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Historic landmark hotel preserves legacy of quality and broad appeal

Interview - April 22, 2016

Tokyo’s iconic Imperial Hotel originally opened its doors in 1890 at the behest of the Japanese aristocracy to cater for the increasing number of Western visitors to Japan, and has since welcomed a stream international dignitaries, royalty and celebrities. Maintaining the finest levels of Japanese hospitality and safeguarding its historic legacy, President Hideya Sadayasu provides an insight into one of Japan’s most prestigious and landmark establishments.


What in your opinion makes the Imperial Hotel so special?

The Imperial Hotel celebrated its 125th anniversary last November. We originally opened in 1890 as a guesthouse. The Meiji government at the time was guided by a policy that aimed to catch up with the Western world, and ideally surpass Western standards, and that is how they decided to build the first Western-style establishment in the center of Tokyo.

The majority of the original investment came from a group of financial leaders at the time, and it was part of their mission to provide hospitality and related services to overseas guests. Nowadays we see many more hotels and establishments built on foreign capital investments, but as a truly ‘made in Japan’ hotel we have the mission of passing this mantle down to the next generation.

The first hotel’s design and plans were completed by a Japanese architect, and the second hotel was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1923. We started operations on September 1 of that same year. On that same day, though, the country was struck by the Kanto earthquake, which was the country’s largest earthquake at the time. Mr Wright knew about the country’s nature of being somewhat prone to earthquakes, so he had already factored this into his designs and plans for the hotel. The majority of buildings in the area were destroyed, but luckily the hotel building survived.

Today, Mr Wright’s architectural style and design still survives today; it forms a strong part of the hotel’s DNA and certainly contributes to attracting a greater number of American guests to the hotel. We still have a bar that strongly resembles a great deal of his style.

The Imperial Hotel has hosted a number of prestigious guests and high-ranking individuals, celebrities, actors and sports people, including Babe Ruth, Charlie Chaplin and Marylyn Monroe, to name a few. The famous line from Marilyn Monroe when she was asked what she slept in and replied “in Chanel no. 5”, was in fact pronounced at the Imperial Hotel. We also had the opportunity to welcome Keanu Reeves as one of our guests – he was extremely impressed with the laundry service at this hotel and in fact in one of his films there is a scene where he has made a mess on his shirt and as ad lib improvisation he dropped in a line about the quality and the service of this hotel, which we are still very thankful about. We have been very lucky to have such guests. In 1911, we were the first hotel to implement a laundry service inside the hotel.


The hotel marked its 125th anniversary by announcing the extensive renovation of all 361 rooms within the 31-story Imperial Tower. How are the renovations coming along and how are they set to maximize on both comfort and convenience?

The main building’s renovation was completed about five years ago, at the time of our 120th anniversary. The investment was approximately $160 million. So now, with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics games coming up, we have decided to renovate our 361 tower rooms, though I wouldn’t call it a major renovation nor a minor renovation either. We wanted to enhance our guests’ comfort, assure a more simple functionality, and provide a genuine homely atmosphere. So we have looked at the interior design, at colors, and other design elements. One thing that we have been focused on is to be able to offer a cozy and warm atmosphere.


A man in such a position within the industry is bound to have his finger on the pulse when it comes down to market activity and performance. What are your views on Abenomics and its impact on the tourism industry and consumer spending as a whole?

In the autumn of 2012, the IMF conference was held during the time of the first Abe administration, and from around this time we started to see light at the end of the tunnel, especially in the hospitality industry. Back then the yen was strong, but we started to see changes – namely with our currency depreciation, which is definitely beneficial towards attracting further foreign tourists to Japan.

At around the same time we also started to see a rise in stock prices and general market performance. Visa restrictions were also loosened towards Asian nations. Now on top of that Tokyo has been chosen as the host city for the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. So after the Lehman shock and then the March 2011 disasters, we now feel a strong prevailing wind behind especially our industry.

When looking at the hotel industry in Tokyo, and at the service levels, I believe that we are extremely competitive and able to compete in the same field and platform as cities such as London and New York. I believe that continued investment towards ensuring and improving this quality will allow us to further increase the average value of each unit that we offer. Also after we complete the Rio Olympics this summer, more and more of the world’s eyes will be pointed towards Japan, and therefore we will probably see a further increase in demand.


To what extent do you believe that tourism can become a key economic driver behind the growth and revitalization of Japan?

Many other nations have already reached the 20-30 million visitor benchmark and I believe that these countries have been very focused on their sales efforts. I am not saying that Japan hasn’t placed any effort on selling itself as a destination, but that our tourism industry is still in its infancy and is a relatively newly growing sector.

An example of a positive step in the right direction has been the establishment of the Tourism Bureau, which should become the strong foundation of the industry itself. This is something I’m excited about and look forward to. Other concrete initiatives such as the loosening of visas are a by-product of such efforts by upper-level government. You can also see other efforts being made on a small level such as quality English signs, which make a difference to visitors. The expansion of both Haneda and Narita airports are also examples of investment intentions and a stronger focus on infrastructure.

Overall, Japanese hospitality is very highly regarded globally, and this is definitely something we can promote aggressively and further develop.

Looking at the current situation I believe that we are too dependent on China as a source of tourism. I think that it is important to promote and invite further tourists from markets such as the US and EU, which should lead to a stable increase of tourists and a more stable tourism industry and environment in Japan.


What do you believe will be the positive outcomes of the 2020 Games and how do you believe that a positive long-lasting legacy can be implemented?

The 2020 Olympics and Paralympics will mark the Imperial Hotel’s 130th anniversary. The Imperial Hotel brand already has establishments in Tokyo, Osaka and Kamikochi. As we work towards the 150th anniversary, we should consider ourselves to be in a fortunate position to be able to have such a prestigious event such as the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, which forces us to think about how to improve our brand as well as the actual hotel itself.

We can also look into how we can improve quality; as a corporation specifically we need to think about the next generation and how are we going to pass on the Imperial hotel’s DNA. In this regard, we are placing huge importance and added strength into our human resources training, so that we can nurture our hotel personnel, and ensure that they are able to seamlessly communicate in English, and build other resources that we can be even more proud of. As a corporation, I believe we will be able to register quality growth as we work towards 2020, but I think what is more important to consider here is to think far beyond 2020.


Can you provide some insight on guest numbers and percentages along with the hotel’s focus on further developing human resources?

In the past we used to have approximately 50% of our guest coming from Japan and the other 50% were foreign guests. After the Lehman shock however, we saw an enormous decline in the number of foreign guests. We used to have roughly 20% of guests from the US, 10% from Europe, 10% from our neighboring Asian countries, 10% from other countries around the world, and the other 50% were domestic customers. The 2008 global economic recession, followed by the terrible disasters of 2011 alongside the introduction of other competitors in the city, have brought us a large decline in the number of foreign guests to the hotel. The number is approximately 20% for EU and American guests combined and 20% for Asian guests. I believe that a good number of the other 50% of Japanese guests are repeat guests, and this is certainly a strength of the hotel: the majority of our guests are loyal.

I think the next generational challenge is to continue to improve the quality of our human resources, and make sure that when once they have been a guest of the Imperial Hotel, they will return again in the future. It is through such means that we build for the future.

After the 2011 events, we saw a great drop in foreign visitors so we had to close our sales offices in Los Angeles and London, and only maintain our New York office. In 2014 we saw the opening of a new location in Singapore, and as part of the alliance with ‘The Leading Hotels of the World’ we have been more engaged with stronger PR initiatives, which has helped us to bring in new customers as well.

I was formerly based in the LA branch in the 1990s to sell Japan as a destination, and in charge of promoting Japan via a number of agencies. My job was to essentially market the Imperial Hotel and Japan as a country.

I have stayed in a number of hotels both for pleasure and also for research purposes, and when looking at electronic systems in hotel rooms, I noticed that most of them were Japanese products, TVs, radios, etc. After having stayed in approximately 10 hotels, I noticed that in nine of them the TVs were manufactured in Korea. You can see the same thing in Japan with a number of foreign-backed five-star hotels on the market. The Imperial Hotel is a truly ‘made in Japan’ hotel – we pride ourselves on being able to offer a type of charm that only a ‘made in Japan’ hotel is able to provide; and by staying loyal to such initiatives I believe we are able to attract foreign clients and guests.

I do believe that expansion is important, but also to maintain the quality of the hotel; this is something that we are working strongly towards for 2020.

The number of US tourists entering Japan passed 1 million last year; what importance are you placing on the US as a strong growth market?

As a unique and iconic hotel that includes the features, designs and taste of Frank Lloyd Wright, I think our existence is significant. Even if we were to have further renovation plans in the future, I intend on maintaining this touch, taste and style, and this will of course stay as a strong sales point which continues to appeal to the US audience.

Our location is key as well. We are located in downtown Tokyo in a central area – Ginza is nearby, as are the Imperial Palace and the National Diet Building. Needless to say we are also based in the middle of the business district.

Our scale is a big factor: we are a very big hotel with 931 rooms, 17 restaurants and numerous bars. I believe our function as a hotel is very broad, not only to business customers but individual travelers, event holders, families and many more. I believe that our ability to cater to these diverse needs and purposes is a real strength. As a grand hotel, this type of versatility is something that we can promote towards a wider potential US client base. We are also in an alliance with a Hawaiian resort, Halekulani, which does offer many significant PR opportunities and collaborations.


How does the hotel fare in the MICE market, and what is used to attract foreign visitors?

In 2012, the IMF annual meeting was held in Tokyo; and as we progress towards the 2020 MICE event there are plenty of opportunities to develop this segment further. The IMF event itself was held in the Yurakucho area, mainly in the Tokyo International Forum, but a number of the events were held in the Imperial Hotel. Christine Lagarde, the IMF Managing Director, specifically praised the organization, saying that such a safe and secure event hosting, with this type of robust infrastructure, such punctual organization and professionalism was unprecedented.

I must mention is that the majority of large MICE events cannot happen alone. These events require either the invitation of the government or convention centers; it is a collaborative initiative, so I believe that such activities need to be more encouraged, as it’s not only good for the hotel but also for the whole area.


What advice would you offer the government or authorities in terms of what is still missing in the tourism sector?

I think what is going to be more and more important is the relationship between the public and private sectors. One of the main factors that it comes down to are the PR efforts – not only within the Asian market but globally. And with the current popularity of Japanese culture – its cuisine, movies, technologies – now is really the time to further promote. Each area must utilize and promote what it has to offer, from Hokkaido all the way to Okinawa. I think the government must provide further support to each and every area in order to further aggressively promote itself to the outside world.

As we see a more beneficial exchange rate, we will see more tourists coming in from all nations, especially Asia. Just this alone is not acceptable or sustainable; we must create more long-term strategies that will allow us to increase our tourist numbers to 10, 20, 30 million more in the future.

I strongly believe that we must continue to promote the charms that we offer; this is important for our future. There are a wide number of abundant resources we can promote to the outside, and such actions must be led by the government. We of course will do what we can to participate as a private entity.