THE DAILY YOMIURI  Scene                    Saturday, March 3,2001

Hotel industry changes to meet consumers' needs












By Yasuji Muro

Yomiuri Shimbun staff Writer


Whether you are on a business trip or vacation, hotels with reliable services and reasonable rates are important. To keep costs down, many hotels and inns have come up with new ideas, such as eliminating excessive. services and utilities or creating plans that exclude evening meals. Guests seem to be satisfied with these changes, as such budget hotels are thriving.

Coffee cup in hand, Hiroshi Takijiri, a 48-year-old gardener from Kusatsu, Shiga Prefecture, looked at his breakfast at a Tokyo hotel in amazement. It offered a choice of drinks and buffet of seven types of warm breads. He did not expect the low rates he paid for his one-night stay would cover such a feast.

Takijiri was in Tokyo with four other family members to attend a relative's wedding. They were staying at Family Inn Fifty's, which opened last spring in front of JR Osaki Station in Tokyo. Via the Internet, groups of three can book one-night stays at the hotel with breakfast for \3,000 per person. The rate jumps to \5,000 for single travelers. The price has been a big attraction with customers; the hotel is generally fully booked two weeks in advance, by businesspeople on weekdays and families on weekends.

The room decor is reminiscent of 1950s Americana, an affordable style that helps keep costs down. Each room is a separate unit, assembled and decorated in Thailand before being shipped to the hotel site. The hotel charges for slippers -- free at most Japanese hotels and inns but seldom used -- while toiletries are free, dispensed from containers fixed to bathroom walls. The hotel is also equipped with an automatic check-in machine.

"It is important not to make our guests feel miserable by slashing costs," said Fumio Kajikawa, the president of Tokyo-based Fifty's Corp., which runs the hotel. "So we have attempted to maintain a high standard of service."

It has been awhile now since the hotel industry entered the slump referred to as "the wintry season." Still, some hotels and inns in Japan boast 80 percent to 90 percent occupancy rates. What those facilities have in common is the way they studied consumer trends and adapted some of the uniform services that had long been regarded as indispensable.

"Today, even wealthy people refuse unnecessary services," said Minoru Murakami, a business consultant and a director at Ohta Publications in Tokyo, which publishes a weekly magazine on hotels and restaurants. "Hotels are required to think like giant clothing retailer Uniqlo. That is, they have to run their businesses based on the price and service needs of their customers."

Super Hotel, a hotel chain based in Osaka, has 14 hotels across the country, each with a bed-and-breakfast plan priced at \4,800 or \5,800 per night. To ensure a peaceful nightfs sleep, each room has soundproof walls and a floor space of at least 12 square meters.

Apart from that, however, extra amenities are minimal. The hotels have no meeting spaces, dining halls or telephones in the rooms. Robes are only available in two sizes and only from the reception desk. Most Japanese hotels provide yukata in each room. As a result, the company has reduced linen costs by 30 percent.

"If our guests learn and understand our system, then they will return," a company spokesperson said.

Shinagawa Prince Hotel in Tokyo found that customers rarely used the stocked refrigerators in each room, due to their limited selection and inflated prices. So the hotel emptied the refrigerators and began operating a convenience store in the building. The store offers about 2,000 items, such as souvenirs, stationery and drinks, including 30 types of beer.

The facility, which is particularly busy from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., has been popular with customers. The hotel has benefited, too, as it is cheaper to operate the store than to keep track of the contents of the refrigerators in the 3,000 or so rooms.

Even some first-class ryokan, where it is standard policy to serve two meals per day, have begun offering scaled-down bed-and-breakfast plans.

Last autumn, Tokyo-based JTB Corp. linked together about 90 ryokan and launched a new plan that reduces room rates by almost 50 percent from the second night of a stay onward. At the 130-year-old Sengoro Ryokan in Hakonemachi, Kanagawa Prefecture, a one-night stay for two, including two meals, normally costs \23,000 each. The rate under the JTB plan, however, drops to \12,000 for each successive night. The plan does not provide an evening meal and is targeted at young people who like to eat out.