Japan Today
executive impact

Serenity and service

By Chris Betros

Tokyo will welcome its newest 5-star hotel on March 2 when the Shangri-La Hotel Tokyo opens. It will be the Hong Kong-based Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts’ first property in Japan. The 202-room hotel will occupy the top 11 floors of the 37-story Marunouchi Trust Tower main building.

These are busy days for Wolfgang Krueger, the hotel’s general manager. With a million things to do in the lead-up to the opening, Krueger is overseeing the final touches to the hotel, as well as conducting media interviews.

Born in Germany, Krueger has been in the hotel industry for more than 20 years, since starting his career in 1986 when he joined the Hilton in Dusseldorf. He has since worked in such locations as England, Turkey, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Hawaii and Taiwan. He was appointed general manager of the Shangri-La Hotel, Tokyo, in November 2007.

Japan Today editor Chris Betros visits Krueger in his office to hear more.

What attracted you to the hotel industry?

My dream was to live abroad and be able to move around. I thought that the hotel industry was the right industry to do this. That’s what I have been doing for the past 21 years. This is my 12th hotel in 11 countries.

Having worked with many hotel companies, how would you say the Shangri-La’s corporate culture is different?

We are a very Asian company. Our founders – the Kuok Group – are based in Asia, with Asian values in the way we deal with our customers. We have our own core brand. As far as design is concerned, Shangri-La is unique in the sense that when you step into a Shangri-La hotel, you immediately know you are in a Shangri-la hotel. We have a very distinct design with bold carpets and chandeliers. In Japan, it will be the same but with a touch of Japanese to it. For example, some chandeliers will feature ginko leaves.

What was it like when you first arrived here?

It was strange. It was just me working in a small office. It was hard at first, not being able to walk around the hotel, walking into the kitchen tasting food, not having customer contact. Once we got more staff on board, things started getting exciting.

How come it has taken so long for Shangri-La to open its first hotel in Japan?

As you know, this is not an easy market to enter. Location is very important, as is finding the right partner, unless you are prepared to buy the land and building. It has taken us a long time to do that. But we have never neglected Japan. We have had an outbound sales office in Japan for more than 10 years.

Is the Shangri-La brand well-known among Japanese travelers?

Yes, it is. We have a customer recognition program which is by invitation only. Of the approximately 1.3 million members, 10% are based in Japan. Japanese travel within Asia a lot and many have been to our hotels, in particular, Singapore, and our resorts in Malaysia.

With the economic downturn, this isn’t exactly the best time for a 5-star hotel to be opening in Japan.

The whole industry is going through a painful business cycle but once we weather the crisis, I think we will do well. Our strategy is to focus on the domestic market. This was our strategy even before the economic downturn. I’d say at least 60% of our clientele will be Japanese and it will be even higher on weekends. The rest will be corporate business, mainly Asian-based.

One positive factor for us is that there is great interest in the Shangri-La brand here. Plus, when something new comes to town, Japanese people want to see it, experience it and feel it. So I am confident they will come and stay with us.

With all the 5-star hotels now in Tokyo, do you think there is a demand for so many rooms?

I believe so. The 5-star hotels add capacity but not dramatically because they are small. We are a relatively small hotel with only 202 rooms. Remember that the greater Tokyo area has 23 million people and domestic travel is very developed. If the yen drops in value, that will boost inbound visitors.

How did you decide your room rates?

Image and brand positioning are big factors. As a luxury hotel operator, we have to position ourselves in the top end. That requires rates between 50,000 and 60,000 yen. Our suite is around 1 million yen. You don’t create demand by dropping rates. You provide value. Shangri-La has a very high guest return ratio.

How are you marketing the hotel?

As you can imagine, I am doing a lot of interviews. We will do some advertising in high-end magazines. Another good way is to tap into our guest recognition program.

What has been the response so far?

We started taking reservations in December and are getting good bookings. The corporate market wants to see the hotel first, so that will pick up after we open.

What about weddings?

We set up a wedding office in Ginza last October. In fact, the wedding team was the first to be on board. Our first wedding is on March 8.

Tell us about your restaurants.

We have one Italian restaurant, Piacere. The Lobby Lounge on level 28 will serve afternoon tea. There is also a Japanese restaurant, Nadaman.

And banquet facilities?

The 27th floor is dedicated to banqueting. We have a 400-square-meter ballroom, three smaller function rooms and a chapel. The ballroom can accommodate 200 for a sit-down function. In Japan, banqueting usually brings in more revenue than room revenue, so this will be very important for us.

What is your spa like?

Our spa is our own brand, called CHI, featuring ancient Chinese and Himalayan therapies. The hotel has six spa suites, located on the 29th floor. Adjacent to the spa is a 20-meter swimming pool and health club. The spa is open to the public. You don’t have to be a member or hotel guest.

How is the staff training proceeding?

Currently, we have about 320 staff. I am quite impressed by their dedication to training. The other day, some staff brought their own luggage from home for check-in training.

Where did you recruit your staff?

We had 27 new graduates. The others come from other hotels, restaurants and other Shangri-La hotels abroad to make sure there is enough support to introduce the brand properly.

Is it a very mobile labor market?

It always has been. It is always perceived as a benefit to move around. When I ask young people why they are interested in joining us, some say it is because we are strong in Asia and they want to experience our other hotels in Asia.

What is your definition of a good hotelier?

A good hotelier in today’s world is not only a good host but a businessman. However, the business aspect should never be more important than the hosting aspect. You need to expect and anticipate what customers want, read customers and be discreet.

What is your style?

I am all over the place. I will not spend a lot of time in my office because I like to be involved in every area. I usually go to the various workplaces. I like to meet my senior team on an informal basis.

Do you check out your competition?

Most of the GMs in Tokyo know each other. We meet occasionally. Competition keeps us honest and it is important to benchmark your own products and services against your competitors. That is what our customers will do. So I encourage my colleagues to look at competitors.

Will you be living in the hotel?

Actually, I live outside the hotel and enjoy doing so. As a GM, you should know when you have to be in the hotel and when you don’t. Once the hotel opens and things settle down, I’ll take time off. I am an avid traveler and I like diving.

For more information on the Shangri-La Tokyo, visit www.shangri-la.com

© Japan Today

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Just in time for the down turn.

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I was expecting a story about a Zen retreat.

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Can't wait to sample their FREE internet service, as promoted earlier in the week!

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"Tokyo will welcome its newest 5-star hotel"

Recession? What recession?

"FREE internet service"

Is that FREE service included with the 80,000 yen/night rooms?

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The name makes it sound rather 3 star at best.

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Who can afford to go there?

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haha sarge amen.This place is gonna be a ghost town.

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Why Shangri la hotel opens just now? There are at least 20 such hotels in china only, Tokyo is behind the times.

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The guy will make it. He sounds not only product-knowledgeable, but ambitious and humble. The last quality is important in his business...Good luck!

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