Offering a diverse collection of hotels spanning traditional ryokan to full-featured resorts, Agora Hospitalities assures a unique and localized Japanese experience for its guests and comprehensive rebranding and repositioning services for its hotel owners. President & CEO Aya Aso discusses the company’s ‘regional alliance’ approach and also takes a look at the changing tourism sector in Japan.
What do you think has been the impact of Abenomics on the economy, would you say those reforms have helped the tourism sector?
These reforms have had a positive impact on our sector. The whole travel industry has been positively affected. Even though the yen has been inflating, the influx of tourism has kept its steady rise. After the earthquake disaster, the whole world was gazing upon Japan to see how we were going to recover. The government also passed policies aimed at enhancing touristic flexibility. Furthermore, I believe that the country as a whole has realized the importance of tourism as an economic revitalizer.
Minister Abe’s policies and political speech also aims at placing Japan back on the world map. How would you access the work done so far?
I lived away from Japan for 20 years. At the time, I didn't hear anyone speaking about my country, be it in the USA or in South America. My time in America was an isolationist bubble period for my country. The only reason why Americans knew Japan was because of Japanese tourists and investments in the USA. I always wanted the global market to realize Japan’s attractiveness. From alimentation to sightseeing, the government has engaged in an aggressive promotion campaigns to help our sector and the country.
Since taking office in late 2012, Abe's administration has relaxed visa requirements for several Asian countries, creating a positive environment for touristic growth. How has this policy impacted your sector? And what is still to be done to enhance it?
The relaxing of the visa requirements has had a tremendous impact on our sector. For example, the influx of Thai tourists has nearly doubled. These policies have re-positioned Japan on the world’s touristic map. However, visa requirements are not the only feature that make Japan isolated. Japan’s very own corporate and social culture have tended to be rather close-minded and nationally focused. In the tourism sector, over 90% of organizations were dependant on national activities. Our sector was, and remains, scared to lose its traditional values for the sake of globalization. Last year was the first year we hit the double digits in single foreigner arrivals. This increasing number has forced us to change our system, and install some tourist-friendly accommodation, such as educating our staff to be bilingual. Our ethnocentricity made us ignore an entire world.
The world’s best-known destinations such as France and the USA have created a strong national image, attractive to the touristic eye. How would you assess Japan’s national image?
After I came back to Japan, I realized that we lacked a common image. While kimonos and Mount Fuji are well known symbols of the country, they do not depict Japan’s full cultural diversity. Our national character ranges from long-lasting cultural customs, to high-tech mania. Tourists usually visit Tokyo and Kyoto, and then leave. To further enhance our country’s attractiveness, we must promote our diversity to its full. The point isn’t to attract one-time tourists, as much as it is to create a certain destination loyalty.
What further strategies could be implemented to increase tourist inflows?
Right after the earthquake, when our sector was struggling, I went to Hong Kong to engage in networking activities. I found that while investors were reluctant to commit to Japan, they all had it in mind. We need promotional activities to place Japan as a top destination on the international agenda. We must break with the stereotypes that the country is far away and expensive. We have met mitigated success in promoting our logistic attractiveness. One of the ways to enhance our image is to get our visitors to talk about Japan. In the world of SNS, word of mouth is a crucial tool to advertise our country. Furthermore, I believe that allowing for a greater amount of labor force immigrants will relax our island mentality, and answer certain structural issues.
Ms. Aso, you founded Agora Hospitalities almost 10 years ago with a very emblematic project at Nojiriko Hotel El Bosco. Your experience at Sheraton and after being part of two of the ‘Big 4’ led you to create one of the most innovative hotel alliances. Can you tell us more about the business model you have created?
After the Big 4, I worked in a company funded by the US Estate Fund. That company bought various hotels in Japan at a time when investors were becoming increasingly interested in the country. Simultaneously, I was acquiring and re-positioning a hotel’s branding to accommodate the current demand. Our industry was shocked by the transformation of the market, becoming increasingly profit-oriented.
With my background in hospitality, I decided to take a step back and envision what I really wanted to do. I therefore stepped out of the corporate world, and acquired this beautiful hotel. For me, it was not, and it is not still to this day, a question of financial funds; it is a question of showcasing a destination’s beauty. My establishment was in a “forgotten” area, next to a city that did not receive much attention. I literally fell in love with this hotel and decided to re-design it to increase the loyalty of the clientele. My objective was to create an establishment that would revitalize the entire region. That is when we came up with the idea of the “hotel for reading”.
This building was designed by one of the top architects in Japan, however, had I not operated it, this mesmerizing beauty and destination might have been forgotten.
Regional alliance is one of the key words in our business mentality. Our goal is to increase a region’s cash flow regardless of the temporal season. The locations of Japan reach their peak in various seasonal periods. Some places are more attractive in winter, while others blossom during the summer. Our idea was to tailor a service adapted to the multi-seasons of Japan.
A common difficulty when navigating through Japan is the lack of multi-lingual knowledge and displays, making it harder for the tourist to travel around the country’s lesser-known areas. How can rural and regional destinations be enhanced?
I believe that the local government needs to help their rural areas to develop a digital platform sharing multi-lingual information. The digital switch is a costly initiative, and a single establishment cannot invest in it alone. While the digital revolution is coming to Japan’s touristic sector, it has been coming slowly. Furthermore, the digitalization process of society has changed people’s mentality. In the past, regional inhabitants tended to believe that no tourist would ever come to their areas, because the latter were unknown. Today, we see certain rural areas receiving an astonishing amount of coverage, making the people believe that they can also be part of the sectorial boom.
The US touristic sector is known for its multi-branded alliance services, such as the Star Alliance card or the SkyTeam system. What is your take on this collaborative model?
Our company is a collection of small establishments and boutiques distributed around the country. To some extent, my business model is based on a similar one. I want my clients to travel around the country by visiting all the destinations we have to offer. We want people to enjoy the diversity of Japan. Looking at the future, I want this brand to become the foreigner’s “best Japanese friend.” I believe in providing integrated services, where we wouldn't just merely be a hotel, but rather a travel advisor helping our clients to navigate throughout the country. In our alliance, we aim at making our travelers feel like they are staying at a local friend’s house.
How can Japan’s niche activities be promoted?
Niseko has done an amazing job in promoting the entire region. I believe that it is a community effort that needs further collaboration. The difficulty resides in the fact that not all business owners are dependent on tourism, hence creating a certain type of resistance or carelessness to that collaborative regard. Our single efforts are not enough to make the whole world aware of Japan’s beauty. However, through corporate alliances with various hotel companies, such as Diamond Resort in the USA, and an aggressive marketing strategy, we are playing our role in promoting Japan’s diversified cultural activities. That being said, I do believe in creating a stronger and more aligned Japanese image, truer to the reality of our country’s offerings.
Omotenashi, which literally means “hospitality, treatment, reception, service,” is one of Japan’s most crucial values along with Monozukuri. Could you please explain how Omotenashi is applied to your corporate philosophy?
I do not like the modern use of the word “Omotenashi.” I believe that it is one of these words that have been lost in translation. For me, the true meaning of “Omotenashi,” is the ability to deliver a personalized experience tailored to each individual visitor. With the increase of group tourism, I believe that this personalization process has intrinsically been lost. I believe that the enhancement of digitalization will re-boost this personalized experience. Digital technologies are key in providing an integrated service, closer to the individual.
On a personal level which is your motivation behind your company? What is your ultimate objective?
My motivation is to have a true impact on boosting Japan’s attractiveness. I want to leverage my country’s amazing potential. In all honesty, I came back to Japan 19 years ago, and I still find mesmerizing details that catch my attention. For the future, I aim at expanding my hotel collection, staying true to our commitment to maintain personalization and tradition. The opportunities are endless, and the opportunities look bright.