We met the Marketing Manager of Hoshino Resorts last week at a meeting in Tokyo. She gave us a vivid account of the marketing and business model behind the unique, Japanese luxury resort and spa brand – Hoshinoya. But most intriguing was to hear about how the underlying Hoshino myth has emerged, how it is guiding execution and how it is developing a cult following. – A following the founder did not quite have in mind, but which we might have guessed, by now, based on our broad study of how such brand develop and become icons.
The Myth of a Japanese Nature of Life
The Hoshino family has been in the spa resort business since 1904, owning a traditional ryokan in the hot springs town of Karuizawa, Nagano. It was Yoshiharu Hoshino’s turn to take over the lead in the early 90ies. But he was dissatisfied with the experience his family’s hotels conveyed. He felt it was lacking a unique sense of place. In fact, he felt that Japan was losing its unique identity. He deplored the seemingly unstoppable industrialization, urbanization, westernization and standardization of the Japanese culture and countryside. We imagine he had – and still has – a very romantic vision of quintessential Japanese places and gestures, untouched by these foreign influences. He was longing to create intimate, Japanese sensory experiences: The joys of contemplating Japanese landscapes and architecture with their quiet aesthetics; the dignified feeling of being wrapped in a kimono; the pleasures of a communal bath or tea ceremony… gestures that express a deeper meaning.
In the words of the Marketing Manager: “Hoshino-san was envisioning a Japan where World War II with all its consequences had never happened; a place that captures the essence of Japan. Not traditionalist, but pure. Not a nostalgic imitation but its own, parallel dimension. You could call it a 5th dimension.”
While such a vision must have been deeply rooted, it nevertheless took almost a decade of reflection and refinement to clearly define and communicate it to stakeholders and even longer to translate it to an experiential manifestation of the brand. In the process, Hoshino has been transformed from hotel owner into a pioneer of hotel operator and the Hoshino Karuizawa Onsen Ryokan has been completely re-built, reopening as the flagship of the ‘premier collection – Hoshinoya’ of the group in 2005. But the myth building never stops. “With every new year and every new resort comes the desire to come even closer to a pure expression of that vision and the brand.”
Manifesting the Hoshinoya Myth – the ‘5th Dimension’
Yoshiharu’s vision, instinctive but deliberate choices as well as visceral reactions to outside feedback have shaped the Hoshinoya Premium Resort environment and experience down to the smallest detail. Formal rules have certainly been laid out – this is Japan, after all – but it is clear from what we are told that a strong culture has developed that guides management, staff… and guests alike in doing things the Hoshinoya way.
Let’s immerse ourselves into a Hoshinoya experience as it was related to us and which begins right after your leave your car in Karuizawa. You are whisked away onto a barge. The car park and street noise disappear quickly behind lush vegetation. “You hear the water gently being pushed away and the soft sound of a gong announcing your arrival. You smell an unusual, pleasant incense – it reminds you of something… you can’t quite put your finger on it. By the time you set foot on the resort pier and you tasted that unfamiliar yet intriguingly pleasant welcome tea, you have escaped the outside world and started to experience the ‘5th Dimension’”.
Hoshinoya resorts are as much defined by what they are and do as they are by what they are not and don’t do. They do not provide and clocks, radios or TVs in the rooms, for example. In fact, there is no in-room dining service and – if possible – no cellular or WiFi connection, either. Nature is meant to become the guide through the day. Guests are encouraged to rediscover the sense of time and mood through the signals sent by the sunlight or the song of birds rather than by electronics. Particularly in their first days, some guests might struggle a bit in an environment that can feel dark, as Hoshinoya uses as little electric light as possible. Some guests need to (re-)learn taking meals and baths together the traditional, Japanese way. Most will soon and instinctively abandon their habit to check their cell phones – out of respect to the other guests and the environment. – What a contrast with the constant-contact, yet often lonely, technology-crazy, artificial-daylight-world outside!
There are some complaints, of course, from ‘experts’ judging the amenity kits looking “too simple,” to guests feeling the service is “too slow” or prospective employees criticizing the strict no smoking policy (including not at home). But Hoshino has developed self-confidence in its choices. ‘Cheap’ or ‘disrespectful’ are unacceptable, but ‘simple’ or ‘subtle’ are virtues. And the resort has, on occasion, suggested to (prospective) guests that Hoshinoya might not be the right environment for them. “We work too hard to create this environment and organization to change it for the desires of a few.” Hoshino recommends that guests stay at least a week to fully immerse themselves into the experience. “We don’t like, in fact we discourage the ‘week-end luxury dipping’ other resorts promote to optimize revenues.” And, indeed, the group seems to have been successful in attracting a profitable crowd that can afford a one week stay at a cost of $8,000 or more, having them come back and “keeping them shielded from those who can only afford to get a taste”.
Cult Following For Filling the Culture Gap
You can imagine that national and international taste makers have discovered these resorts for themselves – with a little ‘help’ from the association with other exclusive resorts around the world, through exclusive events, high-end brand collaborations (such as Tesla) and by Hoshino offering of home-made, finely crafted editorial and visual materials that romance the band story and depict the sophisticated resorts in their iconic settings, with their attractive designs, foods and moods. Remembering and serving a favorite miso soup the next time a guest visits, also helps.
Somewhat to the surprise of management, the strong growth in guests is not sourced so much from the more mature, old-money segment of the Japanese population. These rather conservative people were not as quick to adapt what they might consider a rather modern interpretation of Japanese traditions. Instead, Hoshinoya has particular appeal the similarly rich but younger, professional crowd. This group is more cosmopolitan and more modern, but it also longs to connect more with their Japanese heritage in a ‘digestible’, contemporary way. They are keen to discover the art of the kimono or kabuki – through something that a traditionalists might label as a ‘beginner class’ or ‘hobby activity’. But they also like to know that Hoshinoya resorts are certified zero emission – hence the Tesla hotel limo. The resort has also established an ecological garden where endangered, indigenous plants are studied and grown. Like the Japanese primrose, that is matched perfectly with a particular bumblebee (Bombus diversus). Such a unique modern-traditional ideology seems to fit just a perfectly with the personal identity projects of Hoshinoya’s loyal clients.
Where will Hoshino go next? To date, three Hoshinoya resorts have been opened – Karuizawa, Kyoto, Okinawa – and there are 28 resorts in total operated by the group. All of them in Japan. Is the next step to introduce the Hoshino ideology and experience in foreign lands? Or would is the risk of losing authenticity be too high and we will rather hear about Hoshinoya Homes and/or Furniture next? To be continued…
Read more about Hoshino Resorts and other Ueberbrands in our book “Rethinking Prestige Branding – Secrets of the Ueberbrands”