Scenes from Japan

Scenes from Japan

My heart goes out to the people of Japan as they try to cope with the terrifying impact of the recent earthquake and tsunami. I am following the news closely and hope the damage to the nuclear reactors can be contained. Some reports coming into me indicate no signs of panic or hysteria in Tokyo, but personal and business activities are a bit limited by restrictions on power supply and damage to infrastructure. Resolve appears to remain steadfast.

When you stop to consider the devastating implications of this event and others like it, including the recent earthquake in New Zealand, floods in Queensland, and bloody revolutions in the Middle East and Africa, it causes one to pause, reflect and put more manageable problems into perspective.

I have sent multiple emails to hoteliers in Japan to better understand their stories and realities — both personally and professionally.

I want to share one email received overnight from Marcel van Aelst, who is president and general manager of the Hotel Okura Amsterdam, as well as representative director and president of JAL Hotels Co., Tokyo, which is now owned by Okura Hotels & Resorts. Marcel is traveling between Amsterdam and Tokyo quite often these days and just arrived back in Tokyo from the Berlin conferences last Thursday afternoon for a Friday morning board of directors meeting of Hotel Okura Co. Ltd. Here is his account of what he experienced next and how his company has reacted since. Of course, this is a fluid situation, and this is what he told me as of Tuesday morning in Japan:

“In the afternoon (Friday) I left for the JAL Hotels Corp. office. I was ‘welcomed’ by the worst earthquake I ever experienced. You know I lived in San Francisco for five years, as well. My office is on the 13th floor, and it was not a pretty feeling.

“Our Okura, Nikko and JALCity hotels came out of it without major damage. Some hotels had to close down because of electrical and/or water-supply failure, others closed damaged areas, but all in all we survived. Even our JALCity hotel in Sendai managed to survive the earthquake and will soon be reopened. We had some power supply problems but that has, in the meantime, been solved. Please note the city of Sendai is 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) from the coast. The images you see on TV are of suburbs of Sendai city that were hit by the tsunami.

“In Tokyo there is relative little serious damage other than a collapsed ceiling in a theater. We have no reports of guests or staff that were injured.

“Today and yesterday several of the trains stopped operating (energy savings). Some 25 to 30 staff members could not make it to the office. We had one employee who came by bike from Yokohama to Tokyo. That is typically Japanese dedication. Also, in the hotels several staff members could not reach their workplace. 

“Yesterday most of our hotels in Tokyo were full since many office workers could not take the train home, and large corporations blocked rooms in the hotels for their staff. On the other hand, many events and even some weddings have been postponed. 

“I learned of an international trade mission that was postponed, and several flights were canceled. We expect air traffic to be back to normal within a few days.

“What will be the mid-term effect of this? Naturally, some business trips were canceled, but in the end, people still have to do business and will come again. Occupancy-wise, some hotels will have more local guests than international guests, and hotels in the affected areas that are still operating will without a doubt be busy. Many engineers and others need to come over to rebuild and repair.

“Shelves with the typical food supplies and bottled water are getting empty as it is difficult to bring is supplies.”

Another report came to me from Fumi Yanagihara, head of hotel development for the Palace Hotel Tokyo, which is currently closed for a full-scale reconstruction. Here is what he told me:

“I do know that many hotels offered their banquet rooms for their guests who were too afraid to sleep in their rooms, or to stranded travelers or employees who could not go home. Some hotels allowed guests to sleep in their lobbies. I know a guest who was staying in a hotel in one of those high-rise buildings. It took him an hour to walk down 40-somewhat floors after the earthquake because elevators had stopped. He was too afraid to go back to the hotel that night, and went to a friend’s place.  

“Tokyo did not suffer as much damage as some other parts of Japan, but it was one that we have never experienced before. We all thought it had finally come, the ‘one’ that we all know is coming one day, and a lot of us thought we were going to die. I hid under my desk (that’s what we are all taught to do when a big earthquake hits), thought of the recent earthquake in New Zealand and thought I might be buried in my office building alive.  

“Trains stopped service because they could not ensure safety. Some of my co-workers walked back home. A couple of them left the office at 5:30 p.m., only reaching home after 11 p.m. Some said it would be a good practice to walk back home in case a bigger earthquake hits us. 

“News reports say that so many bikes and sneakers obtained immediate sales. But by about midnight, most of the metros had started operation, and whatever metros and trains that had started operation continued their service throughout the night. Metro and train staffs actually have to check the tracks ‘on foot’ to ensure safety, so it is amazing how quickly the metros and some trains had started service after a big earthquake.  

“Since we do not have a hotel in operation at the moment, we did not have any guests to tend to, but if our hotel had been in operation, I know we would have done the same, offering our banquet rooms for shelter, and offered some food and drinks.  
“Some trains were not operating yesterday (Monday morning), so some of my co-workers could not make it to the office, but life in Tokyo is pretty much back to normal this morning. When I reached my nearest train station yesterday morning, there was such a long queue outside the station. Only a limited number of trains were operating yesterday, so it was a line of people who was waiting just to get inside the station. But I was so happy to see that people were so neatly lined up in two, without complaining.    

“We are receiving so many messages from all over the world, and I personally have been getting many messages, well wishes through emails and Facebook from friends and business partners from around the world. It is so encouraging that so many people are concerned about the huge loss and damages in our country. I know recovery will not be easy, especially for the travel industry. I hear that there have been so many cancellations with accommodation and events (banquets). I also know that some hotels are not taking room reservations, or have closed their restaurants do to the limited food stock and also to cooperate with the power shortage that we are facing. I am not sure what the damages to the travel industry in Japan will measure up to, but I do hope that many people will see the better side of the Japanese (how orderly and tough we are!) through this crisis.” 

This story has a long way to go, and I only hope Marcel’s predictions about business coming back come true. The world is watching and hoping for better news. Please join me in sending wishes for better days ahead, and please use moments like this to stop and be thankful for the goodness in your life.