These are exciting times for the hotel industry in Japan. After many tough years surviving the Lehman Shock, the March 11, 2011 disaster and last April’s sales tax hike, the industry has proven itself resilient. Many hotels have successfully reworked their strategies to offer more value.
One group which has had a good year in 2014 is the IHG ANA Hotels Group Japan – the largest international hotel operator in Japan with a combined estate of 32 hotels and over 9,500 rooms. The company was formed in 2006 as the hotel operating joint venture of IHG and ANA. In Japan, the group operates four hotel brands – InterContinental Hotels & Resorts, ANA Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn Hotels & Resorts and ANA Hotels.
Overseeing all the group’s activities in Japan is Fergus Stewart. Born in Glasgow, he studied hotel management in Leeds. During his career in the hotel industry, Stewart has worked in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, London, Spain, Egypt, Thailand. He was general manager of the ANA InterContinental Tokyo in Akasaka from 2008 to 2012 as well as Regional General Manager, Greater Tokyo to supervise four hotels. He then went to Vietnam and Thailand before being appointed to his current position in January 2014.
Japan Today catches up with Stewart at his office in Toranomon to hear more.
Was 2014 a good year for the group?
2014 has been a very good year in Tokyo, Osaka and Okinawa, which are key destinations for inbound visitors. However, our secondary cities have not shown as much growth as we anticipated and we have a number of initiatives planned for 2015 to improve that.
Is the hotel industry in good shape?
Yes, inbound travel is up 27% for the whole industry overall and that’s about the same for us. I think the weaker yen helped bring in travellers. Many people overseas decided to come here for the first time. Eased visa requirements for some Southeast Asian countries helped, especially Thailand. Also, there are many domestic travellers who are not going overseas because it is expensive, so places like Okinawa are attractive destinations for them.
Our group has done well because, having four brands, we can offer many different price points. In addition to our luxury hotels, like the InterContinental, we can fill a demand for good upscale accommodation with the ANA Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn brands.
How did you cope with the sales tax hike last April?
There was a dip in business but it rebounded. We focused on getting more customers into our restaurants after the sales tax hike. We encourage guests to eat in our hotels. For a hotel like the ANA InterContinental Tokyo in Akasaka, there might be up to 1,300 guests staying there on any given night, so if we can get more of those guests to eat in the hotel restaurants, and add to that the local business, we are in a good position. The key is to add value for money.
How do you market the various brands?
For Tokyo, Osaka and Okinawa, we can use our international campaigns, but for hotels in other areas, such as Fukuoka, Hiroshima and Kanazawa, for example, we target the local market. It’s the same with franchise hotels in areas such as Wakanai. They will promote themselves internally and go after regional business.
Any TV advertising?
We’ve got a fabulous TV campaign coming up. We’re working with National Geographic. It is telling a story, and doesn’t even look like an ad. We have a number of celebrity chefs who work with us, one of them being Michelin Star French chef Michel Roux at InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort in Vietnam. So in the campaign, we have a chef on chef conversation about local produce, the marketplace, where to get the best fish, and so on. That kind of marketing has replaced our more conventional TV promotion. We use social media as well.
Do you have a lot of repeat customers?
Yes, we do and one reason for that is our great loyalty program. It’s one of the world’s biggest with over 80 million members who have our card. We have a whole host of partners, but most of our members use their points for hotel stays. We guarantee a certain percentage of our inventory is reserved for loyalty program members, so more often than not, you can always get a room. Points are very easy to redeem and we get positive feedback from our members.
What are your expansion plans?
We’re looking to add more properties. We have a number of potential signings across all of our brands. In Japan, it is difficult to get a conversion property that you can take over and rebrand, so a lot of our future projects will be newly built hotels. We are at the design stage with developers but not at the construction stage yet.
Japan needs more hotels, especially if the government wants to have 20 million tourists a year by 2020. The 2020 Olympics are an incentive but that it is only a part of it. The build-up for the Olympics is very important, especially from 2018 on. I see a huge opportunity for more hotels and more brands. In Tokyo, we’d like to have more Holiday Inns and ANA Crowne Plazas. I hope one day we can get the Hotel Indigo brand into Japan, too. It’s popular in London and Shanghai and we think it would do very well in Japan.
How is the MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions, Events) business?
It’s doing much better in Japan than it used to. Japan can offer rates comparable to Singapore, Hong Kong or Bali, and we’re seeing a big surge in Tokyo and Osaka. The weaker yen has helped … it makes it advantageous to book a big conference well in advance.
What is your group’s policy on empowering women?
When I started last January, my mission was to have at least one female GM … and we now do, at the ANA Crowne Plaza in Toyama. Next year, I’m hoping there will be three. We get a lot of job applications from women and we want them to be in senior positions.
Are you a hands-on CEO?
During my first year, I have been actively involved in the hotels. From now on, I hope to take a slightly more backward step and focus on our people, succession planning, loyalty guest programs, as well as food and beverages.
Do you miss being a GM?
Every day. I love my current job but when I was a GM and I needed to be inspired, I would leave my office and walk around the hotel and always see somebody doing something positive or greeting guests. That gives you the energy to go back to your office and continue you with your work.
How often do you visit hotels?
Every a week. On some trips, I may visit three hotels a day in Okinawa or Sapporo. This year I have been on 50 flights.
How do you like to relax?
I like to play golf and have two young daughters to keep me busy.© Japan Today