YOKOHAMA — As the travel industry moves on amid uncertainty amid the coronavirus pandemic, Japan’s gradual steps toward reopening to foreign tourists, beginning with tour groups in June, have been the source of both hope and concern. To delve into this story, The Mainichi sat down with Yasutoshi Abe, general manager of The Kahala Hotel & Resort Yokohama, a luxury hotel with Hawaiian roots that opened in the midst of the pandemic.
Since its opening in September 2020, the hotel has had to react flexibly to the business changes caused by COVID-19. Through such challenges, the hotel has reaffirmed the importance of being a “destination hotel” that not only offers hospitality, but also attracts visitors – both from inside and outside Japan – by valuing 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” branded hotel outside of Hawaii?
Yasutoshi Abe: There is a story that makes the connection between Yokohama and Hawaii inevitable. This originally began 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 have been the first Japanese emigrants and set sail from the port of Yokohama.
In 1881, Japan welcomed its first overseas guest of state. This was King David Kalakaua of Hawaii. He came to Japan from Yokohama. There is an interesting story about this. At that time, the Kingdom of Hawaii was not yet part of the United States. The king was not happy about the possibility that it would become US territory and probably wanted to learn from Japan, which was good at staying independent. Upon his arrival, he was greeted by sailors at Yokohama port, who saluted and sang the national anthem written by the king himself. He is said to have cried in astonishment when he arrived in Japan.
Today, many Japanese love Hawaii and vacation there to relax. I think it all started with the King Kalakaua episode. I think it’s in a way inevitable that Yokohama will be the starting point for Kahala Hotel’s global expansion.
M: What kind of guests were your main target audience during the planning phase before the outbreak of the coronavirus and who actually visited the hotel after it opened?
A: Before opening the hotel, we imagined that more than half of our guests would be foreigners, so we made thorough preparations to welcome overseas tourists. We have planned a lot of content for foreign guests when organizing activities and transport, most of which we have not been able to fully use so far.
Our current customers are all from areas within Japan. After the prefecture, most of the guests come from Tokyo. They make up about half of the total number. Next come the residents of Kanagawa Prefecture, who account for about 30%, while the rest are from other areas. The number of guests from the surrounding area far exceeded our expectations. There was even one guest who pointed to a high-rise apartment building visible from our 14th floor lobby window and said that he lived there. Apparently the guest had seen the hotel building grow from day to day since it was just a wasteland and developed a kind of affection for it. There are also guests who drive five hours from Nagoya to Kahala Yokohama.
M: Do preparations differ depending on whether they are aimed at a Japanese audience or a foreign audience?
A: Yes, they are very different. For Japanese people, Chinatown is an important tourist spot in Yokohama. But foreign tourists are unlikely to make Chinatown their priority because they came to experience Japan. Hotels need to make connections with the local community, including those who work in restaurants and taxi companies, but since we’ve focused on preparing for inbound tourism, we haven’t done enough research or developed close relationships with those in Chinatown beforehand. These were all carried out after the hotel opened in September 2020.
M: How have the hotel’s services changed to meet the needs of this new class of guests from Japan?
A: We didn’t originally envision Kahala Yokohama as a counterpart to Kahala Hawaii in Japan as the purpose of this project was to create a new Kahala brand in Yokohama. But to our surprise, many guests visited us in Yokohama because they could not travel to Kahala Hawaii under the current conditions. We’ve had a lot of feedback from guests saying they wanted a more Hawaiian vibe.
To respond, we decided to change our strategy and launch our “Aloha Friday” experience about a year after the hotel opened. Hawaii has a culture where employees are allowed to dress casually to work on Fridays in anticipation of 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 surrounded by Hawaiian music and a tropical scent. This was very well received by our guests. It also led to our “Aloha Holiday” program, which offers the same Hawaiian experience on weekends and holidays.
For our guests seeking 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 guest rooms at our hotel, five are reserved for a special plan that offers the ultimate Hawaiian experience with Hawaiian quilts and a room-sized palm tree.
We are aware that it is absolutely necessary to adapt to the needs of the customers and to change everything from the content and methods of our services to our approach depending on the customer. Therefore, when tourists from outside Japan visit us, we provide services that meet their needs. Although we opened in September 2020, we believe our hotel will really take off when we welcome foreign visitors.
M: What are your expectations for the resumption of incoming tourism?
A: The reality now is that weekday occupancy is low. After inbound tourism resumes, those visiting Japan for business may increase occupancy on these days. In addition, foreign business guests stay for relatively longer periods compared to our current Japanese guests who only stay one night and depart. As the number of guests checking in per day decreases, it becomes easier for us staff to provide comprehensive services for each guest.
M: What kind of COVID-19 safety measures have been taken in the hotel?
A: After the outbreak of the coronavirus, we have taken great care to create a space at Kahala Yokohama that makes guests feel safe and secure. For example, there are hardly any paper materials in the guest rooms to eliminate the discomfort when previous guests touch them. Room service menus and other information will be displayed on the TV instead.
The cleaning of our housekeeping staff was also rated very well by our customers. We’ve also put a lot of effort into in-room dining for guests who want to avoid meeting other guests as much as possible. It is indeed difficult to serve meals indoors while keeping hot and cold food at their ideal temperatures, but through trial and error we have been able to provide quality service. We have also limited the number of people who can use our pool and spa to avoid overcrowding.
M: Please tell us about the future of Kahala Yokohama. Will the hotel change its Hawaiian concept and service for Japanese guests once foreign tourists arrive in large numbers again?
A: The core 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 arts of the local community. Therefore, we wish to preserve aspects of Kahala Hawaii while having an existence that is closely connected to and needed by the local community of Yokohama. We want to be a hotel loved by Yokohama.
Before I came to Kahala, I worked in a hotel in Tokyo where 90% of the guests were foreigners. In 2019, before the pandemic, so many people came from overseas that the capital alone could not accommodate them. Such tourists are interested in visiting places other than Tokyo. The hotel must create a reason for these visitors to visit Yokohama instead of Tokyo. Therefore, we are preparing for the hotel to show foreign guests the charm of Yokohama. We want to offer a cuisine and activities that are closely connected to the community, to show guests that they can meet such beautiful places and people and have a great time in Yokohama.
Instead of asking, “Where should I stay during my trip to Yokohama?” We want 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 to shop, eat and move around the city.
In the long term, I believe we will have guests who want to experience Hawaii as well as those who want to experience Yokohama. I think it is necessary that we become a hotel that can respond to both. The hotel name “Kahala” comes from the name of a neighborhood in Honolulu. Kahala Yokohama’s spirit of respecting the local community was born in Hawaii. We want to carry on that spirit by welcoming everyone like a warm family.
(By Chinami Takeichi, The Mainichi Staff Writer)
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Yasutoshi Abe was appointed General Manager of The Kahala Hotel & Resort Yokohama in August 2021. He was chief concierge at the luxury hotels Aman Tokyo and Conrad Tokyo, as well as a member of Les Clefs d’Or Japan, an association of hotel concierges with a worldwide network. Abe said he aspires to be a general manager who is committed to “going into the field and interacting with hotel guests.”