Japan has all the elements for stunning incentive and group travel experiences, yet rarely features at the top of the ‘must visit’ list. Whilst distance is a factor, access is superb, and whilst the culture is unique, is it too different, too eclectic, and too challenging?
I’ve never fathomed this one out really, but what I do know is that, having organised over 20 events there, get the ingredients mixed right and you have a knockout destination. It is critical to get the balance right – not too Japanese, not too international, and like anything with an acquired taste, once you’ve got it you’ll come back for more and richer experiences.
We have just operated a large top achievers event for one of our clients. We have travelled the world with them over the years and Japan was proposed on the basis that they have experienced opulence on many events; however, the blend of opulence within a unique culture is something rare to experience.
The requirement for the event was to push the boundaries, and the challenge of Japan is it tests conventional event
management, for both clients and the event management agency. Language is obvious but factor in interpretation of translations and cultural differences overlaid and you start to appreciate the complexity of an event. For example, “yes” does not mean “yes”! As Kat, our project director noted “you cannot have any margin for error in anything. The client needs to accept that times stated are times adhered to. In Japan every detail is scrutinised and planned for, and the experience of the tsunami right in the middle of our planning process tested this rigidity to the limit.”
The closed, culturally dominant and structured society is Japan’s paradox. It is both challenge and appeal at the same time. As an island culture that is 99% ethnically Japanese there is no cultural mix, so history, cultural legacy and the norms of a structured society exert a strong influence. And here’s another paradox, how can a nation that is so modern and economically innovative flourish within such a dominant cultural tradition? It is this that is one of the most fascinating ingredients to the Japanese experience.
The essential ingredients for incentive travel success
In our experience here are our seven top tips for getting the mix right:
- Accept that when ‘culturally different’ is mentioned prefix the word “totally”
- Build a programme that incorporates its beautiful paradoxes – urban and rural, modern and traditional, ceremonial and unconventional
- Don’t bite too much off in your first visit, keep things manageable
- Be prepared for shocks to the budget – it is a very expensive destination, however, its efficiency means you do a lot for your budget as well, and there are good rates to be negotiated for larger groups in excess of 150 pax
- Challenge your own event management thinking, for example dining. Japanese cuisine is full of complexity and variety. But here’s the paradox - don’t expect to get this in one place. If you love tempura, then you go to a tempura restaurant
- Be ruthless in your organisation. Japan is built on superb systems, processes and efficiencies. The system waits for no-one. The whole country runs like clockwork
- Expect consensus, but be prepared for decisions to sometimes be a long time coming. The cultural norm is to be community focused, not individual, but when decisions are made you know they will be binding and everyone is aware
In terms of our programme, it is safe to say that over two years went into the planning for the event. We experienced the usual logistics challenges of aviation, transport and programme planning, however, the tsunami challenged the viability of the whole event. It is a credit to the client and testimony to the sheer will and co-operation of our Japanese hosts that we all wanted to make it happen.
Our programme included:
- Split Groups - flights from airports throughout the UK via European and Asian hubs
- Tokyo and Kyoto, connected by bullet train
- Hotels - Four Seasons Chinzan-So and Hyatt Kyoto
- Air partners - Lufthansa, KLM, Finnair, Cathay Pacific
Ground programme elements included
- Sumo – one of the strongest cultural images of Japan is Sumo, it is also one of the most difficult to actually witness as only six tournaments a year take place across the country. The group witnessed the Grand Final Tournament in category A seat!
- Zen meditation and tea ceremony, sushi making, and a kimono dressing experience
- Bullet train – an unexpected highlight. Five minutes to board at Tokyo, two to alight at Kyoto for three rotations of 100 pax into two carriages!
- Kamakura - Japan’s capital from 1192 to 1333 and now a treasure trove of Japanese history and culture, most notably Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine and the bronze Great Buddha Statue built in 1264
- the historic Asakusa district
- Modern Tokyo - Akihabara, preferred area of geeks, nerds and lovers of IT and electronics and Harajuka, the trendy teenage fashion street
- Rikugien, Tokyo’s most beautiful landscaped garden, and Bonsai
- Ginza shopping shuttle, Tokyo’s most famous shopping street and the site of Tokyo’s most expensive real estate
- Kinkakuji Golden Pavilion and Nijo Castle in Kyoto, Japan’s most important historical and cultural city
- Nara, Japan’s first permanent capital in the 8th Century AD and the centre of many of Japan’s traditional arts and literature, and Todaiji Temple, a stunning edifice housing the Great Statue of Buddha and one of the world’s largest wooden structures
- Walking tour of Kyoto's Geisha district - led by a native English speaker, an expert in Geisha culture having studied it for twenty years and part of the filming of Memoirs of a Geisha
- Fushimi Inari Shrine and sake brewery visit
- Arashiyama excursion
The effect of any event is the legacy left with delegates, client, the BI WORLDWIDE team and our event partners. Our client has recognised the power of incentive travel as the ultimate reward for more than 20 years, and many of their top achievers are seasoned international travellers. To state that Japan was the most incredible destination they have visited in this time is evidence of the unique effect Japan has and the criticality of getting all the details spot on.
For the organising team the effect is one of total satisfaction. The team here and our partners in Japan embraced every challenge together and the fused spirit and determination to succeed was evident throughout. As Kat mentioned in passing “the Japanese team was the best, most friendly and gracious I have worked with in a long time”