YOKOHAMA — As the travel industry continues to face uncertainty amid the coronavirus pandemic, Japan’s gradual steps to reopen to overseas tourists, starting with tour groups in June, have been both source of hope and concern. To dive into this story, The Mainichi spoke with Yasutoshi Abe, the general manager of Kahala Hotel & Resort Yokohama, a luxury hotel with Hawaiian roots that opened amid the pandemic.
Since opening in September 2020, the hotel has had to respond flexibly to the business flow brought by COVID-19. Through such challenges, the hotel has reconfirmed the importance of being a “destination hotel” that not only offers hospitality, but attracts visitors – from Japan and abroad – cherishing its connection with the local community.
Below are excerpts from the interview, which was conducted in Japanese.
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The Mainichi: Why was Yokohama chosen as the location for the first “Kahala” brand hotel outside of Hawaii?
Yasutoshi Abe: There is a story that makes the connection between Yokohama and Hawaii inevitable. It originally started with a group of migrants who left Japan for Hawaii in 1868, the first year of the Meiji period (1868-1912). They are said to be the first Japanese emigrants and they left the port of Yokohama.
In 1881, Japan accepted its first overseas state guest. It was King David Kalakaua of Hawaii. He entered Japan from Yokohama. There is an interesting story to this. At the time, the Kingdom of Hawaii was not yet part of the United States. The king was unhappy with the possibility of it becoming an American territory and must have wanted to learn from Japan, which was doing well in remaining independent. Upon his arrival, he was greeted by sailors at the port of Yokohama who saluted and sang the national anthem, which had been written by the king himself. He was said to have cried in astonishment when he arrived in Japan.
Today, many Japanese people love Hawaii and go there on vacation to relax. I think it all started with the King Kalakaua episode. I think it is in a sense inevitable that Yokohama will be the starting point for Kahala Hotel’s global expansion.
M: What type of guests were you primarily targeting during the planning stages, before the coronavirus outbreak, and who actually visited the hotel after it opened?
A: Before the hotel opened, we thought that more than half of our guests would be foreigners, so we made careful preparations to welcome foreign tourists. We have planned a lot of content targeting foreign guests when arranging activities and transportation, most of which we have not been able to fully utilize so far.
Our current customers are all from parts of Japan. By prefecture, the largest number of guests come from Tokyo. They make up about half of the total. This is followed by residents of Kanagawa Prefecture, who make up about 30%, while the rest come from other areas. The number of guests from neighboring areas far exceeded our expectations. There was even a guest who pointed to a high rise apartment building that can be seen from our 14th floor lobby window and said they lived there. The guest had apparently seen the hotel building grow day by day, since it was just a wasteland, and had developed a kind of affection for it. There are also guests who drive five hours from Nagoya to come to Kahala Yokohama.
M: Do the preparations differ depending on whether they are aimed at a Japanese or foreign audience?
A: Yes, they differ greatly. For the Japanese, Chinatown is a major tourist site in Yokohama. But foreign tourists probably won’t make Chinatown a priority, because they’ve come to experience Japan. Hotels need to establish links with the local community, including those who work in restaurants and taxi companies, but as we have focused on inbound tourism preparations, we have not done enough research or created close ties with those in Chinatown beforehand. This was all done after the hotel opened in September 2020.
M: How have hotel services changed to meet the needs of this new category of Japanese guests?
A: We originally did not envision Kahala Yokohama as the counterpart of Kahala Hawaii in Japan, as the purpose of this project was to launch a new Kahala brand in Yokohama. But to our surprise, many guests visited us in Yokohama because they were unable to travel to Kahala Hawaii under current conditions. We got a lot of feedback from guests saying they wanted a more Hawaiian feel.
To answer this, we decided to change strategy and launch our “Aloha Friday” experience about a year after the hotel opened. Hawaii has a culture where employees are allowed to dress casual to work on Fridays to anticipate the weekend, and we also decided to bring that custom here to create a fully Hawaiian experience in Japan. On Fridays, our staff wear aloha shirts and other Hawaiian attire, and the lobby is enveloped in Hawaiian music and tropical scent. This was extremely well received by our guests. This has also led to our “Aloha Holiday” program, which offers the same Hawaiian experience on weekends and holidays.
For our guests looking for a Hawaiian atmosphere, we have prepared a Hawaiian buffet, where they can dine while enjoying ukulele music and a hula dance show. Of the 146 rooms at our hotel, five are reserved for a special plan that offers the ultimate Hawaiian experience, with beds covered in Hawaiian quilts and a room-sized palm tree.
We realize that it is absolutely necessary to listen to clients’ needs and to change everything, from the content and methods of our services to our approach, according to the client. Therefore, when foreign tourists visit us, we provide services that meet their needs. Although we opened in September 2020, we believe that our hotel will only really take off when we welcome foreign visitors.
M: What expectations do you have for the resumption of inbound tourism?
A: The reality is that the occupancy rate is low on weekdays. Following the resumption of inbound tourism, people visiting Japan for business may increase occupancy rates on these days. In addition, foreign customers on business trips stay relatively longer, compared to our current Japanese customers who stay one night and leave. As the number of guests checking in each day decreases, it becomes easier for us staff members to provide extended services to each guest.
M: What kind of COVID-19 safety measures have been taken at the hotel?
A: After the coronavirus outbreak, we became very concerned about creating a space at Kahala Yokohama that provides guests with a sense of safety and security. For example, there is virtually no paper material in the guest rooms, to eliminate the discomfort of previous guests touching them. Room service menus and other information are on the TV instead.
The cleaning of our housekeeping staff has also received high reviews from our customers. We’ve also put a lot of effort into in-room dining for guests who want to avoid encountering other guests as much as possible. It is indeed difficult to serve meals in the rooms while keeping hot and cold dishes at their ideal temperatures, but by trial and error, we were able to offer quality services. We have also limited the number of people who can use our pool and spa to avoid crowding.
M: Tell us about the future of Kahala Yokohama. Will the hotel change its Hawaiian concept and services for Japanese guests once foreign tourists arrive in large numbers again?
A: At the heart of the hotel is the idea of ”Kisca”, short for Kahala’s Initiative for Sustainability, Culture and the Arts, which values efforts to protect and transmit the culture and art of the local community. So we would like to retain aspects of Kahala Hawaii, while having a closely related and necessary existence for the local Yokohama community. We want to be a loved hotel in Yokohama.
Before coming to Kahala, I worked in a hotel in Tokyo where 90% of the customers were foreigners. In 2019, before the pandemic, there were so many people from abroad that they could not be accommodated in the capital alone. These tourists are interested in visiting places other than Tokyo. The hotel must create a reason for these visitors to want to visit Yokohama, instead of Tokyo. Therefore, we are preparing for the hotel to show foreign guests the charms of Yokohama. We would like to provide cuisine and activities that are closely related to the community, to show customers that they can meet such nice places and people and experience quality time in Yokohama.
Instead of asking, “Where should I stay during my trip to Yokohama?” we would like people to come to Yokohama because they want to stay in Kahala. By achieving this goal, the hotel can contribute to the local community by attracting a new group of visitors, who will shop, eat and move around the city.
In the long term, I think we will have guests who want a taste of Hawaii, as well as those who want to experience Yokohama. I think it is necessary for us to become a hotel that can respond to both. The name of the hotel “Kahala” comes from the name of a district of Honolulu. The spirit of respect for the local community of Kahala Yokohama was born in Hawaii. We wish to perpetuate this spirit by welcoming everyone as a warm family.
(By Mainichi main writer Chinami Takeichi)
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Yasutoshi Abe was appointed General Manager of Kahala Hotel & Resort Yokohama in August 2021. He served as Chief Concierge at luxury hotels Aman Tokyo and Conrad Tokyo, as well as a member of Clefs d’Or Japan, an association of hotel concierges with a global network. Abe said he aspires to be a general manager who makes it a point “to get out there and interact with hotel guests”.