TOKONAME, AICHI PREF. – Avid fans of all-girl pop act AKB48 braved a persistent drizzle outside Aichi Sky Expo on a recent Saturday morning, forming a long queue as they waited for a “handshaking” session with the group’s idols to kick off.
Some had traveled long distances for the meet-and-greet at the facility that is just a 30-minute train ride from Nagoya, even booking nearby hotel rooms so they could attend the second day of the same event.
“I think I’ll have some downtime between handshaking sessions tomorrow, so I’m thinking of touring the prefecture a little bit using my car,” said AKB48 fan Hagiwara, a 19-year-old university student from Hyogo Prefecture, who drove five hours to attend the event. He would only give his last name.
“Since the whole facility is adjacent to an airport, it’s got a massive parking lot,” he said. “I found it helpful that the place has easy access to transportation,” including train facilities.
The influx of AKB48 fans from across the country was just one example of how Aichi Prefecture is using the new exhibition center, which debuted in August, to help attract more visitors and beef up its tourism expertise.
The venue’s opening comes amid a fervent push by the central government to promote MICE tourism — which stands for meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions.
Ultimately, Japan hopes to carve out a role as Asia’s No. 1 host for international conferences by 2030.
But experts said Aichi, long complacent with its status as Japan’s “manufacturing powerhouse” — being the home base for automotive behemoth Toyota Motor Corp. — has its work cut out for it. It lags behind other prominent locations, including cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, in welcoming and accommodating tourists.
Rivalry with Tokyo
“Our vital mission is to ensure that the operation of this exhibition center brings economic benefits to Aichi Prefecture,” Olivier Ginon, chairman of GL Events, a French event management firm granted the rights by the prefecture along with Tokyo-based construction firm Maeda Corp. to operate Aichi Sky Expo, told The Japan Times just prior to the facility’s August opening.
Ginon said he has high hopes. In particular, he lauded the Aichi Sky Expo for its designation as a permanently bonded area that is duty-free for exhibits from overseas customers. He also noted the advantages of the venue being located directly next to Chubu Centrair International Airport, which he said will “significantly help drive traffic” to the new site.
The new exhibition center boasts floor space of 60,000 square meters, making it the country’s fourth largest such facility after Tokyo Big Sight, Makuhari Messe in Chiba and Intex Osaka. Aichi Prefecture invested a whopping ¥35 billion to build the mega-facility, which was completed in just two years.
The breakneck pace at which it was assembled underlined the prefecture’s desire to take full advantage of the temporary closure of Tokyo Big Sight, the bulk of which is undergoing preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. Tokyo Big Sight, which will be used as a media center for the games, is slated to fully shut down between May and September next year — only to re-emerge even bigger.
“It’s a fight against time. It all depends on what kind of results we can produce between 2019 and 2020,” Aichi Gov. Hideaki Omura told reporters back in 2016.
“There is a chance that Aichi Sky Expo can establish its status as a host of major trade shows” while its main rival remains inactive, he said.
“The reopening of Tokyo Big Sight would be like a huge dinosaur coming back to life,” Omura said at the time. “If we’ve attracted a successful amount of events by then, we can prove cities beyond Tokyo are just as capable.”
Untapped MICE potential
The opening of Aichi Sky Expo also coincides with Japan’s ongoing jockeying for the position as the most sought-after Asian host of MICE.
According to the International Congress and Convention Association, Japan hosted the largest number of international conferences in Asia in 2017, narrowly dethroning China, which held the top spot from 2008 to 2016.
But even so, amid increasingly fierce competition from other Asian economies, “it cannot be denied that there are signs that Japan’s global presence in terms of attracting MICE is on the decline,” a panel of experts set up under the tourism agency wrote in a report last year.
Hopes are running high that the new facility in Aichi will help turn the tide in favor of Japan. “I am convinced that invigorating the exhibition industry in this region will contribute to improving Japan’s economy,” Omura said during Aichi Sky Expo’s August opening ceremony.
Ginon agreed, noting a massive room for improvement. “Japan’s market potential as the events-hosting nation remains significantly untapped,” he said, referring to the country’s lackluster MICE capacity.
The combined floor space of exhibition centers nationwide amounted to just 370,000 sq. meters as of March, according to data compiled by the Japan Exhibition Center. This means the country is trailing far behind other major economies such as China, Germany and France, whose floor spaces measured 6.75 million sq. meters, 3.23 million sq. meters and 2.25 million sq. meters, respectively.
“We can explore Japan more,” Ginon said.
But Aichi Sky Expo is expected to serve not only as a MICE hub but also more broadly in helping the prefecture outgrow its reputation as having weak tourism infrastructure.
Officials said they hope its opening, coupled with the recent launch of a new terminal for low-cost carriers at Chubu Centrair International Airport, will greatly improve its tourism numbers.
Aichi, having remained at the top in Japan in terms of shipments of manufactured products for 41 consecutive years, has long remained indifferent to developing its tourism sector, officials admit.
In a rather underwhelming result, Aichi in 2018 ranked as the eighth most popular destination for overseas hotel guests, attracting a mere 2.85 million such visitors — a figure dwarfed by other prefectures such as Osaka and Kyoto, which saw 15 million and 6.27 million guests, respectively, according to the tourism ministry.
“Since we have thrived, first and foremost, as a manufacturing-based prefecture backed by Toyota, there’s long been a sense that we don’t need to invest in tourism,” Aichi tourism official Yoshio Ando said.
“While tourism-oriented prefectures have the established mindset to welcome those visiting from outside, Aichi is sometimes criticized for lacking such hospitality, leading to what may be described as an unfriendly attitude by residents toward tourists,” he said.
That tepid interest in cultivating its tourism business, Ando added, might be to blame for what appears to be the public’s perception that Aichi is not a particularly good destination for sightseeing.
Indeed, while AKB48 fan Hagiwara said he is keen to explore the city, not all of those present at the meet-and-greet echoed his enthusiasm.
“It didn’t even occur to me to go sightseeing,” Chiba resident Hiromu Kurihara, 32, said. “To be honest, I can’t really think of a place in Aichi I’m curious to check out.”
“I know Osaka has got Dotonbori street and Kyoto has all those amazing temples. But does Nagoya (the capital of Aichi) have something along those lines?” the company employee asked. “Nagoya Castle, perhaps, but that’s pretty much it, isn’t it.”
Aichi official Ando said there is also hope that Aichi Sky Expo will put an end to a phenomenon known as “Nagoya tobashi” (“Nagoya passing”). The term refers to a tendency by prominent artists and bands to skip Nagoya — the country’s fourth-largest city — as they tour the nation, presumably due to the lack of suitable event halls.
In some of the most prominent examples, superstars Madonna and Michael Jackson avoided the city during tours of Japan in the 1980s. Back then, the city simply didn’t have venues that could house the tens of thousands of people that would attend such a large-scale event like a concert by the pop icons.
Although the city now has the Nagoya Dome, it is often too big for performers to draw a full house, leaving a mid-sized venue called Nippon Gaishi Hall as one of the few viable possibilities, according to Toshihiro Uchida, a visiting professor at Chukyo University who was also among the experts involved in selecting GL Events as the Aichi Sky Expo operator.
As a prefecture, Aichi has a handful of other halls that can host large-scale events, but they are either old or in locations inconvenient to be ideal as MICE venues, Uchida pointed out.
In this sense, the opening of Aichi Sky Expo means “we finally have a facility that will solve Nagoya’s event-related issues and is also suited to host MICE, in terms of location, size and cutting-edge equipment,” Uchida said.
Still, Aichi’s goal of evolving into a tourism-driven economy may be easier said than done, he added. One major challenge lies in how to tap into what is known as “post-convention” tourism, where MICE guests are strategically led to explore nearby areas once the event they came for is over.
This is where Aichi has traditionally fallen short, Uchida said, owing to the shortage of prestigious hotels that can satisfy high-income visitors to international conferences and trade shows.
Travel Weekly, a U.S.-based publication focusing on travel coverage, ranked only one hotel in Nagoya — the Nagoya Marriott Associa Hotel — in the second-best category of lodging facilities as of late October, while categorizing more than 20 in Tokyo, eight in Osaka and four in Kyoto as such or higher.
Keenly aware of its weakness, Aichi, in collaboration with Nagoya, is currently campaigning to lure upscale accommodations with the promise of subsidizing the construction for those determined to be eligible to the tune of ¥2 billion.
“It wouldn’t be very economically beneficial if those who might be described as VIPs came to attend MICE in Nagoya but headed straight back to hotels in Kyoto, which is just a 30-minute shinkansen ride away,” Uchida said.
“We need to ensure those who entered Nagoya via the Chubu Airport will stay in Nagoya, otherwise the nearby area wouldn’t prosper.”