When it comes to innovation in service management, how does corporate philosophy lead to innovation from the back office to contact points with customers? To find out, Cristian Vlad interviewed Jean-Raphael Felus, General Manager of the Sheraton Okinawa Sunmarina Resort. He also spoke with recent GLOBIS graduate and current employee Tracy Acosta.
CV: You must have seen a lot of change throughout your impressive career in hospitality and services. What seem to be the highlights of change in this exciting industry?
JRF: Well, more and more hotels are being built and opened by the day, giving guests many more options than they have ever had before.
First of all, as we speak, guests worldwide are experiencing a continuous shift from real agents to online travel agents. What used to be the job of a real person servicing a real customer looking for a holiday, in many markets and countries, is now the job of a web page or an application. For us, this has eased travel and has lowered many traditional barriers to entry. In Okinawa, just as in many other parts of the country, we see an influx of international guests which very few of us anticipated a decade ago. Recently, social networks are making things even more dynamic, as more and more information is available on each hotel. This also makes it more complex for guests looking to spend time away from home. Selecting a hotel, a restaurant, or a resort to travel to from the numerous options available has become harder and harder. Therefore, owning a brand which customers trust, can easily recognize, and want to be associated with is more powerful than ever.
On the other side, though, with the wealth of options for hospitality professionals to choose from, the industry is seeing an increasing lack of manpower. The best brands and facilities often attract the best talent in the region, while other hospitality providers strive to attract and retain talent and enhance their people operations.
CV: It sounds like your industry is never short of challenges. How do you innovate to cope with all these changes?
JRF: Teamwork. Teamwork, and teamwork once again. There is no other way. We constantly reach out to each other to organize in-house support, from back-office teams to front-office teams, in order to deliver the ultimate food and beverage experience at breakfast and dinner, and the ultimate guest experience from housekeeping, the spa, the beach and any point of interaction.
CV: How do your people manage all that?
JRF: Most frequently, simply by multi-tasking. Our staff need to be multi-skilled and constantly aware of our guests’ intentions. Knowing how to anticipate what comes next and how to create an ultimate experience for every single customer at every single opportunity is key in our trade. We hire interns, often foreign staff with working holiday visas who love working in this industry and who have the language skills required by our international guests. In our business, it is mandatory to absolutely love and take the utmost pride and responsibility in every single step of what we are doing. Bringing your whole self to work is not an option—it is a mission. A mission which needs to be completed with a smile, courtesy, and genuine friendliness.
CV: Does that always work?
JRF: There are times when it does, and there are, of course, times when we struggle.
We often have to be creative in our people operations in order to make decisions and ensure operational efficiencies. At times, we have to change outsourcing operations to an in-house contracted workforce (such as housekeeping), in order to make sure that we have the right number of staff to face seasonal increases of business. Other times, we need to increase promotions offered through online travel agencies to ensure that we have a constant influx of guests.
Innovation never stops on our grounds! We have recently expanded our offerings for families visiting with little children by adding a kids’ zone and a dedicated playground. On the other side, we are aware that we need to entertain the parents, as well. With that in mind, we have recently introduced projection mapping in our lobby area and slot car racing tracks, which are all unique activities for a hotel in Okinawa. We have put up a zipline adventure, tooーthe first of its kind in a hotel and the first one ever to travel over the ocean!
CV: Flying over the ocean in a zipline! Is everyone staying at your hotel that adventurous?
JRF: Many people are! This is one of the most sought-after activities in our resort. For those who prefer a different experience, though, we offer scuba-diving and glass-bottom boat rides to venture out into the ocean and say hello to many kinds of colorful fish in their natural habitat. For our more artistic-minded guests, we have prepared the Wall of Expression, where guests of all ages can draw to express themselves. We have a coloring set in the restaurant and a lobby pond filled with fish for the kids to feed.
CV: This is all extremely impressive. Is there anything you are doing to “romance” the technology lovers visiting your resort?
JRF: We want to be sure that we have a little bit of everything for everyone. There are digital displays in the lobby area introducing our various facilities and making dining suggestions from our restaurant menus. There is a digital concierge where the tech-savvy can obtain instantaneous suggestions for fun and new discoveries. We also use our digital space for timely responses to our guests’ comments on various social media. Our guests love to know that we listen to them, and we love to show our love back to them in real time.
CV: There never seems to be a boring moment at your resort! With the increasing number of overseas guests traveling a long way to be here, is there anything traditional or unique to the region that you offer?
JRF: Hospitality knows no frontiers, and Japanese hospitality, omotenashi, is known worldwide. People in Okinawa are known to be very kind and a little more laid back than big city dwellers. Our team consists 50% of local people from Okinawa, and we try to balance this with Japanese mainland and overseas staff.
As many of our guests are looking for a genuine, local experience, we have a large number of Okinawan food choices for breakfast, and our dinner buffet is themed on Okinawa, as well.
Besides this, there are many kinds of traditional Okinawa entertainment nearby. Our concierge is always on standby for those who feel tempted to experience more.
CV: Everyone seems to be always on standby! How do you orchestrate all this?
JRF: There is no end to training. We are planning for our front desk staff to go through the official Okinawa guide course offered by the Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau so that they are knowledgeable about the local culture and offerings. We want to make sure that we know Okinawa better than anyone else, and that we are fully prepared to welcome and entertain every single guest who walks through our doors with professional expertise. Therefore, training, training, and training once again! Regardless of the season, job title, or level of experience.
CV: Jean-Raphael, thank you very much for these wonderful insights! I am already eager to be back in town!
JRF: It’s always a great pleasure to welcome guests, family, and friends back home to Okinawa!
GLOBIS graduate Tracy Acosta interned with the Sheraton Okinawa. Now an employee, she had this to say:
“Working in the service industry was entirely new for me, given my banking background. I started as an intern at Sheraton Okinawa Sunmarina Resort, and it has been a fun-filled journey. It was definitely not the typical Japanese workplace. I’m working for the Business Development team. While I am new to hotel management, as well as the Japanese language, my colleagues have been very supportive and helpful, even though I’m the only foreigner on our team. My coworkers are the happiest people on the island. We get daily doses of laughter and smiles even when things sometimes become challenging.
“I am most impressed with what I would describe as interdepartmental cooperation across all levels of the organization. To illustrate, whenever the Food & Beverage team needs assistance in the restaurants, our team will lend a hand—including my director, managers, supervisors, and even the general manager—removing each round of plates for the next set of guests. Furthermore, when the Housekeeping team was shorthanded, my director, managers, and I removed used bed sheets to expedite the cleaning process.
“As I learned in my Service Management class at GLOBIS University, a good corporate culture is a competitive advantage that cannot be easily acquired, implemented, and maintained in an organization. Indeed, this is one of the sustainable strengths of Sheraton Okinawa Sunmarina Resort: a shared corporate culture which provides an opportunity for employees to learn about hotel management and lead by serving as a role model for younger members of the organization.”