Name: Neil McInnes
Title: General Manager, Conrad Tokyo
Years in Japan: 10
Can an event define a city? By all accounts, the Glasgow Garden Festival, held in 1988, was a raging success with over 4 million visitors attending the riverside event. For Conrad Tokyo General Manager Neil McInnes who hails from Glasgow, the festival was a source of wonderment and excitement.
Prince Charles and Princess Diana officially opened festival proceedings. The city center was transformed into an open-air celebration of local culture and entertainment, paving the way for Glasgow to be later awarded European Capital of Culture hosting rights. A vibrancy filled the air, the festival boosting local morale.
Through McInnes’ eyes, it not only “put Glasgow back on the map,” but also sparked a lifelong interest in tourism and hospitality.
Multiple chances to observe the inner workings of hotels when traveling overseas with his family further piqued his interest in the field. When graduating from high school, however, McInnes had two possible careers in mind. “One was hospitality,” he said. The other was to become a policeman, “but I couldn’t become a policeman because I was too short.”
Rules on entering Scotland’s police force have since changed, but the force’s loss could be described as the hotel industry’s gain. After working in the sector for almost 25 years, McInnes’ enthusiasm for hospitality is palpable. Reminiscing about what initially drew him into hotel work — “service and (making) connections” — and with approximately six months to go until the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the hotelier is upbeat and buoyant.
The hotel veteran believes not only will the 2020 Olympics be a defining moment for Tokyo and Japan, but that current inbound tourism to Japan will prosper beyond the sporting event. The Hilton group is opening a Kyoto property in 2021 under its LXR Hotels & Resorts brand, while two new Hilton hotels are slated to open — one in Nagasaki in 2021 and the other in Hiroshima in 2022.
“As soon as Tokyo was announced (as the Olympics host) our phones wouldn’t stop ringing,” McInnes said. “These calls were from professional agents that wanted to buy and on sell (the rooms).” As then-regional director of revenue, McInnes instructed his colleagues to hold off.
“We needed to strategize,” he said. Like many of its counterparts, the hotel is now fully booked for the Olympics and in “planning mode.” To better prepare themselves, staffers have spoken with Hilton hotel colleagues in China, London and Rio about their Olympic experiences. “By far, it will be the biggest business the hotel will ever do I am sure,” McInnes said.
China is one of the hotel’s key markets. While the global outbreak of COVID-19 has certainly affected bookings and inbound tourism, McInnes is adamant that the Conrad Tokyo can definitely cope. “We’ve faced similar challenges before,” he said. “SARS, MERS in the UK, … 9/11 and 3/11. There’s definitely an impact on business but it’s how we recover from that. The welfare of our guests and team is our highest priority,” said McInnes, noting that patience, resilience and not giving up on key markets are of vital importance.
“We travel every year to Beijing, Shanghai and different cities in China to sell our hotel. We will continue to do that once we’re able to travel again to these destinations. The market will return and we’ll be here to welcome our customers,” he said.
Likening this aspect of his job to a captain or leader “steering the ship through choppy waters, making sure the team is updated, and being transparent,” McInnes has gained much experience throughout his career to help him deal with such challenges.
He entered the Hilton hotel group and began on-the-job training after graduating from high school. Although he started off working in food and beverage, “I was anxious to get into front office; that’s what I had a real passion for in the early days,” McInnes said.
“It’s the first point of contact for guests on arrival, and then the last point of departure. And then, of course, the hub of the hotels are the front office, so I really thrived on that,” he said.
Although McInnes never envisaged himself working in business development, a job offer later in his career broadened his understanding of commercial sales. He realized the impact and importance of the work and how it synergized with hotel operations.
But it was at the very beginning of his career on his first day working in Glasgow that McInnes was first exposed to Japanese ways of business and the customer service philosophy, omotenashi.
“(A Japanese colleague) was seconded to Glasgow for one year; firstly, to work in Japanese guest relations and front office, and secondly to learn English. Twenty years later I was his general manager,” said McInnes, laughing.
Tourists from Japan visited the city for golf and whisky tours among other pursuits, but for McInnes, this was all a chance to “understand Japanese culture from afar.” The Hilton Sydney also catered to a large number of Japanese guests. Employing some Japanese staffers there gave the Scot further insight into notions of omotenashi, customer service and “going the extra mile.”
But for McInnes, what defines a really good hotel experience is that it’s unforgettable and is responsible for creating lifelong memories. “You can have a great stay at many hotels,” he said. “But leaving, and it’s memorable, that’s the difference. … Lasting impressions, efforts made by the hotel team, the small touches and anticipatory service,” he said with a smile.
Luxury hotel career spans nearly 25 years
Glaswegian Neil McInnes is a seasoned hotelier, having worked for the Hilton hotel group for almost 25 years. Captivated by hotels when traveling with his family as a youth, he was determined to work in the field when he left school. A posting at the Hilton Glasgow and on-the-job training followed before McInnes ventured to Sydney. McInnes held several executive positions during his tenure at the Hilton Sydney, including director of business development, revenue manager and front office manager. Japan beckoned in 2010 and McInnes worked in various roles across different Hilton group brands and properties including regional director of revenue management for Japan, Korea and Micronesia; commercial director for the Hilton Tokyo; and commercial director at the Conrad Tokyo. Prior to assuming his current role at the Conrad Tokyo, McInnes served as general manager at the Hilton Tokyo Bay.
The Big Questions is a Monday interview series showcasing prominent figures who have a strong connection to Japan.