non-Japanese clients. We handle corporates as well as association business. The key to our approach is understanding that each client is looking for something different.
“For example, we find that, in general, associations are looking for programmes that are traditional and authentic, while corporate clients prefer something with a contemporary theme.
“One thing we have done is to bring together a traditional Japanese drum troupe, which has a technique specific to a particular part of Tokyo and mixed them with a younger group of drummers, who have toured all over Europe, who play in a much more modern style.”
MCI is a small operation, with only four staff. However, its link with JCS is crucial since, with 200 staff and offices in major parts of Japan, JCS offers MCI a much broader network.
Takahashi believes there is still a lack of quality hotels at different levels to satisfy overseas clients and the greatest problem for planners is finding suitable venues.
So Japan’s meetings industry finds itself in an exciting point of transition and Asian event organisers now have the chance to discover a “new destination” on their doorstep.
Japan’s Kansai region offers a deeper contact with the country’s heritage and culture as well as its cuisine, writes Kenny Coyle
The Kansai area of Japan offers a very different event experience from Tokyo. The pace of life is less frenetic and there are well preserved old quarters, especially in Kyoto, that survived destruction during the Second World War.
Two cities stand out in the region, Osaka and Kyoto, both are former capital cities. The Kansai region’s attractions are principally its high-quality food and over a thousand years of Japanese history. Kansai can be considered the crucible of Japan, where what we now regard as Japanese culture and cuisine was formed over many centuries.
Osaka is often called the “Kitchen of Japan” and is regarded as the most sophisticated culinary destination in the country.
One option for high-end incentives, therefore, is to create a gastronomic programme for your group. The city is not short of options with choice ranging from fine dining to the street food in dining districts such as Dotonbori, which delights locals and visitors alike.
Mutsuko Akesaka, public relations director for The Ritz-Carlton, Osaka located in the key business district of Nishi-Umeda, says: “We are one of the few hotels in the world that has not one but two Michelin-starred restaurants under the same roof. These are the contemporary French La Baie and our traditional Chinese restaurant Xiang Tao. Our hotel has a very strong business record in the city and is the hotel of choice for a number of pharmaceutical, banking and other large companies. So we are perfectly able to cater to small- and mid-sized events.”
Aware that the city is often overlooked for regional events, Asako Shiomi, manager of the convention promotion department, Osaka Convention and Tourism Bureau, says that the city is trying to educate meeting organisers on the variety of activities available.
“Event organisers often don’t realise, there is so much to do in Osaka. The city has everything from historical sites such as Osaka Castle, to the dining experiences along Dotonbori. We also have Universal Studios, where groups can add in teambuilding elements to their programme.”
For most people, the city of Kyoto conjures up romantic images of geishas, shrines and temples, the quintessential old Japan.
This ancient capital was spared the carpet-bombing that destroyed most Japanese cities during the Second World War. Its old districts, such as Pontocho and Gion with their narrow streets, seemingly endless restaurants, teahouses and sake bars give a physical sense of what pre-modern Japan must have looked like. Images that otherwise can be found only in faded photographs or the films of directors such as Akira Kurosawa can be seen here.
Yet, the city has also been at the forefront of Japanese business innovation.
Nintendo started here at the end of the 19th century, initially making playing cards before becoming one of the world’s most recognisable game-console brands.
Kyocera, a conglomerate of 219 companies, manufacturing everything from office equipment to chemicals, started life as Kyoto Ceramics.
Department store giants Takashimaya and Daimaru, which subsequently expanded overseas, also have their roots in the city.
Nonetheless, while it lacks nothing in business acumen, Kyoto is the country’s true cultural heart.
Ken Yokoyama, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Kyoto, believes the city is a gem that needs to be put forward as one of Asia’s most precious treasures.
“The city has many temples and shrines that are centuries old. There are a number of Unesco World Heritage sites. Nowhere else in Japan will you find this concentration of culture and history, Kyoto is truly unique,” he says.
Kanako Murayama is director of overseas marketing at the Hotel Granvia Kyoto, which sits on top of Kyoto’s central train station. She stresses how accessible the city is.
“Granvia hotels are owned by Japan Railways so all our properties are close to the rail network. Osaka is less than 30 minutes away by fast train and Tokyo is around two hours and 30 minutes. At the Hotel Granvia Kyoto, we have very substantial meeting facilities so it’s perfectly possible to bring in foreign delegates and have their Japanese counterparts join them, even for a day and then return home.”
The hotel has also recognised that many come to Kyoto for its cultural attractions and the Granvia has some 1,000 contemporary artworks dotted around the property.
Stick to the script
While Japanese people can tend to be shy at speaking English, they are often much more at ease with the written word. Most younger Japanese have spent several years at school or university learning the language. However, the Japanese education system focuses more on skills in written English than the spoken word. In addition, in a face-conscious society, some Japanese people will feign ignorance rather than make mistakes in front of a foreigner. Make sure your instructions are clear, concise and in writing in your initial dealings with suppliers. Local DMCs and hotels will all have strong English speakers on their staff. The key to remember is that language is not a barrier to organising great events in Japan.
Local knowledge saves money
A good DMC can find the right connections, especially for dining and transport, that will make a significant difference to your budget. If you stick to hotel dining versus local restaurants you will certainly find Japan expensive, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Invest in a reliable DMC and you will reap the benefits. The same holds true of the convention bureaus, these provide a vast range of contacts, information and support in most of the major centres of Japan, so make good use of them.
Balance your programme
While tradition and history are a key part of the Japanese experience, modern Japan is a cultural treasure trove too, with its vibrant and sometimes downright wacky aspects. Combining heritage elements with the contemporary aspects of Japan goes some way to enlightening your delegates about the complexities and surprises of Japanese society and people.
Make a date
The Japanese can be creatures of habit and certain seasons, such as Sakura (Cherry Blossom time in the spring) and holiday periods can see a huge surge in demand. Discuss with your local contacts and pick dates in low season, benefiting from lower prices and greater capacity.
Marriages of inconvenience
The wedding market is hugely lucrative in Japan and so booking weekend events can be a headache. Stick to weekdays and you will have easier access to meeting spaces, ballrooms and accommodation.
Take your time
The Japanese people believe in quality and meticulous attention to detail. It underlies their entire culture and is naturally at the heart of their business philosophy. Getting to know you, your business and your event requirements might not happen in one single meeting but will develop as your relationship with your Japanese suppliers deepens. If you take time to build these contacts they will repay you many times over in terms of loyalty, dedication and service levels.
It’s undeniable that Japan is relatively expensive in comparison with many Asian destinations. But unlike other parts of Asia even today, Japan is a fully developed nation. More accurate comparisons should be made with other post-industrial regions such as Europe and North America, where Tokyo and Osaka compare very favourably indeed with New York or London. However, properly planned, Japan delivers world-class service at prices that are quite competitive when put against other leading Asian cities such as Shanghai, Seoul, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Kazuko Toda, director, Tokyo Convention and Visitor’s Bureau
“This year has been declared Japan MICE Year by the government. In the past, we focused on the association meetings sector, but now we need to shift to corporate business.
One of the big advantages for Tokyo will be the opening of the new runway at Haneda airport in October. From there, you can reach central Tokyo in less then 40 minutes. We expect a lot more flights, maybe 40 a day, which means a tremendous opportunity for bringing more corporate events to Tokyo.
Tokyo is probably the safest capital city in the world with a crime rate that is a fraction of smaller cities elsewhere. You can walk anywhere, anytime and nothing will happen to you. Hygiene and health standards are among the highest in the world. The country is also politically stable.
Our service culture is different from say the Thais but the Japanese are a friendly, polite and hospitable people.
If you look at five-star hotel prices in say the US or Europe, Tokyo really is not so expensive on a world scale. In any case, you can really count on the best facilities and highest standards when you choose Tokyo.
These are important factors for planners to take into account.”
Japan’s main international airport is Narita, near Tokyo. Haneda Airport located in Tokyo’s city centre is currently undergoing a major expansion. Osaka’s Kansai airport also has dozens of regional connections.
The weather is generally mild and humid with considerable variation from north to south. The average temperature is 25°C in summer and, 5°C in winter.
Visitors will have no communication problems in major hotels and airports.
Holders of passports from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Brunei and most Western countries do not need visas.
Japan Convention Bureau
Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau
Osaka Convention & Tourism Bureau
Kyoto Convention Bureau
knt! Inbound Travel
JTB Global Marketing & Travel
The J Team