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Getting away from Tokyo

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    Getting away from Tokyo

    Getting away from Tokyo
    Kazushige Takahata

    President & COO
    Arai Mountain & Spa

    March 31, 2003

    You're just as likely to find Kazushige Takahata shoveling snow in the hotel parking lot or in the kitchen as you are to find him at his desk. As president and COO of the 4-star Arai Mountain & Spa hotel resort in Niigata Prefecture, Takahata is on a mission to make his hotel a fun playground that brings guests the finer points of life.

    What distinguishes Arai from other hotels is that it offers a diverse schedule of programs specially designed for guests. Besides skiing and snowboarding, the hotel arranges for guests to enjoy mountain biking, bike touring, golf, hiking, tutoring, bread making, paragliding, summer & winter camps, horseback riding, snowmobile tours, and more. For family guests there are children's programs, a playground and nursery room, A program for disabled people is also available. To top it all off, there is an esthetic salon are provided.

    Though the Arai hotel is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, it is still growing in scope and services, says Takahata. Arai has added ski lifts and a gondola, new hotel buildings, shopping mall and spa.

    Born in Nagoya Prefecture in 1935, Takahata graduated from Kansai Gakuin University's Department of Economics. He joined The Nikka Whisky Distilling Co, Ltd. and worked there for 40 years. Impressed by the mission of Arai Mountain & Spa, Takahata joined the hotel in 2000.

    Every year Arai welcomes more guests, including members of Japan's imperial family, ambassadors, foreign company executives and U.S. military base personnel.

    Takahata believes that if you want to improve your business you have to keep your eye on it, enjoy it, and find what you need to do with it. If you cannot enjoy being there, no one else will either. Takahata, therefore, often hangs out at the ski gondola helping to operate it, whether it is ticketing or seating. He always enjoys chatting with his guests there and says this is the time when he discovers what they are looking for at Arai.

    His day usually starts at 8 a.m. with a staff meeting. After that, he goes to the gondola for a couple of hours. For the rest of the day, he can be found in the kitchen, parking lot and many other places around the hotel. He and his staff are trying to improve their English and other languages to communicate with their foreign guests.

    When he is not working, Takahata often stays at home and eats his wife's home cooking and just relaxes. He used to go to music events and movies pretty often, describing himself as just an ordinary person.

    Japan Today editor Sachie Kanda caught up with Takahata during one of his visits to the Tokyo office of Arai.

    What kind of events do you have at the hotel?

    In recent years, world famous major events such as mountain bike races and the Paralympics have taken place at Arai. It is a credit to us that they keep coming back. Also, our annual ski race, the Arai Legend Ski Race, designed as a charity event for the Paralympics, gives the disabled a chance to compete with Olympic medalists such as Toni Sailer from Australia and Alberto Tomba from Italy. Every New Year's Eve, we dramatize the whole place with fireworks and music effects and have an exciting countdown for the New Year.

    Any plans to open all year round?

    We are putting more emphasis on continuous entertainment throughout the year. During last off-season, we provided tours to the rivers for fishing, star-gazing, catching fireflies, and harvesting wild herbs and plants. Local farming people in Arai come visit us to take our guests on such tours and teach them about nature and lifestyles around there.

    Our guests have a lot of fun learning how to make "takuwan" (radish pickles), ceramic teacups, accessories and all sorts of things from the locals. In a sense, our hotel is not just a luxurious place to relax but a great place to experience country life and communicate with real people.

    Do you get many foreign guests?

    As we grow bigger, we are welcoming more and more foreign guests every year. Not only because we hold world-renowned events, but also because nearly 14 ambassadors and Japanese politicians race together annually at Arai. Besides, people from military bases, Citibank, IBM and various airlines are among the increasing number of forreign guests we get every year. In the future, we want to advertise widely in Asian markets.

    Do you get much business from weddings and banquets?

    Yes. From last year, our garden wedding has attracted many young couples. They seem to like the beautiful nature, modern European style architecture and facilities. For banquets, we are thinking about promoting more corporate seminars. I think the hotel is an ideal getaway from the distractions in the big city.

    Do your staff all speak English? How's your English?

    One third of our staff speak English. Many are not fluent but they are trying very hard to learn English. Since many guests are foreigners, we provide English conversation classes to our staff and I am also trying to catch up with them. In the future, we are going to put more signs in Chinese and Hangul as we expect more Asian guests.

    In your opinion what are the characteristics of a good hotelier?

    If the hotelier can devote himself or herself to guests and let their warmth shine through, then that is the sign of a good hotelier. One day I saw one of our staff who cannot speak very good English talking to an English-speaking foreign guest. The staff member was looking the guest in the eye and trying to understand what he was saying. Using gestures and very simple vocabulary, they communicated and laughed at the end.

    Do you like to hang out in the lobby and greet guests yourself?

    I do not often hang around the hotel lobby but I am at the ski gondola early in the morning and almost all day on the weekends. I really enjoy meeting people there. At a ski slope, guests open up more and tell us how much they are enjoying themselves, where they come from, and how often they come to Arai. When they find me in the hotel, they just call me "gondola no ojisan" (the old guy at the gondola).

    What is your management style: Hands-on or do you delegate?

    I am hands-on. By being active, I find so many ways to improve our services. I often go into kitchens, room service staff room, and to the front desk to see how they are. I also go to the parking lot because that is where our guests get the first impression of us. Because we are in such a cold area, I encourage our staff all day. They might be tired, so when they are busy and need help, I shovel snow in the parking lots and driveway if necessary

    Do you travel much?

    I went to Salzburg and Vienna earlier this year but I do not travel much now. It has been almost 2 1/2 years since I became president of Arai. I've been too busy to travel and I never know what would happen if I go too far away. However, I have been to all major cities in Japan.

    Do you ever go to other hotels or restaurants to check out their services and facilities?

    I don't think I have a good enough eye to criticize somebody else's hotel services and facilities. However, I can personally see how nice people are when I talk to them.

    What's a typical day for you? What time do you start? What time do you finish?

    Every morning, I attend a staff briefing at 8 a.m. and then go to the ski lift or gondola between 8:30 a.m.-10:30 a.m. When we are busy with many guests, I go to the restaurant kitchens to help them. I pop up everywhere when someone needs help. Every day is different.

    What are your hobbies or interests?

    I used to go to music events and movies pretty often. Nowadays, I like hanging out at home. I don't do anything special when I am at home.

    What is your business philosophy?

    I am not a shareholder or owner of this hotel. I just reflect the owner's ideas. I enjoy working with the staff rather than lording it over them. If both our guests and staff can enjoy their time here, that's good enough for me.

    What sort of things make you mad?

    When our staff are careless and cause complications, or if they lie to me about a problematic issue, then I get mad. It is very important to solve a problem as soon as possible. However, I cannot respond to the issue appropriately without correct information.

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