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  • Apr 23, 2014
  • Updated: 11:18pm
Wealth Blog
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 February, 2014, 11:15am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 February, 2014, 11:15am

Wealth Blog: Will Hyatt’s service revolution work in Japan?

BIO

Anna is a business writer and editor of the SCMP’s Money Magazine. During her 20-year Hong Kong career, she’s written everything from stock market reports and luxury goods sector analysis to speeches for the HKSAR Chief Executive and served as president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club for two years.
 

It’s worked in Los Angeles, London, New York and Amsterdam but it will be interesting to see how Hyatt’s Andaz concept goes down in Tokyo. Most global hotels still stick to: guest arrives, bellboy takes bags, guest checks in at reception desk, gets key, goes to room and is reunited with bags.

Then six years ago Hyatt launched their Andaz brand and broke that mould. Twelve properties later, Andaz is going strong, with the newest, Andaz Tokyo, opening this summer. Bali and Munich will be next.

Having never darkened the door of an Andaz – “personal style” in Hindi – I asked the general manager of Andaz Tokyo Toranomon Hills, Arnaud de Saint-Exupery, what it’s all about. A Hyatt International heavyweight, he launched and ran the inaugural Andaz in London’s Liverpool Street six years ago.

Guests wanted something different: five star standards, but with more personal engagement and no formality, he explains.

Remove barriers to service

“We wanted to remove the barriers between guest and team – such as the reception desk, uniforms and name tags,” he says. I want to ask how you tell staff apart from guests, but it’s wise not to interrupt a passionate Frenchman. “You go back to the essence of hospitality which is the relationship. You encourage the connection between the guest and the employees,” he continues.

Guests apparently don’t need concierges and bellboys any more. “They don’t need to have luggage being carried. What they want is to be welcomed.”

Instead, he continues, all roles are replaced by one: the “host”.

“So you will be welcomed by your host. Your host will come to you, you will not come to them,” he explains. “They will offer you a seat, a drink, and they will start from the very beginning to engage with you and create this relationship. They will give you this sense of welcome.” Check-in is done on iPad, providing an opportunity for still more engaging. I always pity regular hotel receptionists who have to stand, juggle passports, credit cards and the phone, while reading and typing at the same time. These hosts must be very cool indeed to do the lot with just an iPad.

Sense of place

Every Andaz property is different, reflecting the personality of its locality. “People when travelling want to know ‘Where am I?’ They want to participate in the environment in which they are,” he adds.

“So giving a sense of “local” to your guest is essential. They should arrive as visitors and leave feeling like locals.

Guests approve

So do guests like it? Typical comments from Andaz London guests go along the lines of: “You bring me a window of relaxation. It means that as a person I can be myself, you help me relax from my first step into the hotel,” according to de Saint-Exupery. He’s targeting what he calls the “creative class” but that’s not TV darlings and advertising executives. Everyone is potentially creative. “Sometimes you don’t create because you are in a “scripted” place. We’re about ‘unscripted’: to allow you to free up and be more yourself.”

The Andaz Toranamon is located between the imperial Palace and Tokyo Tower. The 164 rooms will occupy floors 47 through 52 atop a vertical tower of shops, offices and flats, all sitting on a 6,000 square metre garden. The roof features Tokyo’s first open air bar overlooking Tokyo Tower.

Olympics herald change

Japan, he says, is already gearing up for hosting the 2020 Olympics. Learning English is now becoming a priority, facilitating his task of creating Andaz hosts from scratch. He brought no Hyatt support team when he arrived as a Tokyo rookie six months ago.

Be yourselves

Now his challenge is to teach his hosts to be themselves. “I want my hosts to welcome you with your style. Being unscripted offers a “window of expression for everybody to be themselves. If you allow me to be myself, as a host, to welcome you, then you will most likely find that there is authentic genuine hospitality.”

These hosts have their work cut out. He continues: “I need to say ‘What is your style?’ as a guest and adapt to you. Maybe you came from New York and have jetlag so I have to quickly think I am not going to offer you to sit or have a drink, instead I’m going to have your key already ready and escort you to the room. That’s one way to greet you. Or I can see you are coming for leisure, so I will sit with you, I will engage with you, ask what do you have to do in town, what is your plan, how can I help you? The host concept is not that easy, because you have to give to everyone this unscripted approach.”

Getting everyone to be unscripted together does sound tricky. He has met every host to make sure their personality fits. They learn the technical fundamentals too. It then boils down to coaching to inspire the young hosts with the confidence to be themselves, because pretty much anyone can do check-in and check-out. “But in a lobby with no reception desk you cannot hide.”

So how does this compute with his young Japanese hosts? They’re up for something different. He’s very surprised how fast they develop into initiators of ideas. So he’s empowering them? “I prefer ‘unleashing,’ it’s not about power.”

After all, “we are not hoteliers, we are curators of inspiring experiences.” But of course.

But this is Japan, where let’s be honest, the culture is often dignified and formal. The words “unscripted,” “unleashed” and “Japan” don’t seem obviously compatible.

His brow crinkles for a second, then concedes that yes, “they can be really scripted.” But that is really good, because when they say the glass will be here, it will be here. But the younger generation is different. “They want to bring something new. Japan has changed a lot.” He admits that even ten years ago this would not have worked. Japan had 10 million visitors last year and the political mindset is changing, spurred on by the Olympics.

His Tokyo clients will be the “young at heart.” But what about the ‘no uniforms, no name tags’ concept? Won’t guests be mistakenly asking each other for drinks?

Uniforms, desk and name tags are barriers, he stresses. But the hosts won’t be trotting about in mini skirts, that would be Andaz LA, not Tokyo. A range of clothing has been designed for Tokyo, so hosts can dress on a non-identical theme. “As a guest you will identify them by the way they welcome you.” That’s because they will feel more like themselves as individuals, not just as employees, without the physical barrier of badges and uniforms.”

Fine, but how does the customer know who’s in charge? He pauses. He doesn’t want that to be obvious. “Everyone should be unleashed to be able to take the right decision and to exceed your expectations.”

He’s confident it will work. “Give me a few months’ time,” he says, adding that he needs to see it in operation and make it happen. Then with coaching, common sense and fine tuning and a bit of adapting to Japan, it will be just fine. With this much energy and commitment, I suspect he is right.

Anna.fenton@scmp.com

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