Persist, pivot, prosper? Tourism businesses on weathering the pandemic

The pandemic experiences of small tourism businesses in Japan are eerily similar. A lucrative 2019 prompted them to invest in a 2020 that was supposed to bring the world to the Tokyo Olympics. Instead, they were not only among the first businesses to buckle under the pandemic, but might be some of the last to bounce back.

Now that the Olympics and a national vaccine rollout are underway, The Japan Times checks in with four small, non-Japanese-owned tourism businesses — tour providers Arigato Travel, Foodie Adventure Japan and Maction Planet, and tourist accommodation service Tokyo Family Stays. How are they holding up? And how did they pivot to stay in business 18 months later?

To go (or not to go) travel

Although the Japanese government was expecting 40 million inbound tourists in 2020, only about 4 million managed to visit before the pandemic took hold, a 99.6% drop in the number of international arrivals in the first quarter of 2021 compared to 2019 according to statistics from the Japan National Tourism Organization. For small businesses that cater primarily to non-Japanese tourists (and even domestic ones), their customers have been out of reach.

Almost immediately, tour companies Maction Planet, Arigato Travel, Foodie Adventure Japan and Tokyo Family Stays each faced their own tidal wave of cancellations.

“We’re in this together. All cancellations will receive a full refund,” Gizem Sakamaki from Foodie Adventure Japan had to tell her customers back in March 2020.

“The business we carefully built and planned for the last eight years disappeared in under a month,” echoes Tokyo Family Stays co-founder Tracey Northcott.

Tracey Northcott, entrepreneur and co-founder of Tokyo Family Stays | COURTESY OF TOKYO FAMILY STAYS
Tracey Northcott, entrepreneur and co-founder of Tokyo Family Stays | COURTESY OF TOKYO FAMILY STAYS

Initially, the Japanese government supported many businesses with its controversial Go To Travel campaign, meant to kickstart domestic tourism, but only Tokyo Family Stays was eligible. But by the time it had applied, the campaign was already suspended due to a national rise in COVID-19 cases.

“It was a heap of work to do that was just wasted. I wish we had spent time applying for other subsidies instead,” Northcott says.

Self-reliant and resilient, Northcott and her husband, Ashley Thredgold, began targeting domestic customers in order to keep their businesses afloat. First, they started advertising their serviced apartments to people seeking quarantine stays, as well as to stranded tourists who couldn’t get a flight back home. Another pandemic headache was the initial language barrier and expense to getting a COVID-19 test, so they started a PCR testing business.

What all of their pivots have in common is a focus on helping the non-Japanese community with what they need most, and doing so in English.

“As an entrepreneur for the last 20 years, I have been involved with a number of different businesses. We have owned a real estate company, a bar in Golden Gai, two different software companies and online news services,” Northcott says. “I can adapt and help people while creating businesses that support my own life and family.”

Keeping the same pool of customers, but changing the product is another strategy that Sakamaki employed, launching a sustainable clothing line, Foodie Wear Japan. “The clothes and accessories are made with organically harvested cotton, water-based non-toxic ink and orders are fulfilled as close as possible to minimize shipping distances,” Sakamaki explains.

Armchair tourism

Meanwhile, for other businesses, virtual tours and content creation became the digital answer to the closed borders problem. Arigato Travel and Maction Planet managed to do a few bespoke tours with local customers, when it was still relatively safe. But with the majority of their client base abroad, they quickly shifted online.

Mac Salman, of Maction Planet, transitioned to hosting online cooking classes for housebound viewers. | COURTESY OF MACTION PLANET
Mac Salman, of Maction Planet, transitioned to hosting online cooking classes for housebound viewers. | COURTESY OF MACTION PLANET

Maction Planet’s Mac Salman set up online cooking lessons for housebound viewers hoping to pick up new skills while self-isolating. “I call my style ‘edutainment’ — it’s both education and entertainment,” Salman says.

Arigato Travel soon realized virtual experiences would be more fun and interactive with tasting boxes, helping them stand out for their domestic customers among the sudden onslaught of online events and Zoom parties. It collaborated with companies such as Bokksu, a subscription snack box, as well as tea farms and wineries, and the immersive online experiences helped land the company on the list of the world’s best virtual tours by Forbes Magazine.

“In just 13 months, we have hosted around 2,000 online guests,” says Arigato Travel’s Elizabeth Anne. She attributes the success to her team and the fact they had always worked remotely, hence no telework shock to the company’s work style.

High cost

Not all is rosy, however. Investing is tricky when you’ve experienced abrupt financial loss. From camera equipment to editing software, the initial setup for streaming and video-making costs a fair amount. Even getting people on board with the concept of virtual tours was initially challenging.

“It was not an easy switch. The idea of virtual experiences was very new — many people doubted and underestimated them,” Anne says.

Social media was another option. Salman went the YouTube route, dedicating more time to his two channels, Maction Planet and Kanpai Planet, the latter focusing solely on Japanese drinks. Sakamaki, on the other hand, became a Twitch streamer, which she says felt more immediate and natural: She could talk to people abroad who were alone in their own mandated lockdowns in real-time.

Salman and Sakamaki pay for everything out of pocket — whether they are taste-testing drinks and konbini food, or taking a trip to Super Nintendo World in Osaka — in hopes of breaking through on platforms already saturated with established creators. Sakamaki is upfront about the fact that this pivot hasn’t been financially successful yet, but says her bond with the newly formed, tight-knit community is priceless.

Looking ahead

Gizem Sakamaki became a Twitch streamer, which she says led to the creation of a tight-knit community. | COURTESY OF FOODIE ADVENTURE JAPAN
Gizem Sakamaki became a Twitch streamer, which she says led to the creation of a tight-knit community. | COURTESY OF FOODIE ADVENTURE JAPAN

Hopes are pinned on future “revenge travel,” the phenomenon of increased travel and spending to make up for lost time during the pandemic. Whenever Japan opens up again for overseas tourists, all four businesses are planning to resume their in-person services (albeit while maintaining their virtual tours and content creation, too).

Sakamaki also believes travel will stay local for longer. She hopes that this will help with overtourism in the long run, as popular places develop new strategies to manage guests and inbound travel businesses craft itineraries for off-the-beaten-track destinations, bringing business to areas that need it most.

Whatever the future “new normal” will bring, travel is on everyone’s bucket list, if customer reviews of Arigato Travel’s virtual offerings on Tripadvisor are any indication. “I cannot wait to go to Japan. I can add knowing how to eat like a local to my preparation list,” a recent review gushes. “Hope to take a tour with you guys in person soon!”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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