Willingness to Act:
The Secret to Japanese Hospitality?

All around the world, people trying to understand omotenashi, the driving force behind Japanese hospitality. GLOBIS Faculty Cristian Vlad interviewed Mr. Morio Higashionna, Sales & Marketing Director of The Terrace Hotels in Okinawa, for how insight into creating an unforgettable customer experience. 

CV: You seem to have such boundless energy, creativity, and love for the hospitality industry. Where do you get your inspiration?

MH: That’s very kind of you to say, but the truth is, I simply love my work. I'm passionate about hospitality. This is an incredibly dynamic industry. It grows and transforms in line with the rapid progress of technology, society, trends, mentalities and, of course, guest expectations.

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

MH: Pretty much everything. Our guest portfolio, to begin with. Ten years ago in Okinawa, more than 90% of our guests were Japanese. We had some visitors 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. To everyone working in hospitality, this has been a major element of change. Furthermore, technology has impacted our business a lot. Ten years ago, we used to receive bookings over the phone, by fax, or through intermediary agents. Today, our guests expect to be able to book their accommodations using an app, and expectations for individual customization are on the rise year by year, month by month, even day by day.

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

MH: I try to be extremely mindful about what needs to change and what needs to remain untouched. First of all, most of our guests are repeaters who choose our hotel for who we are, what we offer, and how we interact with them. Our commitment to our customer promise is our very existence. At every opportunity, I remind our associates how important it is for all of us to stay true to who we are—to be authentic, genuine, and personal.

CV: Do you find that's an easy promise to keep?

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 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 on.

CV: So how do you train your associates for this mindset?

MH: I usually begin by helping people understand what the Busena way is all about. This is what distinguishes us in a meaningful and an emotional way from 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 interactions with them. We know what the customer experience is all about, so we listen carefully. We observe continuously. Then we strive to exceed every single expectation.

CV: How quickly are your associates able to understand this?

MH: Some right away, others need further help. For the latter, I explain that what we do is similar to Disneyland, or even a musical. We all need to orchestrate our efforts 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. My younger associates sometimes ask, “Why act?” I tell them this simple story: Imagine you go to Disneyland and have had a great time all around the park. But then you turn a corner and see Mickey on a break smoking a cigarette. How would you feel? Your dream would be shattered! Be it Mickey, Santa Claus, or whomever, 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.

CV: So how do you manage to create that authentic experience and keep it authentic over 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 should 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 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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