He runs one of the best hotel groups in the country and is out to change how staff behave. But it’s tough getting people to speak out in Japan.
Yoshiharu Hoshino, the president of Hoshino Resorts, runs 33 hotels around Japan but he still manages to ski for 60 days a year. “I grew up around snow in Karuizawa and I’ve been skiing since I was three.” He skis all over the world: everywhere from mountains in New Zealand to 3,500-metre-high glaciers in Italy. There is a pair of old wooden skis in the entrance of his swish Tokyo office and the wall is covered with pictures of his family: Karuizawa hoteliers stretching back to 1904.
The very first Hoshino hotel opened in Karuizawa in 1914 as an onsen (hot spring) ryokan (traditional inn). Hoshino grew up next door to the original property and always knew he would end up running the business. “My grandfather used to introduce me as his successor even when I was only four or five.” Although Hoshino now runs properties everywhere from Okinawa to Hokkaido, the genteel mountain town of Karuizawa is still the heart and soul of the business. Hoshino spent two years rebuilding the old hotel and reopened it in 2005.
Hoshino is a lithe, youthful figure. “I gave up breakfast when I turned 40 and lunch at 50,” he says. “I can’t consume so many calories these days.” He dresses casually and favours a more Japanese style for formal occasions. “When I was at [hotel school in] Cornell, my friends teased me, saying, ‘Why aren’t you wearing clothes from your own country?’”
Those years away from Japan in the mid-1980s affected his business thinking, too. When he first went to the US he thought the model hotel for Japan was a shiny tower in Hawaii. “After two years at Cornell I realised that our hotels should reflect Japanese culture. We want them to be sharp and stylish but also connect to Japan. There’s a long history of ryokan hospitality and we want to maintain that style.”
In 2016, Hoshino will open an 18-storey modern ryokan in Marunouchi, the business centre of Tokyo. This will be the traditional experience – updated and adapted – that Tokyo has been lacking. “People will take off their shoes at the entrance,” he says. “And there will be tatami everywhere, even in the lifts. I’m trying to retain the atmosphere of a ryokan but we also have to make it function as a business hotel.”
Every detail has been considered, particularly the low beds that are the closest the Hoshino team could find to a traditional futon mattress. There will even be a proper onsen bath on top of the hotel, with real hot-spring water piped from 1.5km below the property.
Hoshino laid out his mission in 1991 when he became president: to make Hoshino the best resort-management company in Japan. “In the late 1980s there were a lot of new developments – golf courses, ski resorts – but most were only real-estate investments: a means of making capital gains. Someone had to manage those facilities, which is why we decided to focus on managing rather than owning properties.”
Hoshino says that the key to success in the hotel business is finding the right staff. “Recruiting and keeping high-quality staff is difficult, particularly in rural areas,” he says. “We need a strong team and we have to make their workplace comfortable so that they’ll stay.”
He takes on 200 graduates a year and looks for people with diverse skills. “There are so many aspects to the hotel business,” he says. “It’s important to have a team that can do different things, especially now we’re seeing more tourists from abroad.”
He describes the corporate culture at Hoshino as “flat”, by which he means that he’s not big on hierarchies and encourages staff to switch roles (and locations) and learn about the business from every angle. He also asks employees to speak their minds. “It’s difficult in Japan to have that free discussion,” he says.
Ultimately, Hoshino calls the shots but it’s important to him to hear other opinions. “We want our staff to know that they can speak out and it won’t affect their future career. We’re introducing a new corporate culture to an old Japanese organisation,” he adds.
Reactions to Hoshino’s management style vary. “Young people are fine with the system,” he says. “They’re more used to speaking out. It’s probably middle management who find it harder. They are not quite so used to having their decisions critiqued.
“Employee satisfaction is critical. We might be asking someone to leave Tokyo and go to Aomori [in the far north of Japan]. It’s important that they understand why.”
In July 2014, Hoshino Resorts moved its assets to a Real Estate Investment Trust and became a pure management company. “The only assets we have now are human resources,” he says. Hoshino likes the lightness this gives the company and it allows him to move at a relentless pace. He is now building a new resort near Mount Fuji, a former campsite with exceptional views of the iconic peak. Work is also underway on a property in Bali and another in Tahiti. Hoshino dreams of taking his urban Japanese ryokan to other cities around the world. It makes perfect sense. “This country is known for its polite people and good hospitality. We should be able to export those qualities.”