A focus on customer experience helps JTB weather the Covid storm
IF Covid has any redeeming benefit, it can only be the time the pandemic has given the travel industry to reassess its business practices and strategies, to reset and reload, ready for the recovery down the track.
What did we do right? What did we do wrong? Where do we go from here?
For JTB, Japan’s largest travel agency, the Covid hiatus has given the organisation time to drill deeper into ways it can improve its use of travel technology, to develop new product and – most of all – enhance customer experience.
Eijiro Yamakita, president and CEO, JTB Corp., has had a great deal of help in seeking ways to improve customer experience. “We have 20,000 staff looking at this. It’s really important for us to understand the customer requirements,” he said.
Yamakita was speaking via video at WIT Japan & North Asia 2022 (he had taken time out from his regular Saturday exercise programme) where he said JTB was introducing technology to improve the interface with the customer, from the point of contact, through and beyond the journey.
“We used to have contact points with the customer like the travel shops and the online portal but the two were not linked. We have now merged the customer experience online and offline. We’ve made strong investments in this area to give customers a seamless, end-to-end experience.”
One example of this is the remote connection which allows customers to connect easily not just with JTB staff but also with in-destination suppliers, such as hotels.
There is still more that needs to be done, Yamakita says. “We need more collaboration with the travel tech companies, particularly pre-trip and at the destination. We have some alliances already, but we need more.”
The impact of Covid on Japanese inbound – the figure of 32 million annual visitors has all but disappeared to 20,000 visitors – has also resulted in a slowdown in international tourism promotion over the last two years. and this is another area that Yamakito will be paying special attention to in preparation for a post-Covid return to international travel.
Yamakita believes it was a mistake to shift JTB’s focus off the inbound market and preparations are underway to ensure that, as international travel returns, Japan will be promoting itself at every opportunity. “Stimulation of the market, promotional activities, and government support, that’s really important to boost the sales into 2022.”
For the luxury segment, JTB has formed a new division focussed on offering ultra-high-end product. Other product to emerge and grow during Covid has been the transformation of traditional temples and ancient houses into wellness retreats and Japanese inns. And while these have been accommodating domestic travellers in the last couple of years, they will be promoted as a new accommodation option to international visitors.
After a “really tough” year in 2020, JTB turned the corner, with the sale of its Tokyo headquarters, cost-cutting, restructuring of the organisation and the development of non-travel-related business helping to transform a 97.6-billion-yen operating loss in financial year 2020 to a JPY6.7 billion (US$67 million) profit in the first half of 2021, with expectations that the full year results will also be in the black.
“We have changed the work style a lot, becoming very flexible with remote working from home. We don’t ask people to move to Tokyo. For example, those living in the rural areas can stay with the family, but still work very hard.”
Yamakita says the better-then-predicted result will not mean that JTB’s focus will stay on booming domestic tourism, at the expense of international. “I have no fear that Japan will turn inwards and delay opening its borders just because domestic tourism is so strong. Japan is always open to the other countries; people are most welcome.”
Neither does Yamakita feel that the travel industry in Japan needs to be more vocal in urging the Japanese government to follow the lead of countries like the United States, Singapore and those in Europe who have loosened restrictions around their borders.
Collaboration with the Japanese government, rather than pushing it to open up, is the way forward, Yamakita says, noting that industry coordination with the government has strengthened during the pandemic and Japan’s tourism recovery will be stronger as a result.
Among the biggest tech investments made by JTB has been to improve the quality of its online events, an investment that has paid off handsomely, according to Yamakita. Those Japanese corporations that suspended meetings during Covid have been lured back to the virtual conference table thanks to the availability of high-quality tech advancements.
* Watch the full interview here.