Communicating the Spirit of Okinawa

Designing customer experience that goes beyond mere "satisfaction"

Continuing his interviews on innovation in the Japanese service industry, Cris Vlad interviewed Ms. Akiko Katsuki, Head of Customer Relations at the Laguna Garden Hotel in Ginowan, Okinawa, about communicating the spirit of Okinawa to her customers.

CV: Cristian Vlad
AK: Akiko Katsuki

CV: Katsuki-san, you are invested with the extremely exciting mission of re-visiting and transforming customer experience at the Laguna Garden Hotel. What are the main challenges you are confronted with?

AK: Thank you, Cristian! My main concern is constantly striking a good balance between customer expectations and customer satisfaction. At Laguna Garden, we like to think of our guests as of our first of kin, people who look forward to spending time with us and people that we look forward to having a chance to pamper and entertain. Always having a good balance between what customers expect to encounter at our hotel and what they actually experience is what we all strive to accomplish. Exceeding expectations is not easy and, of course, in a perfect world that is what every single hospitality professional aims to achieve. However, realistically speaking, that is much easier said than done in our industry these days, because every single moment our guests spend with us can be that special moment. Therefore, we need to be highly sensitive to notice all signs, to “read the air,” as we say in Japanese, and to also “read ahead” of our guests’ intentions.

CV: That sounds like a very challenging task. How do manage staying on top?

AK: First of all, at Laguna Garden we are all aware that along with our services, we sell the concept of Okinawa to most of our guests who come from various parts of the Japanese archipelago and even overseas. We are all aware of the fact that most travel retailers work hard to sell Okinawa as a destination and that customers today have an increasing amount of choice. Once someone has made the decision to take a plane and come down here, they encounter another increasing number of choice in terms of accommodation, meals, beaches to visit, live shows and other forms of entertainment. People come here expecting to experience and enjoy Okinawa and, therefore, Okinawa is what we have to deliver in terms of sound, flavors, colors, feelings and enjoyment. We would like our guests to enjoy not only “Okinawa” but also the “Laguna Garden Hotel,” since they have chosen to stay with us in “Okinawa” from millions of choices on planet Earth.

CV: How do you do that?

AK: Gyokan wo yomu (“reading between the lines,” as we like to say) is a technique commonly used in Japanese hospitality services and I personally take it to heart. It is all about anticipation; it is about being where the customer is before they even get there. It is the joy of welcoming, serving and providing a unique and memorable experience which our guests will treasure and will always want to re-experience. Delivering on the sales promise is all commonsense. Going beyond what customers have been lead to expect and creating repeated moments of pleasurable surprise is what we all need to do in order for our guests to walk away with a strong desire to return. Hospitality is a perishable service – however, what does not perish that easily for anyone’s heart, is a true emotion of joy and the pleasure of belonging. “Service” is a perceived reality and we strive to instill in our guests minds a comfortable feeling of “belonging” with Laguna Garden, with Okinawa, with our beaches and our authentic atmosphere.

CV: Is sounds to me like you are trying to take hospitality to the level of art?...

AK: Thank you, Cristian. We try to engineer and artistic emotion which, in time, will differentiate us as a provider of modern hospitality from any other hotel or resort our guests may choose to visit in the future.

As a matter of fact, I feel that Laguna is the perfect place for anyone to feel and enjoy Okinawa because Laguna is a unique space produced by many Uchinanchu (local Okinawan people). I am from Hokkaido myself and I transferred here last July. Every single day, I enjoy the feeling of Okinawa, which oozes from every single corner of this hotel, the views, the people, the ambience, the way of working here, the way of valuing the culture and traditions, the way of caring for all the people here, etc. All of these beautifully unique aspects make me feel very comfortable and quite “at home.” I believe that this is exactly what people coming to Okinawa are looking for. We do not need to display ultimate sophistication, like many luxurious hoteliers in large cities and we do not have to imitate any. Our ultimate sophistication and luxury lies deep within our hearts, the warm hospitality we strive to provide, and the unique atmosphere of the region. Therefore, we just need to be own selves, bring our whole selves to work, and be warm and friendly. At Laguna, we all love to welcome and comfort our guests with our traditional Laguna smile and hospitality generated from the bottom of our hearts.

CV: Is technology playing a big part in that process?...

AK: Yes, it is, but, at Laguna, Cristian, we are firm believers in that technology is nothing but a tool – a tool to communicate, to inform, to connect and to operate. What makes us who we truly are, though, is our own selves. It is each and every one of us bringing our whole selves to work. It is the unique human experiences which we create that will delight our guests and will make room for lingering memories upon their departure. Therefore, we strive to ensure that our guest expectations are met and, as humanly possible, constantly exceeded at every touch point of interaction with our staff, the local community and everything else that makes us who we truly are. We strive to create and maintain our unique identity by constantly developing our talent and helping them understand that it is all up to them to deliver meaningful and truly engaging customer experience and that it is only through a successful orchestration of efforts what we will go beyond mere “satisfaction” and will always be the Laguna our guests will love and treasure – the Laguna where they will always belong, the Laguna where they will always wish to return.

One of Japan’s most accomplished hospitality professionals, Akiko Katsuki is Head of Customer Relations at the Laguna Garden Hotel in Ginowan, Okinawa (Japan). Her glamorous career and her relentless spirit of adventure have brought her to exciting destinations, where she held key roles within industry leading hospitality providers: the Ritz Carlton (Naples), the Mandarin Oriental (Hong Kong), the Windsor Hotel Toya (Hokkaido). Akiko currently spends most of her time sharing her strong vision and her love for the hospitality industry with her younger colleagues, in a continuous effort to enhance their commitment and passion for ultimate customer satisfaction.

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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