The hospitality sector is one of the most people-centric sectors of the economy. Be it accommodation or food service, at its core, hospitality is about the joint value creation between hosts and guests.
Too swept away by tech-hype
Digitalisation of service has brought technology to the mix, and indeed, increasingly the act of serving and being served is supported by websites, mobile apps, social media platforms, self-service kiosks, service robots, QR codes, etc. (Tuomi, Tussyadiah & Stienmetz, 2020; Tuomi & Ascenção, 2021). This has brought an unprecedented amount of data to hospitality managers, allowing for e.g. better optimisation of resource-use, personalisation, and powerful descriptive and predictive analytics.
To illustrate the dichotomy between technology and people-centricity, John Naisbitt, a business consultant and trend watcher, coined the idea of “high-tech – high-touch,” already in the 1980s, with high-tech referring to technology-dominant service and high-touch referring to people-dominant service.
Whilst technology and technical skills are becoming increasingly important in hospitality management, including in Haaga-Helia’s upcoming new hospitality management curriculum, it is sometimes perhaps too easy to get swept away by tech-hype and disregard the “touch” with the expense of the “tech”.
We have previously written about the importance of distinguishing hospitality from the rest of the service sector through an emphasis on experiences. In this article, we expand those discussions by drawing inspiration from Japan, often perceived as one of the world’s most high-tech nations.
Keeping the service sector flourishing
In 2017, the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry compiled guidelines for boosting the productivity and quality of the Japanese service industry, including the hospitality sector. Japan has the world’s oldest population (Finland comes second), and as such the country has a vested interest in finding new solutions to keep the service sector – a large employer of younger people, e.g. students – productive and flourishing.
Their approach calls for technology to ease labour shortage but is at the same time interestingly people-centric. The official document, titled “Omotenashi Skills Standards”, lays out four key principles for Japanese hospitality, namely: “Create value in teams to meet customer expectations; maintain focus on continuity and improvement; awareness and capacity building among co-workers, teams, partners, etc.; and harmony with community and society” (METI, 2017).
As discussed by Ohe and Peypoch (2016), the word omotenashi refers to the Japanese style of hospitality. According to them, omotenashi aims to maximise guest satisfaction, and it is distinguished from Western-style service by placing a greater emphasis on politeness and kindness between the host and the guest but also the broader society and nature. Having originated from the traditional Japanese tea ceremony (sado), according to the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO, 2018) omotenashi is a “sense of incredible hospitality that carries across home stays, formal ceremonies, and retail”.
Service delivered from the bottom of the heart
According to the Michelin-guide this is precisely what omotenashi boils down to: honest, unpretentious service delivered from the bottom of the heart. As an example, Li (2017) mentions the lengths traditional sushi chefs are prepared to go in order to satisfy their customers as the temperature of the rice is carefully adjusted to best complement each type of fish, and the portions are dressed with the ideal amounts of sauce and seasonings, allowing customers to simply sit back and enjoy the experience.
On a deeper layer, omotenashi is the sincere consideration for guests’ needs, i.e. predicting their needs before they even ask for it. For example, restaurants provide baskets or hooks under each table for guests to place their bags, toothpicks are placed together with chopsticks, indoor slippers are provided near floor seating areas and an array of sauces and tea can be found on each table. Staff can show omotenashi towards their customers by carefully observing their guests and proactively taking initiative to be a step ahead in providing a comfortable experience for customers.
Additionally, omotenashi is also found in the presentation of products and services. The Japanese have a strong culture on gift giving (commonly known as omiage). You will find various specialty shops selling omiage such as Japanese desserts, cakes and snacks, all individually crafted to perfection and wrapped with care.
Omotenashi showcases that the host has given full thought and consideration for their guests, ensuring they receive the best experience without expecting anything in return (e.g. tips as in the US).
Holistic hospitality experiences
At Sushi Yoshitake, a Tokyo-based three Michelin star restaurant and one of the best sushi restaurants in Japan, the principle behind omotenashi is clear: ichigo ichie - one life, one meeting. Each encounter between the guests and the restaurant staff is understood to only happen once and should therefore be executed to perfection.
This resonates well with Nordic thinking in service business management as already in the 1980s ex-Scandinavian Airlines CEO Jan Carlzon put forward the idea of each guest encounter as a moment-of-truth – a turning point which can ultimately make or break an experience.
As our lives become increasingly intertwined with technology, the world around us changes. Due to governmental as well as societal reasons, Japan is one of the leaders in high-tech, perhaps most famously illustrated in the context of hospitality by the opening in 2015 of the first robot-staffed hotel, Henn-na.
However, going the extra mile in order to provide holistic hospitality experiences is ingrained into the Japanese service industry’s DNA, technology or not. In fact, we should be inspired by the Japanese hospitality which focuses on empathy and the human touch. Technology does not replace the human experience, but in fact, should only complement the hospitality service.
As we march towards hospitality 4.0, fusing both high-tech and high-touch into “high-hospitality” becomes imperative. In high-hospitality, technology and people dance together as high-touch is matched with high-tech.
Aarni Tuomi is Lecturer at Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences’ Hospitality Business unit.
Mário Passos Ascenção is Principal Lecturer at Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences’ Service Development and Design unit.
Husna Zainal Abidin is Lecturer at Wakayama University’s Center for Tourism Research.
- JNTO. 2018. Japan National Tourism Organization. Omotenashi.
- Li, M. 2017. Omotenashi: The reason why Japanese Hospitality is Different.
- METI. 2017. Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Omotenashi Skills Standards Formulated.
- Ohe, Y., & Peypoch, N. 2016. Efficiency analysis of Japanese ryokans: A window DEA approach. Tourism Economics, 22(6), 1261-1273.
- Tuomi, A., Ascençao, M. P. 2021. Intelligent Automation in Hospitality: Exploring the Relative Automatability of Frontline Food Service Tasks. Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Insights, Vol. ahead-of-print, No. ahead-of-print.
- Tuomi, A., Tussyadiah, I., Stienmetz, J. 2020. Applications and Implications of Service Robots in Hospitality. Cornell Hospitality Quarterly 62(2), 232-247.