ANA, Japan’s premiere airline and InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) began a joint venture, ANA InterContinental, in 2006, becoming the largest international hotel operator in Japan.
They now operate 32 hotels with over 9,000 rooms across four main brands — the five-star luxury InterContinental and the upscale ANA Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn and ANA Hotels. The merging of two separate corporate cultures created both challenges and opportunities. In the capable hands of CEO Fergus Stewart, who has been involved since the beginning as the former Regional General Manager of Greater Tokyo Area, IHG ANA Hotels Group Japan, the co-branding of a total of 25 hotels including ANA InterContinental Tokyo is a success story — not only financially, but also in showing how careful management and attention to cultural differences and detail can make a difference.
As Stewart explained: “I think in the initial stages there were a few lessons to be learned in working together as both companies have their own cultures. IHG has its hotel culture and ANA has its airline culture. [At] IHG, it wouldn’t be uncommon for people to work for five or six different companies over a 20-year period, while a number of our former Japanese ANA Hotels colleagues were in the same company for 20 years. So, our cultures were quite different.
“As an international hotel operator with an understanding of how to run hotels across different countries, going into a joint venture with the Japan-based international airline ANA worked out well for both of us in terms of cultural best practices. The hospitality industry is primarily a service industry and we believe one of the keys to delivering great guest experiences is a strong performance culture internally. We have spent time developing a systemized, standardized way of measuring and defining what success looks like for our hotels and the corporate offices, and this has worked to our benefit in the partnership with ANA.
“It took time for us to learn how best to tap into each other’s domain knowledge, and today we are in a good place. It has been a journey: a little bit of give and take from both sides just to get that right working compatibility, which is where we are now,” he concluded.
There were a few key growth areas for IHG in Japan, ranging from corporate expectations to the general culture and in the mindset shift of communicating in the Japanese language. Stewart commented, saying: “IHG has been in Japan for many years and we’ve grown to understand the importance of having a local presence not just through our hotels, but in how we communicate. Now most of our brand standards and training programs are in Japanese.”
On the other hand, Stewart had to bring his Japanese staff into the world of international hotel management. He explained, “We also created opportunities for our Japanese managers to attend meetings overseas, which I think was quite unique for them as, working for a predominately Japanese business, traveling abroad on business was not common for them. So we were taking people out of their comfort environment.”
The advantages of having an international brand incorporating a trusted name in travel are not lost on Stewart’s management strategies. He explained: “We’re quite fortunate in having a presence in both sides of the market. But we constantly need to be mindful of finding a middle ground to appeal to both Japanese and international consumers.”
And in the rush to accommodate the expected influx of tourists leading up to the 2020 Olympics, Stewart takes a clear and well-thought-out approach.
“I think it’s really important that we don’t lose sight of who’s giving us business — today, tomorrow and leading up to the Olympic period. We would like to enhance our capabilities in looking after international travelers to the world-class city of Tokyo. We also own the world’s largest hotel loyalty program, IHG Rewards Club, which has over 80 million members today, and it is a strong sales channel for us. We always ensure we take care of all our loyalty members when they stay with us and this helps draw more international guests to our hotels in Japan. We’ve got to make sure that we continue to look after those guests who support us and keep coming back to stay with us. And not just try and benefit from a two or three-week period during that Olympic time.”
One of Stewart’s personal goals is to have more female leaders to take the helm in key positions, such as being the general manager of IHG’s hotels. He highlighted another goal: “Personally, I need to learn Japanese. To be respectful to the Japanese people here I need to make a greater effort to speak their language. So, that’s what I’ll be doing on a personal level.”
IHG ANA Hotels Group Japan and their hotels’ road to success has been carefully developed by attending to cultural differences and being respectful to them, working with them and integrating them into international corporate culture. Stewart makes it a personal mission — and it shows.