As a veteran of the tourism and hotel industries in Japan for more than two decades, Tony Virili says he will “never forget” what took place at one of his firm’s franchise hotels in Sendai on March 11, 2011.
The 60-year-old Italian-Australian calls last year’s Great East Japan Earthquake one of the two striking moments in the more than three decades he has spent in Tokyo.
In the Sendai hotel of a chain for which he is president and CEO, many of the hotel staff stayed until late that night to finish cleaning up the rooms for guests and evacuees who were to stay at the hotel, even though some of the staff, as it turned out, had even lost family members to the disasters, or their houses suffered varying degrees of damage, Virili said.
“That demonstrated an enormous sense of commitment of our hotel team. They knew that every one of those rooms would be needed that night,” he said.
Also, seeing volunteer teams from the hotel chain going up to Tohoku numerous times to clean up the debris in the aftermath of the disasters, he said he felt that the staff became “better people who could more clearly understand and anticipate the needs of our customers.” Virili himself joined the volunteer work to Tohoku twice.
“For those in the lodging business, to be able to go up and share and give and see, this made them better hoteliers,” he said.
Another experience he recalled was the asset-inflated bubble boom of the late 1980s and how the mentality of Japanese people changed.
Virili said that after the onset of the bubble, foreigners in Tokyo had to reposition themselves as gaijin.
Before the bubble years, foreigners were “very fortunate and extremely well-treated” in this country, he said.
“Then came the bubble, and overnight, so many Japanese were rich and had assets and had access to money that they had not had before. And gaijin were no longer special. Japanese became more confident about themselves and their abilities — especially women,” he said.
He said that because many women took up executive positions during the bubble period, they were “energized by the experience” and became much more independent than before.
Virili pointed out that men who experienced the bubble period and its downfall in the early 1990s, on the other hand, are very conservative, and less willing to take risks or to be entrepreneurial about anything. He said he could see the same kind of traits in young Japanese who joined his company in recent years.
“Women are much more proactive and interested in the company. They say things like, ‘How do I become president of the company?’
“Men are all polite and reply when asked a question, but tend to struggle in a social environment,” he said. “I want young Japanese men to be more proactive and take charge of their lives.”
He said that as president and CEO of Solare Hotels and Resorts since 2003, he tried to “break down the glass ceilings that had to do with gender and age discrimination,” and introduced performance-based pay and promotion to encourage that change. Today, the chain has a few female managers in an industry where “women are said not to be able to progress” due to various hurdles such as night-shift duties, Virili said.
“Women have an intrinsic, positive disposition toward service or hospitality. In Japan, service is manualized and the rule says how low you can bow or when a guest complains, how many times you can say ‘Sorry.’ But that’s not necessarily what service should be. You have to be passionate and sincere about it, and welcoming in a genuine way. Women have an intrinsic capability to perform very well in that sort of environment,” he said.
Virili was born in Udine, a city in northeast Italy, to Italian parents. The family later immigrated to Australia and Virili spent his childhood mostly in Queensland and Victoria.
He went on to study at the University of Western Australia in Perth, and came to Japan for the first time for a year of study at Waseda University in 1975. After graduating from university in 1976, he joined Mitsui & Co. Australia’s Melbourne office.
After a few years, he quit there and came to live in Japan, where his first job was as representative of an Australian market research company and then with a government organization.
Virili said he first took an interest in the hotel industry when he had an office for his first job in Tokyo inside the Imperial Hotel.
“You walk out of your office without many windows — on to the mezzanine of the Imperial Hotel. There’s this magic lobby full of people chatting, and walking backwards and forwards — looking busy and coming from all parts of the world. It seemed such a vibrant business. I decided to get into the hotel business at that time,” he said.
In the early 1990s, he went back to Australia for two years and worked for a hotel company for the first time.
He returned to Japan in 1992, and served for six years as regional director for Tourism Australia — the Australian government’s tourism office — in Japan. Then, he worked for Accor, a French hotel group, to develop the brands Sofitel, Novotel, and Mercure in this country.
Later, he was head-hunted by Hudson Japan, the U.S.-based Lone Star Fund’s asset management firm, and created Solare Hotels and Resorts with their backing.
During Virili’s stint as president of Solare, the hotel chain expanded from two hotels in Japan to 74 in less than a decade. Its operation includes brands such as Chisun, Loisir and Avanshell — with hotels ranging from inns and business hotels to resort hotels.
Virili will retire from the company next month. He plans to split his time between Japan and Australia, where he hopes to engage in an advisory business for Japanese investors.
He has been married to his Japanese wife for 30 years, and their two children — who now live in Australia — were born and raised in Japan.
Asked what he likes most about Japan, Virili said his list is too long, and there are very few things that he dislikes about this country.
“I’m still working on nattō (fermented soybeans),” he said with a smile. “My wife is from Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture (a place famous for nattō) and she has nattō for breakfast. But I have toast and Vegemite (a paste made from yeast extract that is popular in Australia),” he said.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5