With the recent awarding of the 2020 Olympic Games to Tokyo, Japan, the world’s mega-event is on its way to the world’s mega-city. Scooping the games will be a boost for the event industry, with the government set to invest heavily in new facilities and infrastructure. Kongres took the chance to talk to Riki Tanaka, International Affairs Editor at Tokyo-based Exhibition and MICE, about how Japan is faring in a competitive region and what the years ahead hold for the industry.

Interview by Kongres Telescope Editor, Rob Cotter.

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Q: Japan is a known around the world as a premium destination for events, but the competition in the region is getting stronger and stronger. What is the Japanese industry doing to retain its competitive edge and which countries in the region do you see as the main competition?
In terms of congresses, Japan showed overwhelming strength in Asia until the 1980s, because of its background in areas such as the advanced medical/academic fields. Nowadays, however, it has been losing its previous stature due to China’s burst of economic growth and other Asian countries’ aggressive invitation style with the strong support of government, or due to new mega facilities, such as those in Singapore and Korea.

The Japanese event (congress) industry nonetheless remains very proud of its high quality operation and logistics. A Japanese PCO can deliver an event without any mistakes, stress, delays or complaints from the organiser or participants.

Also hospitality is one of Japan’s strengths. At the presentation for the Olympic games at the IOC congress in Buenos Aires, Omotenashi (which means ‘hospitality’ in Japanese) became a keyword. Omotenashi is not only hospitality, but also how best to treat people, meaning for us in the industry always considering everything from a client’s viewpoint. “If I were the client, what would I want….?” – customer satisfaction is always considered first.

Presently our main competitor to achieve the number one slot of Asian congress destinations is supposed to be mainland China. However, China and Japan are very different in size, economic growth and reasons why an organiser holds meetings. When associations want to go to China, they are looking at the potential of the market. For Japan, it is because they need a mature business market or academic community. Therefore people in the Japanese event industry probably consider Korea and Singapore as the main competitors. With a specific focus on congresses, Australia can be seen as a competitor too.

Q: Japan is also known as the world leader in technology – what are the main technological innovations that the industry is embracing and how do you think they will improve it in the coming years?
Firstly, we had to look at the diversity required to host the Olympic Games and how the industry would need to re-consider the diversity of events. From this, welfare can be one of the especially key features: barrier-free facilities, signage, transportation… everything shall be re-considered from the viewpoint of diversity.

Sustainability is another factor to be improved. As with the London Olympics, Tokyo has also considered applying event standard ISO20121. Even without the Olympics in Tokyo, most events operate with a sustainability concept for client CSR, especially corporate meetings and congresses.

As for new technology, 3D mapping (Project mapping) is highlighted for this year, such as Tokyo station, Tokyo tower etc. It was beforehand used only for outdoor events, but it is now being used for indoor events too. It makes an event dynamic without the need for any construction. Also augmented reality (AR) is a spotlight technology for the event industry. There are a lot of types of AR, such as wearing a helmet, using a smart phone, etc. Currently the technology is ready, but there is still the question of how best to use it in events. Probably a lot of ways will be created in the next years. Like AR, GPS, APP, and linkage of SNS are also ready, but the technology is still waiting for the innovation on how it can be best used.

Q: What would you identify as the core strengths of Japan’s event industry and which event markets do you find are most attracted to these strengths?
In addition to the points address in the previous question, from the long history of the advertisement business, most of Japan’s events are considered to excel in their performance as a marketing tool. Economists always survey the economic ripple effect of even sports events or association meetings. For example, the economic effect of the Tokyo Olympic games are calculated by many economists to have an impact range as wide as ¥3 trillion to ¥150 trillion yen. Companies and government also calculate how much the effects to their business will be before they decide on their budget. There are some huge ad agencies in Japan, such as Dentsu, Hakuhodo, ADK, who study people’s behaviour during events in order to measure actual ROI, ROO, instead of just counting the number of participants.

Japan is also an experienced and well-developed event industry. There is the Japan Association for promotion of Creative Event (JACE), established in 1989; the Japan Institute of Eventology (JIE); the Japan Event Director’s Society (JEDIS); the Japan Event Produce Association (JEPC) etc. all of whom are organisations with great support from huge ad agencies, event companies, organisers etc. They are very much experienced and generate a strong network of collaborations.

There is also a strong background for entertainment, sports, academic and business (manufacturing – engineering) content in Japanese events. They have a lot of content; for example there is a big market for comics, animation, video games and girls idol groups that has been exported around the world. These kind of cultures are strongly related to B2C events. The huge participant expense means big investments in event rendering, such as large-scale visual screens, high quality computer graphics, detailed construction, etc. Of course, for B2B events, background is the most important factor for attracting exhibitors, participants and sponsors. The investment and requests from participants shines through in the quality of events.

In the opinion of a foreign event company manager, Japanese events’ major good points are the cleanliness of the halls and the hard work of workers, including part-timers. Management of part time worker is an especially key factor to achieving success in events. The Japanese are very proud of our hard work ethic, even in part-time jobs; it is one of Japan’s strong points.

Q: In recent days, Tokyo has been awarded the 2020 Olympic Games. What effect do you think this will have on the event industry and the facilities it currently offers? Has the government committed to any specific new infrastructure investments that will build on the current offer?
As host city, the Tokyo Metropolitan government is planning to invest ¥153.8 billion to build ten new sports arenas or renovate several facilities (even though a “Compact Olympic” was mentioned as the concept). Under economic analysis this figure has doubled, due to construction material price increase.

Obviously this causes a booming economy in construction and other business fields. It has already affected the stock market, with the total market value of the first section of the Tokyo Stock Exchange increased by ¥13 trillion in one week.

Japan’s biggest exhibition centre, “Tokyo Big sight”, is also planned to be expanded by 44,000 square meters to a total size of 124,000 square meters. From the candidate file, a new 3-storey building is to be constructed as the Media Centre for the Olympics, which does not seem suited to exhibitions or events. The expansion of Tokyo big sight has been argued for a long time, and the Tokyo metropolitan government always signaled a positive opinion, but never yet approved the budget. The Olympics solved this long-pending conundrum – maybe it is a good opportunity to argue for further expansion.

Being awarded the Olympic Games does not only attract public investment, as the private sector also build related facilities, such as hotels, shopping centres, integrated resorts, event halls etc. This in turn can affect the invitation of MICE or increase domestic events. The software side of the industry is also touched, such as the development of legal systems, human resource development, industry re-organisation, etc. It makes people paying attention to event industry quite a booming business at the moment!

Q: From your exposure to the industry, what do you think are the most important ingredients for remaining at the top when the level in the region continues to rise?
I think the ways of increasing or maintaining a high presence cannot only have one perspective. Every destination has different characteristics that they can find, help to grow, and then use to promote their destination to the world. In Japan’s case it is hospitality, high quality operation, a safe destination, a clean destination. However, it can sometimes seem that Japan is not good at promoting our good points to the world. Sometimes a destination can shout “We can do everything”, but everything can turn out to mean nothing.

In order to properly promote a destination, it can need the viewpoint of foreigners instead of their own people. As part of the Olympic invitation, Tokyo had a contract with a British consultant for its campaign strategy. This led to changes in Tokyo’s invitation activities.

There is also the need for human resource development at both management and staffing level – events are a labour-intensive business.

Q: How committed is the Japanese industry to sustainability and can you point to any best case examples of where this is being achieved?
From the results of our survey, in total 37 fairs in the eco- or environmental business field were held in Japan last year. It is the second most common business field after IT (and with the same number as food). And this number has been increasing for several years, based on the social needs of sustainability.

The “Eco Products” event, which is organised by leading newspaper publisher Nikkei, is one of the biggest sustainability trade fairs. Nikkei works to make the event itself eco-friendly, such as waste re-cycling programme for booth constructions, advanced trash classifying system in the exhibition hall, CO2 calculation of emissions and reduction programme, encouraging exhibitors to reduce waste and creating guidelines for sustainability. Consequently, after evaluation of their efforts they won the Japan Exhibition Association Award for sustainability achievements.

The industry has also just begun to focus on ISO20121, due to the Olympic Games. This will become more common in the Japanese event industry in the years ahead.

Q: With an eye on South East Europe from Japan, what advice would you give to industry professionals to make their country the best in the region?
I am not quite sure Japan is in the position to advise other countries, as Japan faces its own difficult situation of acute competition. However, I can say that we can study and learn lots of things from each other. Probably there are plenty of points to learn from Japan, such as the smooth and accurate operation of an event, etc. From Japan a lot can also be learnt about lobbying, global communication, marketing, etc. With this in mind, I would like to establish a network (partnership) association to share information and know-how between South East Europe and Japan. Information skills can be strong weapons in this competition!

Another thing that is worth recommending is building up promotion with the highlight characteristics of the country/cities. For example, Paris is well known for fashion and food, the U.K. for heritage and architecture. I have seen destinations that offer too many things during the promotion stage, but too many things can make it not something memorable for the planner and participants. I would suggest considering how planners make a proposal to their boss, clients, or participants to decide on a destination: they probably make a report or proposal sheet highlighting the major characteristics of each destination, which means preparing good information with clear and quick reference data to their report.

It is also important to get the viewpoint of participants, even though they are not your direct clients. Destinations should provide something special as an experience to participants. That means providing a ‘tailor-made’ service. Tailor-made services begin with hearing individual customer needs and considering the best ways to entertain participants. Actually, “Omotenashi” (Japanese hospitality) is based on this mentality – spending the main effort on how to make guests feel welcome….

I do not think “Omotenashi” is the best way forward for all destinations, but it certainly offers something that can be useful.

Riki Tanaka
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