From opening the world’s first robot-staffed hotel to tailoring unique travel packages and theme park management, the HI.S. Group is one of Japan’s leading travel brands and has over 500 locations and more than 13,000 employees worldwide. It has expanded from individual trips into hotels, theme parks, and air travel, and has seen a 300% rise in share price during the last three years alone. Representative Director & President Akira Hirabayashi discusses the company’s formula for success.
Why do you think H.I.S. has been so successful, especially when travelers are continuing to use online-only booking agencies?
When H.I.S. started, most travel agencies in Japan mainly focused on all-inclusive group tours, and there wasn’t really a concept of individual leisure travel. In the initial stages of our business, we concentrated on selling discounted air tickets to individual travelers who wanted to create their own travel experiences. The next step was to add on those activities, experiences, and package tours that individual travelers were looking for to make their own unique plans. Most importantly, instead of taking out the personality from travel and moving to an online-only model, H.I.S. has expanded to 300 locations in Japan and 215 retail locations outside of Japan in 64 countries, where the staff are all passionate travelers themselves and plan original products about the areas that they know best. We’re really interested in what travelers want, and we think that is combining technology with service, all at the same price as an online-only service. We have online booking in 15 languages at hisgo.com and the hisgo app, and over 13,000 staff that you can talk to without waiting for 30 or more minutes on the phone. We’re even available in person at our retail locations.
H.I.S. is assertive and we are constantly working to expand both our knowledge base and our network around the world, which is why we’re so interested in hotels, theme parks, and airlines. We just opened the world’s first robot-staffed hotel in Japan, located in one of our theme parks, and our flight and hotel deal with ANA, called HAnavi, arose from the drive to help travelers get to far-flung places in Japan like Okinawa and Hokkaido in ways that are affordable so they can really experience Japan off the beaten track. We’re hoping to keep expanding our services around the world as we continue to keep pace with today’s travel industry.
What do you believe has been the key reasons behind the new growth of inbound Japanese tourism?
Japan is a fascinating country with a really unique culture. Although it’s a small country, its regions are incredibly diverse – from rugged mountain ranges and volcanoes in Hokkaido to ultramodern Tokyo to Kyoto’s traditional temples and shrines, to tropical beaches in Okinawa – Japan has it all. The infrastructure of Japan is also a big draw for visitors, especially those from countries like America where trains don’t have a huge presence outside of a few major cities. Most of Japan is easily accessible by bullet train, especially for a country with so many islands.
How do you believe that tourism can contribute towards the revitalization of Japan’s economy?
Tourism has been an incredibly important source of revitalization for the Japanese economy, especially since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in the Tohoku region. Local economies in Japan really benefit from tourism, especially as the population declines and not as much revenue is being circulated. The exchange rate has also been beneficial in this, and Japan is more affordable than ever before – travelers coming from the United States will find that prices are lower and the exchange rate is favorable for US dollars. Since the 1980s’ “Bubble Economy,” many people still have the idea that prices in Japan are exorbitant, but that simply isn’t the case. H.I.S. is working to make Japan even more accessible and we hope to keep collaborating with local governments to show visitors Japan’s hidden gems while boosting the economy.
To what extent do you think that events such as the G7 summit and the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics represent opportunities for Japan to showcase its ability to host global events and larger amounts of visitors? Will you be aligning HIS’s promotional activities with these types of events?
The events happening in Japan in the upcoming years are exciting for Japan and for H.I.S. As a travel agency, we are definitely creating events, packages, and deals aligned with these events. On a larger scale, the G7 summit this year and the Olympics in 2020 is helping infrastructure for tourism expand at a pace that keeps up with the increase in visitors, and we are thrilled to be a part of that.
In September of last year alone Japan saw 100,000 visitors from the US, and it’s a market that has a lot of potential. Can you take us through your marketing and branding within the US market and what kind of hopes you have for the development of that market in the future?
In 2015, over 1 million Americans traveled to Japan for the first time. For H.I.S., it has been a great opportunity to expand our services for travelers that prefer independent travel and deeply exploring Japanese culture and history. We have opened 30 Tourist Information Centers where travelers can book experiences like kimono wearing and cooking classes. We also created HAnavi, which is a domestic flight and hotel package where travelers can choose from 800 flights and over 3,500 hotels across Japan to get to places off the beaten track, especially Hokkaido, where it takes seven hours by train from Tokyo, and Okinawa, which isn’t accessible by train.
Most importantly, our staff are able to speak Japanese and have lived in and traveled Japan extensively, so they can make recommendations from personal experiences, as well as contact the kinds of places that aren’t available online.
One of the most exciting parts of arranging travel to Japan is helping travelers create really unique personal experiences – so when it comes to things like hiking and staying overnight in family-run mountain lodges or temples where there are no other tourists around, we can make that happen.
The US market is also one of the most tech-centered markets in the world, and we are constantly improving the functionality of our websites and our apps to make travel booking as smooth as possible, all while backing that with real people.
Can you tell me about the inspiration behind the H.I.S.’s robot hotel in Nagasaki, Henn-na Hotel? What is it like to stay there?
In Japanese “hen” means both “strange” and “change,” and we are striving to do both with Henn-na Hotel. Hotels can be really expensive to run between energy costs and labor costs, so we wanted to see how efficient we could possibly make the hotel. The design itself is really sustainable and uses the Radiant Panel Air Conditioning System, which is really cutting edge – it draws heat away from your body when it is hot to make you feel cool, and vice versa.
The experience is unlike any other hotel, too. At the front desk, multilingual robots help you check in or out. In the cloakroom, a robotic arm stores luggage for you, and a robot porter carries the rest to your room. At Hen-na Hotel, we also use face recognition instead of room keys so you never have to worry about carrying one or losing it. In the rooms themselves there is a tablet for all the functions of the hotel room like turning the lights on and off, calling the front desk, watching TV, etc.
What is the plan to market the hotel if this is just a prototype plan? Is there a plan to expand?
Currently, the hotel is doing well and is making a profit, in addition to a lot of exposure from news outlets across the world.
The hotel is definitely still a prototype, and although our plan is to expand, we are still working on perfecting our robots and creating even more eco-friendly building.
Will you be looking for partners while expanding your robot hotel in Japan? Will you be looking at partnering with the big hotel chains or names?
H.I.S. has a lot of supporters in the Henn-na Hotel. A lot of the technology used in the hotel is from Tokyo University, Japan’s leading university, and the actual construction was done by Kajima Construction Company, the largest in Japan. There is a lot of interest from other sources, but we definitely want to focus on improving and perfecting the prototype before we expand.
What do you believe is the type of message that Japan should be sending and if you were in charge of the branding of Japan, how would you brand it?
As I mentioned earlier, Japan has an incredible variety to choose from for visitors. From high-tech in Tokyo to temples and shrines with histories of thousands of years, to some of the world’s most pristine nature, Japan has it. It is also all easily accessible by bullet trains and now with HAnavi, our domestic flight and hotel package in partnership with All Nippon Airways. Japan is also a very safe country, making it a perfect destination for solo travelers.
What do you believe are the highlights or must-sees in Japan? What can people not miss to see in Japan in your opinion?
Japan really has endless places to explore. Tokyo and Kyoto are the top two destinations in Japan, and for good reason. Tokyo is one of the largest metropolises in the world, and is really fascinating. Trains crisscross through the city, and millions of people pass through downtown areas every day. In Tokyo, skyscrapers line busy roads only a block away from nostalgic streets that are reminiscent of Japan decades ago. You’ll discover hidden shrines in the back of an alleyway nestled between crowds moving like clockwork. For foodies, Tokyo also has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world, including Paris. Kyoto has thousands of temples and shrines that are beautifully preserved, and geisha can still be seen walking down cobbled streets lined with traditional Japanese architecture. Nikko, only an hour outside of Tokyo, has some of Japan’s most intricately carved shrines. Okinawa, still separated by the Japanese mainland, is a tropical paradise without the crowds of other beach vacations.
What’s the future like for H.I.S.?
We believe that H.I.S. has a really special business model – we are really embracing technology as well as customer service. We use a Japanese customer service model, which is really customer-centered. H.I.S. is still expanding and most importantly, we go wherever travel takes us.
What final message would you like to give from HIS to international readers?
Japan is really unlike anywhere else in the world. From the most traditional mountain temples to the most modern technology, visitors to Japan can experience something really unique.
We often emphasize seasonality in Japan. In winter, visitors can enjoy bathing in outdoor, volcanically sourced hot springs while viewing snowy mountain landscapes. In the spring, cherry blossoms envelop the entire country in a soft pink, adding to the beauty of traditional Japanese architecture and modern cityscapes. In the summer, festivals happen all around the country, with fireworks and street food and games, and people dressed in traditional Japanese clothing. In the fall, the bright orange of the leaves echoes the colors of temples and shrines all around Japan, making for stunning views.
Most importantly, wherever you choose to go in Japan, you will be welcomed with Japanese hospitality and warmth, and H.I.S. is with you every step of the way. Japan is now about to change for genuine globalization. H.I.S. aims to contribute to the advancement of world peace and mutual understanding by informing both Japan and the world their appeal to the market through tourism.
Our “journeys” at H.I.S. will continue.