Name: Hans Heijligers
Title: CEO, IHG ANA Hotels Group Japan (since January 2016)
URL: www.anaihghotels.co.jp
DOB: Sept. 10, 1959
Hometown: Amsterdam
Years in Japan: 5

For IHG ANA Hotels Group Japan CEO Hans Heijligers, Japan’s efforts in the men’s 4×100-meter relay during the 2016 Olympics speak volumes about Japanese character.

“Nobody was thinking that the team would even make the podium, but they made it. And the story behind it, I just found fascinating because they focused on where they could be better than others, rather than focusing on where they couldn’t,” said Heijligers, an avid athlete himself who is into cycling and skiing, among other sports.

Hans Heijligers
Hans Heijligers

“You can’t run faster than the Jamaicans. You can barely run faster than the Americans. But you could perfect the way the baton changes hands, you know? And so it was very typical Japanese thinking behind the whole thing of, ‘How do I maximize this opportunity if I get to the finals?’ They did that, and against all odds the Japanese team got the silver medal, and I just thought that was an incredible and inspirational sporting moment,” he said, smiling.

As his conversation is peppered with words such as “challenge,” “diversity” and “omotenashi” (Japanese hospitality), Heijligers is very much about maximizing opportunity. Speaking with The Japan Times about his work with IHG ANA Hotels Group Japan, the exuberant Dutchman is buoyant about his work and what lies ahead.

“We’ve got 33 hotels in Japan. We believe that Japan has serious opportunities for growth in the tourism sector. We’ve seen it — figures jumped from 13 million in 2014 to 29 million in inbound arrivals last year. That, compounded with a very high rate of domestic travel, shows Japan is a real big opportunity (for us). The magic number is 40 million inbound tourists by 2020; I think we’ll easily get that and I think figures will continue to grow because Japan is a fabulous destination to travel to.”

His favorite areas in Japan currently being the geographical and climatic extremes of Hokkaido — “It just has this incredible natural beauty that I need to further explore” — and Okinawa. Heijligers believes that although both areas are prime tourism destinations, there remains room for growth.

“Both those areas have the opportunity to really bring great quality experiences; I’m not talking necessarily high-end as in price point, but great quality experiences that will further attract both Japanese and foreign travelers to those areas. We see opportunities all over Japan, but those two areas, those two extremes (rich in natural beauty) really have something to offer.”

Thinking about why “opportunity” is such a personal buzzword, Heijligers thinks back to a former posting in Morocco that he considers as his first real encounter working overseas in an unfamiliar culture. “If you start opening yourself up to it, you can start seeing all the many opportunities (of) being in a different culture. One thing that you always have to be aware of if you’re the foreigner, or if you’re the expert, is that the onus is on you to make a difference because that’s what people expect. Because otherwise, why are you there?” he said.

Noting a certain curiosity, inquisitive mindset and interest in people form a huge part of his DNA, Heijligers admitted, “The ability, the opportunity that I’ve had to diversify my horizon by working (with people) in so many different spaces, places, environments and cultures has been an incredibly enriching experience.”

Making no less of an impact was Heijligers first time living overseas as a child in Yokohama for roughly 18 months. His father worked for a Dutch shipping company and was stationed to Japan in the mid-1960s. “My claim to fame is that I’ve been on the first generation shinkansen, when they had restaurant cars,” he said, laughing.

Somewhat presciently, Heijligers’ first hotel stay was also in the city. “I’ve always loved walking into a beautiful hotel — the smells, the sounds, the atmosphere, the activity, the buzz — from when I was a young child. My first big hotel stay was in Yokohama,” Heijligers said, adding that the hotel no longer exists.

Years later when he decided to enter the hospitality industry, Heijligers attended Germany’s Steigenberger Akademie Hotelfachschule, but insists most of his real training was on the job. One memorable role was working as a junior chef at the now InterContinental Amstel Amsterdam, in the Michelin-starred restaurant. Working in the kitchen gave him great insight into broader hotel operations.

Heijligers sees executive chefs as fantastic leaders because of their ability to lead such a complex operation unheard of in many other fields. “From buying the goods to bring them to a plate on the table and making that into something spectacular. Directing teams that are often 20, 30, 40, 50 (people), if not bigger. That job is nothing short of being a general,” he said.

From those starting days to the helm of IHG ANA Hotels Group Japan, Heijligers ruminated further on the challenges — and opportunities — he faces here in Japan.

“The social cultural fabric of (Japanese) society is very strong. It’s like a pair of jeans that will never wear out. It’s pretty tight and strong and a lot of how the society works is built on that. I think where the challenge comes in is now that we’ve got such a strong fabric, you know, how do you drive change?”

He cited IHG’s Rise initiative, designed to inspire and mentor female leaders, as one example where the group is trying to address workplace diversity.

“I don’t look at government. I think business needs to take the initiative and business needs to create opportunities; there’s enough wiggle room and legroom for us inside the way businesses function in Japan to create that. Driving change sits with us.”

Managing luxury hotels for over 30 years

Hans Heijligers is CEO of InterContinental Hotels Group All Nippon Airways Hotels Group Japan, a joint venture between the two companies. The group comprises 33 hotels operating under five brands and nearly 10,000 rooms across the country. Heijligers joined IHG ANA Hotels Group Japan in 2014 as regional general manager for west Japan and general manager for InterContinental Osaka. He also supervised operations of the five properties in western Japan. Before joining IHG, Heijligers held a senior executive role at Pan Pacific Hotels Group in Singapore and Jumeirah Group in Dubai. He has over 30 years of experience in managing luxury hotels in Dubai, South Africa, Beijing, Hong Kong, Bali, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Paris and Cologne. In addition, he has been involved in various openings and corporate roles such as brand development, organizational restructuring, strategic planning and hotel development. Heijligers is an avid cyclist and in his spare time can be found cycling around Tokyo and other parts of Japan.

The Big Questions is a Monday interview series showcasing prominent figures who have a strong connection to Japan.

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