By Ayako Hirayama / Japan News Staff WriterOsaka’s tourism boom and selection as the host of a series of major global events has the city’s hotel industry looking for ways to capitalize on this wave of success.
To that end, the Ritz-Carlton Osaka, the luxury hotel brand’s first outpost in Japan when it opened in 1997, has brought back as general manager a hotelier with extensive international experience in the industry and deep connections to the Kansai region.
Mark Neukomm, 57, assumed the post on June 1, the very month that Osaka hosts the two-day summit of the Group of 20 leading economies that runs through Saturday. The Swiss native first worked at the Ritz-Carlton Osaka in 2002 and was the general manager from 2006 to 2010.
The timing appears to be significant as Osaka gears up for a further increase of visitors for the G20 summit and beyond. This autumn, Osaka Prefecture will host several Rugby World Cup matches. A few years later, the 2025 World Expo will be held in the city. Osaka is also likely to gain further momentum if its plan is approved to open an integrated casino resort, which is expected to draw 15 million visitors a year and generate an annual economic effect regionally of ¥760 billion.
“A lot of things are happening in this area,” Neukomm said during a recent interview with The Japan News. “As part of our preparations, we did extensive renovations to our guest rooms. That helps us receive more high-end customers.”
In March, the hotel also completed major renovations to its Chinese and French restaurants as well as its bar, after having renovated its Japanese restaurant in 2016. The hotel is known for its classical European style, but a modern touch has been infused into the hotel’s dining establishments.
“Sometimes, the contrast complements each other perfectly well, but you have to be relevant,” he said. “New elements should be blended well into our original concept.”
Having seen an increase in the number of guests staying at the hotel for leisure, he said Osaka has its advantages as the “perfect gateway” to explore other parts of the Kansai region, such as Kyoto, Nara and Kobe.
“All these areas can be accessed easily,” he said. “Now we see leisure customers look for more options. Staying here for a few days actually provides more of a Japanese experience. Visitors have started to understand this.”
According to the Osaka Convention and Tourism Bureau, the number of foreign visitors to the prefecture totaled 11.42 million in 2018, up 2.8 percent from the previous year. This was despite a powerful earthquake and a devastating typhoon hitting the prefecture last year.
Neukomm, who first came to Japan for an internship at a hotel in Tokyo at age 24, has had in total 22 years of experience in Japan. After joining the Portman Ritz-Carlton in Shanghai in 2000, he came to Osaka, then worked at Ritz-Carlton properties in Bahrain and Moscow. He returned to Japan in June 2016 as the general manager of the Ritz-Carlton Kyoto.
“Japan’s my second home country, but it’s almost like my first home,” he said. “My experience helps me better accommodate both Japanese and foreign guests.”
As a pioneering hotel in Japan, the Ritz-Carlton Osaka has seemingly enjoyed a period of dominance in providing luxury accommodations to discerning customers. In recent years, competition in Osaka has intensified as other high-end hotel brands, such as InterContinental and Conrad, have opened properties in the city.
Neukomm views competition in a positive light.
“New hotels have taken away some guests, obviously. But we have our own customers. We need to stay relevant to them,” he said. “Competition is always good to improve and look at ourselves to see whether we are doing what we are supposed to do.
“We are not striving for 100 percent room occupancy,” he added. “We are maintaining and striving for excellent services. Our job is to create unforgettable memories for our guests.”
In Japan, Ritz-Carlton currently has hotels in Osaka, Tokyo, Okinawa and Kyoto, with properties in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture; Niseko, Hokkaido; and Fukuoka scheduled to open in the next few years. Neukomm hopes the Osaka hotel will serve as a role model for any new Ritz-Carlton hotels.
“Many of our ladies and gentlemen have been here since the hotel’s opening,” he said, referencing the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co.’s motto, “We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” “We make sure to work as a team and get ready to accommodate high-end customers on a regular basis.”
Concerns over supply of rooms
Osaka has been in the midst of a hotel construction boom, but concerns have been raised over excessive supply.
According to a report by the NLI Research Institute, the room occupancy rate in Osaka Prefecture hit 86.5 percent in 2017 (it was 83.9 percent in Tokyo), a figure indicating a shortage of lodging facilities in peak periods. There were about 62,000 hotel rooms in the prefecture in 2017. However, the supply is expected to exceed demand as an additional 20,000 rooms are projected to be added to the prefecture by 2020, the institute says.
“It will be difficult for hotels to survive unless they set themselves apart from their rivals,” said Tomohisa Ishikawa, senior manager of the Japan Research Institute’s Kansai Economic Research Center. “But there is still room for growth, depending on the efforts made.”Speech