The number of tourists coming to Japan has risen this year as the yen weakens and the Japanese government loosens visa restrictions. Which means business is booming for Destination Asia Japan, the first Asian-based, Western-operated travel company to be owned by its employees.
The Destination Asia group was formed in Thailand in 1996. Experienced travel executives and managers saw a niche market opportunity for a travel firm that, being owned by its staff, could provide travel services solely responsive to the needs of the client and not the whims of any international corporate conglomerate. The company now has offices in 11 Asian countries, providing a complete range of sightseeing tours and excursions, cruise support services, unique incentive tour programs, theme party design, incentive tour programs, chartering arrangements, corporate gift design, dining arrangements, entertainment co-ordination and chartered private boats and aircraft.
Overseeing the Destination Asia Japan office is Jarrod Stenhouse. Born in Melbourne, Stenhouse first came to Japan 10 years ago to teach English. After 18 months, he got a job as a tour leader which led him into this industry. The Tokyo office opened in April 2011.
April 2011 must have been a difficult time to open an office.
Yes, it was just after the disaster. Obviously, inbound traffic slowed, especially leisure, but the corporate side bounced back within a few months. We are an established company within Asia and I think that before we opened here, there was a real gap in the market for a company like us. No other foreign companies do what we do here.
What about 2012 and this year so far?
2012 was a much better year; business picked up around the cherry blossom season. This year so far has been massive. Business has really exploded. This time last year, we had three staff; now we have 10 and we will be hiring more. It’s been a very rapid expansion.
The big increase is coming from Asia thanks to an easing of visa restrictions and the weaker yen, which has made it 15-20% cheaper to come to Japan.
What are your services?
We don’t deal directly with travellers; we deal with tour operators and travel agents. For example, Flight Center in Australia is one of our biggest clients. When someone goes into a Flight Center office and books a tour, we handle all the ground arrangements, hotels, tours, guides, etc. We also deal with a lot of other agents throughout the world.
Another part of our business is the MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions, Conferences) business where we organize incentive tours for big companies. That comes through event houses, event organizers.
Our third segment is the cruise ship business. When they stop at ports, everybody gets off and does a day tour. We organize itineraries and have buses ready to take them around.
Which segment accounts for your most revenue?
In Japan, the leisure segment is the biggest at 55-60%. The cruise ship business is about 15% and the rest is MICE. That differs from country to country. For example, in Myanmar, there is no MICE business.
How do you market the company?
Since we don’t deal directly with travellers, we don’t need to advertise. Instead, we rely on our sales offices in the U.S., UK, Australia, South Africa, Europe and, of course, our offices in 11 Asian countries. We’ll open our 12th office next year in Seoul. In addition, I’ll be attending IMEX (meetings and incentive travel exhibition) in Las Vegas and in November, we’ll be in London for the World Travel Mart, which is the biggest big leisure show.
What sort of package tours are in demand for travellers to Japan?
With Japan, you have your iconic images like sumo wrestlers, Mount Fuji, geisha, and tours to sake breweries and we do tend to get requests for all those. That’s very different from, say, Thailand where tourists just want to sit on a beach for a week.
However, we do see some changing trends. People are happy to pay more money to get a better experience but still do it independently. Foreign tourists are looking for a different or unique experience and Japan needs to start catering to that. For example, tourists want to try sushi-making in someone’s home – the kind of thing they can’t book online themselves. We can arrange that.
Many people would like to see kabuki but they don’t want to sit at Kabuki-za for 8 hours. Why not put on a 30-minute or one-hour performance as part of a dinner show? The same with sumo and geisha, which could be made easier for foreigners to see. With sumo, there are six tournaments a year, but only two in Tokyo. In the past, tourists have been able to visit training sessions at stables, but they are going to stop opening up training sessions to foreigners because it is an inconvenience.
How about with corporate clients?
The difference with corporate clients compared with 5-10 years ago is that now they want everything out of the hotel. They want to get out as much as possible, having dinners and meetings in unique places. We have already started doing that. Last year, we were the first foreign company to arrange a dinner in the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park, which was fantastic.
What does the government need to do to help Japan become more tourism-friendly?
They need to loosen up and ease restrictions because it is still very domestic-tourism based. We work with the Tokyo Convention Bureau and Kyoto Convention Bureau and they lobby the government on our behalf, and that’s how we try to make changes.
How will the hike in the sales tax from 5% to 8% next April affect your business?
That is a worry for us. We are doing all our package pricing now for next year and we have seen that hotels are putting up their rates definitely more than 3%. I think they held back for the last few years because of the earthquake. One positive factor, though, is that we already have solid bookings right through to October next year.
Do you do any outbound business?
With Asia becoming more travel-savvy, we have started outbound business from China and next year we will start on a trial basis outbound business from Indonesia and Vietnam. Japan, on the other hand, is a mature market with big players like JTB, which Japanese tend to use, so I don’t think outbound business is something we would do in Japan.
How many staff do you have in Japan?
We have 10 staff here in Tokyo and we will open a Kyoto office next year. All our staff are bilingual and have lived abroad. This is important because our difference is that we are Western-managed and understand what clients like and are looking for when they come to Japan.
What is a typical day for you?
I try to get out of the office to meet clients and sometimes go out with corporate groups. I am still very hands on considering that at the beginning of the year, I only had three staff and we all had to do a bit of everything.© Japan Today