Japan MICE Biz Bounces Back Following Spring Quake

Yasaka Shrine, Kyoto
Yasaka Shrine, Kyoto

When the earthquake and tsunami rearranged the northern Japanese coastline near Fukushima on March 11, the natural reaction from meeting professionals and PCOs around the world was to cancel programs everywhere in the country.

We spoke to Gil Cardon, convention manager with the Japan National Tourism Organization, based in New York to see how the second half of 2011 is proceeding.

For a unique insight into many different meeting attendees’ viewpoints about Japan, who have visited since March, check out the series of YouTube videos where attendees provide plenty of firsthand feedback.

And to visit Japan as a hosted buyer next year, here is the announcement for Meet Japan 2012, running Feb 23-March 1. The application deadline is Dec 22, 2011.

Prevue: Mr. Cardon, how was the MICE industry initially impacted by this year’s earthquake?

Gil Cardon: The first couple of months following the March 11 tsunami and earthquake, there was a considerable decrease in business travel, as well as the MICE industry to Japan. Then things started to pick up in June and we started to see some of the conferences and conventions that were postponed in those immediate months following being put back forth into motion. Several big conferences were held from June on, and since then it’s been pretty steadily increasing back to normal.

It’s exciting to hear that business is coming back to normal. Are the numbers getting close to what they were in the last half of 2010?

Not close to what they were before, but with such a sharp decrease we’re glad to have conferences coming back. The recovery is definitely in motion, from what we’re seeing. This started around June, which is a pretty quick recovery.

Has the Fukushima incident restricted travel presently to any of the major MICE destinations?

The U.S. Department of State issued a travel advisory when it happened and it’s been downgraded since then. The current travel advisory only limits travel to a 50-mile radius of the Fukushima plant, which is further north of Tokyo.

Do you still think there are lingering questions in the U.S. market?

I think so, unfortunately.  Obviously we’re dealing with groups, and these groups within the MICE industry may have delegates coming in from around the world. It depends on who you ask.

If you ask the delegates who have visited, they’ll say, ‘Yes, everything was fine. There was a little bit of concern but not much, and we just have to go forward.’ And then they say, ‘Once we arrived here, we realized it’s totally fine and things are okay.’

Is there still downward pressure on rates?

The yen is coming back. They did some adjustments, there were some promotions following March 11. Those things are returning back to normal as well with rates.

What are some of Japan’s most popular destinations in Japan for both meetings and incentives?

I think Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto are the top three. For meetings it’s Nagoya, which is almost right in the middle of Japan and is a huge international conference city. Hiroshima is also well known historically, and at the northern part of Japan there’s Sapporo, and at the south point you get more of the beach resort-type feeling. That’s kind of a nice change for both the meetings side as well as incentives.

What makes Osaka so popular?

Osaka is very easily accessible. Outside of Tokyo it’s probably the most popular airport. Being in the overall Kansai region, which includes Kyoto, Kobe and Nara, it’s very deep and rich in culture. Nara was the first capital city of Japan. Then it moved to Kyoto. Now it’s Tokyo. That’s all very appealing to those visiting Japan.

Tell us more about Kyoto. What makes it so special?

I’ve got to tell you, it’s one of my favorites. It’s kind of hard to describe the feeling that you get when you arrive at this place—there’s an energy in the air. It’s very calm, on one hand, but at the same time there’s that energy underpinning because of the culture and history there. The museums are there, the Golden Temple, a few other temples and things like that. The rock gardens are also there and we have Maiko, the Japanese [apprentice] geisha, is walking around the city and people feel like they’re walking through a time warp.

I guess that’s the best way to put it–you feel like you’re taken back in history when you walk through there. To me, Kyoto is definitely in that sphere of representing the heart of Japanese culture and history.

Why are big name hotels suddenly interested in building in the Osaka/Kyoto region of Japan?

Now that people know a good amount about Tokyo, they want to travel further west and they want to know what else Japan has to offer. That area has a lot, it’s a hotspot of culture. Osaka itself is a city of commerce. It’s a very modern industry, and outside of Tokyo, I think it’s the most well known spot in Japan. Plus, these cities are just a short train ride away from each other, so they’re very easily accessible.