In May, the Hotel Okura Tokyo marked its 50th anniversary. One of Asia’s most renowned hotels, the Okura opened its doors with the vision of offering a unique Japanese-style international hotel, emphasizing “hospitality and harmony.”
Over the years, the Okura has expanded in Japan and abroad, including Shanghai, Macau, Bangkok, Hawaii and Amsterdam.
The Tokyo hotel remains the Okura’s flagship hotel, boasting two wings. The hotel has more than 796 rooms, 9 restaurants and 3 bars, a spa and fitness center, as well as several banquet rooms.
Overseeing operations is Masahiro Kiyohara, president and general manager of Hotel Okura Tokyo Co Ltd. After graduating with a B.A. from the Faculty of Economics at Gakushuin University in 1971, Kiyohara began his hotel career at the Okura. He assumed his current position in June 2009.
Japan Today editor Chris Betros visits Kiyohara at the hotel to hear more.
What was your very first job at the Okura?
I started as a waiter in 1971 and I thought I would quit after three months. I still remember my mistake. A guest asked for the bill at breakfast one day in the Orchid Room (restaurant) and I thought he said “beer,” so that’s what I brought him.
And now you are president and general manager as the hotel celebrates its 50th anniversary.
It’s a great milestone. When the hotel opened 50 years ago, it was based on three pillars. One was to be an international hotel. Second was to not just copy American or European hotels. The third was to put Japanese culture in the hotel. For example, a traditional folded crane awaits guests on the pillow in their rooms, there are Japanese patterns on the walls in rooms and restaurants, and I believe the Okura is the only hotel with elevator attendants in kimonos.
How did the hotel mark its 50th anniversary?
With some special events. Nationally popular singer Yuming Matsutoya gave three dinner shows which attracted more than 1,200 people. There was also a noh performance by grand master Kiyokazu Kanze.
What do you think are the Okura’s strengths?
We have a very traditional image and we are dedicated to offering the best accommodation, best cuisine and best service. There are a lot of foreign brand hotels in Tokyo now, but one of our advantages is that we have a strong food and beverage division with 8 restaurants and 3 bars under our direct operation. In most foreign hotels, they are an indirect operation. More than 60% of our revenue comes from food and beverages.
What is the hotel’s most popular restaurant?
The Chinese restaurant Toh-Ka-Lin, which has been open since 1962.
How is the wedding and banquet business?
The wedding business dropped after the March 11 disaster but it is back at 90% of previous levels. We can handle eight weddings in one day. The MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) business is a target that we wish to go after more.
How has occupancy been since the March 11, 2011 disaster?
Business dropped after the earthquake, especially in April, but we recovered by the end of the fiscal year. Our average occupancy rate is about 65%. Our best months are April, May, September and October. The IMF and World Bank will have big meetings in Tokyo in October and we will be fully booked.
What percentage of your guests is non-Japanese?
Currently, the share of foreign visitors is 40%. It used to be about 45%, so it is not a big drop. The Asian market is becoming very important, especially South Korea, Taiwan, China, Vietnam and India.
How are you marketing the hotel?
We do some advertising in magazines, newspapers and on TV, as well as our homepage. We haven’t done a lot yet on social media such as Facebook and Twitter because our main target is still the older generation of Japanese who don’t use computers much. However, we are targeting younger guests and online bookings are increasing.
If Tokyo is awarded the 2020 Olympics, do you think there will be enough hotel rooms?
If you include hotel rooms in the Yokohama area, then I think the city would have enough rooms.
Do you ever visit other hotels to see what they are doing?
Yes, and I sometimes stay in other hotels to see what they are doing. It’s always useful. Most of the GMs in Tokyo know each other and we get together now and again.
Does the Okura get many job applications each year?
Yes we do. This year, about 10,000 people applied online. Then we narrowed the number down to about 4,000 and finally we hired 34 graduates. The hotel industry has great appeal for young people. We have hotels abroad and graduates have three months training at our Amsterdam hotel.
Do you like to be in the lobby greeting guests?
Definitely. I’m there mornings and evenings for 30 minutes to an hour. It’s an important part of a GM’s job.
What is a typical day for you?
Every morning I do the rounds for daily reports. I don’t like meetings so much and halved the number when I became GM. More than half of the day I am not in my office. Half of the week, I live in the hotel, since my home is one hour away. When I am at home, I get here at about 6:30 a.m. If I have to greet VIPs, I’ll come on weekends, but otherwise, I take the weekend off and enjoy going for walks with my wife or listening to music.