With tightening border controls and social distancing efforts amid the coronavirus pandemic limiting nonessential travel, hotels in Japan facing a sharp fall in bookings have been offering unconventional plans to attract guests.

Homeikan, an operator of traditional Japanese-style inns in the Hongo district of Tokyo, became an instant sensation with an offer designed to make the guest feel like great authors of times past.

The district in Bunkyo Ward was home to more than 100 traditional ryokan inns where distinguished writers such as Takuboku Ishikawa, Hakushu Kitara and well as legendary manga author Osamu Tezuka secluded themselves to finish their work on schedule.

With the deal, priced at about ¥8,000 per night, guests can do their work — or simply be alone — while hotel staff, behaving like publishing house editors, come and check on how they are doing. The guests are not permitted to leave the inn unless an emergency occurs.

Bookings for March sold out within hours, so the operator is considering offering the plan again in April, as many rooms are still vacant, and possibly even making it a fixture.

Tomoko Kaizu, a sales representative for the chain, said the offer was conceived amid ongoing cancellations, partly due to tightened border controls for travelers. She explained that the hotel has been a popular destination for group travel, including from abroad, and that many guests book their stay up to a year in advance.

“But in March, nearly all group reservations — including groups from Italy and France — have been canceled,” Kaizu said, adding that Homeikan lost about 30 percent of its bookings in the month.

Concerns over whether hotels are safe amid virus fears have prompted many operators to step up precautionary measures.

While benefiting from a well-ventilated structure, Homeikan has made arrangements to accommodate guest preferences wherever possible, in addition to conducting a thorough disinfecting protocol, to minimize the risk of contracting COVID-19.

A room at Homeikan, a Japanese-style inn in the Hongo district of Tokyo | SATOKO KAWASAKI
A room at Homeikan, a Japanese-style inn in the Hongo district of Tokyo | SATOKO KAWASAKI

For the Corona Hotel in the city of Osaka, the crisis has been more challenging.

“In the early stages of the outbreak, we received inquiries on whether our business had something to do with the coronavirus,” said Kohei Fujii, who represents the operator’s sales team.

Needless to say, it doesn’t. But the operator has disposed of reusable slippers and introduced purifying equipment alongside other measures for sanitizing rooms, and assured customers of its safety through Twitter, which attracted many messages of support.

“Because of our name, we needed to step up our game to a higher level than other hotel operators,” he said.

“Normally it’s the bumper period around this time of year, with around 80 to 90 percent occupancy; many schools use us during end-of-year school trips, which now have been canceled. … Now it hovers around 30 to 40 percent,” Fujii said. “But most cancellations are linked to the coronavirus.”

The hotel has typically enjoyed popularity with people traveling for work but has also been used for large events and meetings,including workshops for new hires joining local companies in April.

Some operators are viewing the crisis as a chance to reshape their strategies in order to respond to new market demands, and to contribute to addressing social challenges that emerge from the crisis.

Hideki Hirayama, president of NaSpa Hirayama Kensetsu, a construction company that runs a business hotel chain in Chiba Prefecture, introduced a plan for guests working remotely.

“Now that our business isn’t going well, I thought that single rooms would be perfect for teleworking,” as they are suitable to focus on work, make private phone calls or go through documents containing confidential information, Hirayama said by telephone.

“But it’s just a step forward and we need to think how to remodel our facilities so they fit in with the times,” he added.

In Yamagata Prefecture, the operator of the Tokyo Daichi Hotel Yonezawa, in the city of Yonezawa, dedicated two floors for use by high school students unable to study at home during school closures — at no charge. Since March 5, around 160 students have come to study.

The operator will also enable local residents to use the hotel’s restaurant after hours as a coworking space.

“We know that many people are in trouble … and we’ve been discussing how we can help address these issues,” hotel and restaurant general manager Hiroaki Miyajima said by telephone.

For many hotel operators, the COVID-19 outbreak has become an existential challenge.

But they are responding by engaging their staff in new initiatives and reassigning duties to including more rigorous cleaning and sanitizing of rooms.

“We also have a responsibility to ensure our staff have a place to work,” Hirayama said.

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