"Willingness to Act":
A Secret to Japanese hospitality?

Around the world, people have been trying to understand the Omotenashi, the concept behind the world-renowned Japanese hospitality. GLOBIS Faculty Cristian Vlad interviewed Mr. Morio Higashionna, the Sales & Marketing Director of The Terrace Hotels, regarded as a top hotel in Okinawa, for how insight as to how to create an unforgettable customer experience. 

CV: Cristian Vlad
MH: Morio Higashionna

CV: Higashionna-san, I have known you for just about twenty years now and you never cease to amaze me – your energy, your creativity and love for the hospitality industry seem to have no boundaries. Where do you get all this inspiration?

MH: Well, that’s very kind of you to say. I simply love my work and I am truly passionate about hospitality. This is an incredibly dynamic industry, which grows and transforms rapidly, in line with the progress of technology, society, trends, mentalities and, of course, our guests’ expectations.

CV: What specifically has changed over the last ten years?

MH: Pretty much everything. Our guest portfolio has changed, to begin with. Ten years ago in Okinawa, more than 90% of our guests were Japanese. We had some guests from neighboring countries, such as Korea and Taiwan, as well as some local guests from the US army, but the numbers were low. Today, it depends on the season, of course, but there are times when the foreign guests by far outnumber the domestic visitors from Japan, and this, to every one of us working in hospitality, has been a major element of change. Furthermore, technology has also impacted our business a lot. Ten years ago, we used to receive a lot of bookings over the phone, by fax or through intermediary agents. Today, our guests expect to be able to book their accommodation using an iPhone application and the level of individual customization expected is on the increase year by year, month by month, day by day.

CV: This all must have been quite an impact on your business. How did you keep up with these changes?

MH: I try to be extremely mindful about what needs to change and what needs to stay untouched. First of all, most of our guests are repeaters who chose to stay with our hotel for a variety of reasons, but most importantly, for who we are, what we offer and how we interact with them. This is our very existence, the commitment to our customer promise and the passion to deliver on that every single step of the way. I remind our associates every time I have an opportunity how important it is for all of us to stay true to who we are, to be authentic, genuine and personal.

CV: Is that easy to do?...

MH: Of course not! It takes a lot of practice, training and a willingness to act.

CV: To act?

MH: Yes, to act. We are in an industry where the perceived reality is everything. Sometimes it is not the hardware that matters to our guests as much as the atmosphere of the resort, the way they are met and greeted, the way their needs are anticipated and dealt with and the genuine hospitality of our associates. Hospitality is a mindset that we all need to be able to act out. We are the cast.

CV: So how do you train your associates into this “mindset”?

MH: I usually begin by helping people understand what “The Busena Way” is all about. This is what distinguishes us and differentiates us all in a meaningful and an emotional way from any one of our competitors on the Ryukyu Islands, new or old. It our unique definition of “service” – being able to collect hints and suggestions directly from our customers through our interaction with them. We know what customer experience is all about – therefore, we listen carefully. We observe continuously. Then we strive to exceed every single expectation.

CV: Do your associates understand this right away?...

MH: Some do, some need some further help. Then I explain that what we do is similar to Disneyland or maybe a musical. We all need to orchestrate our efforts in order to create that specific reality which would exceed whatever expectation our website, sales reps or promotions might have projected into the minds and hearts of our guests. I often tell my younger associates who ask me, “Why act?” this simple story: “When you go to Disneyland, after you have had a great time all around the park, what would you say if, for example, during a break you saw Mickey smoking a cigarette right around the corner?... Your dream would be gone!” Be it Mickey, be it Santa Claus. A dream is a dream and a promise is a promise! In hospitality, regardless of whether we are a resort, a restaurant or a theater, we need to be able to deliver more value on stage than the guests have paid at the entrance. Does that make sense?

CV: It does. I am just curious to know how you manage to create that authentic experience and keep it authentic in time.

MH: It is all perception. It is the colors that we use, the visuals, the sounds, the flavors, the architecture and the ambiance. These are all carefully engineered to create a unique image which is meant to linger in our guests’ minds, long after their departure. What I personally hope that will linger even further is our own Busena Smile, the friendly attitude of our people and the human touch of our services. I want our guests to think of us whenever they think of Okinawa and I want the name of our resort to come to mind first whenever anyone plans a refreshing and memorable retreat by the ocean in Japan.

Native to Okinawa, Morio Higashionna spent most of his live living and welcoming guests to the Ryukyu Islands. Upon graduation from Okinawa International University, Morio started working in the hospitality industry with the local Grand Castle Hotel, continuing to support the development of the industry throughout his whole career. Laguna Garden Hotel in Ginowan and the Terrace Hotels group carry his authentic fingerprint. In his spare time, Morio composes music, frequently used at the facilities he manages and he trains up and coming local talent in the skill of music and performing art.

A seasoned veteran of business transformation, organizational development and innovation initiatives, both in terms of product and organizational innovation, Cristian Vlad is the President and CEO of JCE Japan Creative Enterprise, a young and dynamic agency which helps corporate teams transform their business and manage their talent. Cristian has been advising global clients on the role of diversity, human capital, creativity and corporate communications as strategic business drivers to foster innovation and stimulate business growth. He has been recognized by both multinational corporations and emerging enterprises as a thought leader in the areas of business strategy, relationship management, organizational development and architecture, leadership, social media, collaborative environments, people operations, transformation and business model innovation. In parallel, Cristian is an IBM Global Business Services consultant, advising corporate clients on Talent and Organizational Transformation projects.

Prior to his current role, Cristian was project manager at Toyota Motor Corporation, where he led a team of advanced product development professionals within the Corporate Value Creation Department. He also consulted on numerous organizational changes, corporate rebranding and transformation projects globally, in a wide rage of industries. Cristian holds an MA in International Relations from Hirosaki University and a dual BA in Communications and Foreign Language Education from the University of Bucharest.

Cristian currently resides in Fukuoka, Hong Kong and San Francisco.

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