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My Japanology / Power of perfection and teamwork learned over several stays

Ikuhiro Yoneda/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Sonja Vodusek speaks to The Japan News at The Peninsula Tokyo in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.

The Japan NewsWhen Sonja Vodusek assumed the title of general manager at The Peninsula Tokyo (see below) in December 2015, she became the first woman to hold that position at a Tokyo luxury hotel. This is the third time for the Australian to live and work in the country, which she calls her second home. The Japan News recently had an opportunity to ask her about her experiences, as well as about tourism in Japan.

Q: Your career started in Japan when you first visited in 1992. You also came back in 2003. What did you learn here?

Vodusek: I learned the power of teamwork and collaboration, and also the importance of details — to become almost like a perfectionist. That was my experience in 1992, as a room attendant [on a six-month internship at a different hotel], and I had very good training here on how to make things perfect. And then in 2003, I came back as a director of rooms at [what was then called] the Four Seasons Hotel at Chinzan-so, and I learned leadership, more about how the Japanese lead their teams.

And again, a lot about collaboration, consensus, making sure that it’s a team effort. So I learned a lot about that, and nomi-communication [a concept in Japan of people expressing themselves while drinking] and the importance of that. And even today, coming back 15 years later, these principles I learned back in 1992 and 2003 I think have fast-tracked me to be a general manager today. So, Japan is like my second home; it’s the only place I have lived three times.

Q: Can you elaborate on your first stint in Japan?

A: Everything has to be perfect, the packaging, the wrapping. When you made a bed, everything had to be tight, and the bed had to be perfect, the slippers has to be lined up, the pencil had to be the correct angle, the coaster had to be straight. So I learned the power of detail. I joined housekeeping here, and I went on to be an executive housekeeper for nine years after that. So I think my Japan training really gave me a good eye for detail. The luxury hotel business is all about details.

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  • Ikuhiro Yoneda/The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Sonja Vodusek talks about broad issues including the sustainability of tourism.

Q: How about teamwork?

A: In 2003, many of the decisions we made were made as a group. So if we were going to change something, change the linen on the beds or change any procedure, it was not me who decided, it was us. And I always believe that’s a very good thing because you get buy-in and commitment. If you start making decisions, the boss did it. But if you get everybody’s input, we did it. So change will be implemented faster once you collaborate. I also learned that many decisions are made before you get to the boardroom table. I think that’s a very good leadership custom. That you’re not embarrassing anybody, that you go behind the scenes and talk individually, get everyone’s opinion, so everyone has an opportunity, versus putting people on the spot in front of the boss.

Q: However, some point out that due to such a decision-making process, it takes a long time to move forward.

A: It takes time. But once it’s decided, it happens fast. I always advise international people that come to look, listen and learn for 90 to 100 days. Watch and don’t do anything. Just develop relationships and get to know the people.

Q: This is your third time in Japan. I suppose you have a lot of impressions of changes compared to 1992 or 2003.

A: First and foremost, I think the culture remains the same to me — very respectful, very polite, very gracious hospitality. I’ve noticed there are far more international people here than ever before.

From a beauty perspective, from a woman’s perspective, 15 years ago, spa tourism was not big, but nowadays it’s big business. I know that because I assisted in opening Yu spa up at the Four Seasons Chinzan-so. Back then, Yu spa was one of the first spas in a hotel that was opened.

People want unique experiences

Q: In particular, what do you think of the current state of tourism in this country?

A: China is one of the biggest booming markets for this company, [along with] the American market [and] 70 percent of Asians travel within Asia. So, I think current tourists are really looking for the experiential time, because Japan still offers tradition, culture, food tourism and future technology. So, out of all the things people want to see, you’ve got everything in one country. From robotics, from the maglev that’s being done, to anime, manga, to food, all the different types of Japanese cuisine, to the arts, the culture ... Guests are really looking for experiences that they would not have anywhere else.

Q: Due to an influx of tourists, there are some complaints from local residents. What do you think of sustainability in tourism?

A: I think the challenge for us here in Japan is to ensure quality, not quantity. And, you know, sustainable tourism is very, very important for us globally.

I think our biggest challenge here will be the cruise lines. The cruises are increasing, so we’re getting a lot of people at once for a short time, which puts a lot of pressure on the environment. From [a] sustainable tourism perspective, there’s the economic, there’s the societal, and there’s the environment. How do we take care of the environment? How do we take care of society, the infrastructure, and the economic side of it? I think sustainable tourism is going to be all about making sure we do quality versus quantity.

It’s a challenging question to ask. The luxury hospitality industry is probably the most difficult industry to be sustainable in. And that’s a very honest opinion. However ... we were the first group in the world to ban shark fin. We are looking at water and energy consumption — our energy and water consumption is going down on a regular basis. There are so many things we are doing as a hotel.

Q: You have attained diversity, especially regarding the situation of women working here. Could you tell me about that?

A: We have over 36 percent of women in leadership positions [as of January 2018]. We are doing a lot of wellness for our people as well. Work-life balance has been a very big topic since I arrived, ensuring that everyone takes their vacation leave. Managing diversity was one thing, but just to go back, I’ll name a few things. Not only do we have female leadership, but we also have special-needs people here that we have in the workplace. They help us polish, they help us do everything.

A big focus for the leadership team here was work-life balance. We introduced in 2018 three work-life balance days for each employee to take. That’s an extra cost for the company, but it’s not about making money for the company, it’s about employee wellness ... I said every person has to take vacation leave, their full vacation. We achieved 93.5 percent [of] people completing their vacation leave. The country average I believe is 48 percent, and the industry average is 41 percent. So we really focused on that.

Q: Most managers or employees in Japan think about doing this, but it could be difficult for them to actually realize. How can it be better realized?

A: It has to start from the top. If the CEO does not believe it, it will not trickle down; you know this is a hierarchical culture. So the boss has to do the change. I could be here, I could work 24 hours, but I have to make a point of leaving the office so people see that it’s OK to leave the office, otherwise they won’t leave the office. So I think it’s all about leadership and leading by example.

Q: Where does your management style come from? Have you been influenced by the management style of your father [who ran a company in Australia]?

A: Yes. My father’s management style was very much about treating people like a family, and sometimes you have to be firm with your family, and sometimes the children don’t like the decisions you make, but it’s the right decision for them as they grow. I think walking around, being visible, being present with your employees, knowing their names — and taking care. You cannot have a tired workforce, because the guests feel it.

Look, listen, learn

Q: How can you avoid the situation of “organizational silos” [in which people in one part of an organization are unwilling or unable to share information with those in other parts]?

A: My favorite topic. Organizational silos: It’s not just here in Japan this happens; this happens globally. Anything that happens in an organization is all about the leadership, how they manage. My role when I first came here — not just here but everywhere — is that I genuinely get to know my people, get to know the hotel, and I look, listen and learn for 90 days. And I meet one-on-one with my direct senior leadership, and I assess everybody. Then, it’s up to me to make that team cohesive, to get them together. So, I organize social events, nomi-communication. I celebrate birthdays, when we have our morning operation meeting, and then afterwards I have the senior leadership meeting where we discuss what’s going on for the day, and if there’s any major decisions that need to be discussed, it’s discussed as a team. So there are no silos; there’s a lot of camaraderie. But if I was a leader where I have that person coming to my office just one-on-one, then that’s how silos begin. The one-on-one, one-on-one, one-on-one. But everyone hears the same message, so it’s very clear that there’s no — oh, she said this, no she didn’t. It’s the same message to everyone.

Q: What do you think of omotenashi, the Japanese form of hospitality?

A: Yes, the spirit of Japanese service. I think, I hope we never lose omotenashi. This is the DNA of the Japanese person, and I hope we never lose this, because there’s nowhere in the world like Japanese service.

Q: What is the most distinguishing point of omotenashi, compared to other countries’ hospitality?

A: Genuine care. This is a non-tipping culture. You’re not doing something for me because you know you’re going to get $100 from me as a tip, you’re doing it for me because you want to do it. Big difference. And that’s why I like coming back here, because people do things because they want to. And it’s the leader’s role to make sure that you create the environment so your employees develop and they blossom.

Q: You have created a lot of things at the hotel.

A: I think it’s all about the little touches that people remember. It is about placing things in different areas. We’re doing sakura; Peninsula Tokyo loves sakura. Each year we’re getting better, we’re evolving Peninsula sakura [elements, such as] Peninsula Sakura pens. Everything to remind people of how Peninsula Tokyo loves the sakura season. We have a very good creative team, and we all talk about, how can we bring sakura more alive in the country, in the city? In the next few months, we’re going to talk about all things matcha, we’re going to have a matcha festival promotion. So, we always like to try and do something different every year.

Q: Using Japanese tastes?

A: Absolutely, with an international twist.

This interview was conducted by Japan News Assistant Editor Takeshi Nagata.

■ The Peninsula Tokyo

This luxury hotel opened in 2007 in the financial district of Marunouchi, Tokyo, adjacent to the Imperial Palace. It has 314 guest rooms and over 1,300 square meters of banquet and meeting areas. Its parent company, The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels, Ltd., was incorporated in 1866 and is listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. The Hong Kong-based company currently operates 10 Peninsula Hotels in Asia, the United States and Europe, including in Beijing, New York and Paris.

■ Sonja Vodusek / General Manager of The Peninsula Tokyo

Vodusek joined The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels, Ltd., as hotel manager at The Peninsula New York in 2010. She moved to Manila as general manager in 2011 and then assumed her current role in December 2015.

Before joining The Peninsula Hotels, she had 16 years of experience holding various executive management positions in the luxury hospitality sector at Four Seasons hotels in the United States, Japan and other countries.

A native of Yarrawonga in Victoria, Australia, she received a diploma from the Blue Mountains International Hotel Management School in Sydney and a certificate in business studies from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.Speech

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