By Sarah Noorbakhsh
In times of economic woe, we find out that the best way to cheer up staff is to throw a party.
Tokyo may now be one of the world’s prime locations for extravagant corporate galas and employee parties, but it hasn’t always been that way. While the bubble era meant that companies had more than enough free-flowing cash to treat employees to overseas trips and all-you-can-drink karaoke bashes, the industry as a whole has since evolved, and there has been a renewed surge of demand from companies both domestically and internationally for a new breed of employee- oriented parties hosted at some of Tokyo’s finest hotels. With the advent of globalization, gone are the days of izakaya taxis and gaudy disco events—now the city’s hotels are gearing up to cater to new and varied demand. A far cry from office Christmas parties and annual picnics, in the world of employee entertainment, the flash and the flare of an all-out event at a luxurious location can give both bragging rights and a renewed sense of company pride to those working at corporations large and small.
Although incentive trips for employees have often been a favorite reward and motivational tool for corporations, within Asia, Tokyo is still struggling for recognition in an arena of cheaper and more cosmopolitan locations. Japan’s international reputation as one of the most expensive cities in the world has hurt its competitive edge compared to places like Ho-chi Min and Singapore.
“I like to call them the ‘Five Myths’ ” explains Cy West, assistant director of international sales at Hilton Tokyo. “To international clients looking for a location to host incentive groups, Tokyo is seen as being expensive and difficult to navigate, having awkward and inflexible service at hotels, an impermeable language barrier and not enough activities to keep everyone amused.”
China’s rise as an economic powerhouse has, oddly enough, been beneficial for the industry here. As Japan and its cultural fads have increased in popularity there, more companies from the mainland and Hong Kong are looking to their eastern neighbor for company trips. West believes that shopping tours, especially to Shinjuku, are a must for any incentive trip. Combining a knowledgeable staff with a convenient location are two of the key attractions drawing international crowds, West says.
A new spin
On the domestic front, however, company events tend to be more about singing employee praises. Parties usually start or end a financial quarter or celebrate achievement of sales goals. With these meetings, as well as the typical Christmas parties and bonenkai or New Year’s parties, the underlying goal is often to motivate staff and increase good old company loyalty.
“At company events, it’s important to create positive memories to give employees something to think back to during hard times,” says Kongyong Kim, president and founder of Orgiast Co. Ltd. Kim and his crew organize events for ventures and other firms focusing on entertainment and team building. When a company first approaches Orgiast about organizing an event, they are provided with a survey that must be taken by all employees. The results are then analyzed to find problem areas within the company, which are then addressed during the planning of the event. “People are motivated by different things, like teamwork or competition, so we try to add these components into an event.”
Company parties tend to include a number of performances, either by famous comedians and musicians, or by employees themselves. Embarrassment is key, as coworkers dance in drag or impersonate celebrities all for the sake of entertainment. Although this slapstick brand of comedy seems adolescent compared to the extravagant galas other companies reward their staff with, Kim insists it has a purpose: “It may be embarrassing at the time, but taking on new challenges and being congratulated by the people you work with every day has a really positive effect on mental health.”
Fitting in while standing out
While the National Tax Agency reported a noticeable drop in corporate entertainment spending throughout the first half of this decade, things have begun to pick up with spending rising for the first time in nine years in January 2007. This trend has shown little fear in the face of recent economic downturns, as companies continue to budget upwards of 50,000 yen per person to entertain clients, according to Newsbase Inc., another events organizer. A representative of the company explained, “the events industry is still booming, especially for client entertainment, because these types of expenses are directly connected to profits.” Promotional events, product launches and investigators meetings remain big business.
Spending on employees has not been as positive, and although no one is getting tight-fisted quite yet, the grass is not quite as green as it used to be. “Things are in a bit of a slump,” reports Nathan Smith, director of food and beverage at Park Hyatt Tokyo. Other Tokyo hotels report similar stories, although they refused to comment on the average price per head.
Things are not all doom and gloom, however, as new trends bring a breath of fresh air into conference and ballrooms across the city. Company requests, in tune to the times, range from Beijing Olympics- themed parties to the use of natural and organic food in catering. “Customers are more knowledgeable and aware of the importance of traceable ingredients than before,” Smith says, explaining the trend of what he calls “bringing kitchens to ballrooms.” Across the board, hotels are not only putting more effort into using domestic products—perhaps a reaction to recent scandals over contaminated imported ingredients—but also proudly advertising that fact to customers and guests.
“With the economy heading into dark times, a lot of companies are trying to cheer staff up”
But the big hit this year is India. “With the economy heading into dark times, a lot of companies are trying to cheer staff up; I guess India is one of the first cheerful places that springs to mind,” explains Shuichi Ohno, Events Manager at the Grand Hyatt Tokyo. From the incorporation of Indian food and dance performances to decorating a ballroom to look like the interior of the Taj Mahal, Bollywood fever has caught on.
The question remains how the events industry will change as the credit crunch gradually stretches its tendrils across the globe. While event companies remained tight-lipped on how clients were cutting corners on entertainment, many within the industry said that companies were wanting “more for less.” Even at the top, many are testing the waters before committing to spending their budgets.
“High-end clients are very meticulous,” commented one organizer, “but we’ve really begun working to maintain our standards while catering to a wider range of budgets.“ JI
THE GLITZ AND THE GLAM
GRAND HYATT TOKYO
After winning a major tournament, the sponsors of one professional golfer joined together to organize a congratulatory party. During the event, which was attended by over 800 people, the entire ballroom was decorated to look like a golf course, including wall-to-wall Astroturf.
At a PR event for Global Hyatt Co., members of the press and travel agents were invited to an extravagant party themed “Symphony: From the past to the present.” Staff were dressed in medieval and Victorian period costumes, and the ballroom walls were decorated with murals of a medieval hall. A stage in the middle of the room hosted a live performance of classical music, while food stations around the room offered delicacies prepared on the spot, including fresh sashimi sliced from a whole tuna by a chef brought in from Tsukiji.
An insurance company from Hong Kong brought in over 500 of their employees for an incentive trip. The vacation included a party themed like a Japanese festival, with yatai food stalls and sumo suits in the foyer. As a twist, the event also offered gambling games, with “consolation prizes” for all participants, to be spent later on a shopping trip around the area.
PARK HYATT TOKYO
For a birthday celebration for an important employee, one company requested a Japanese- themed party featuring exotic ikebana installations and live background music created by 25 shamisen (traditional Japanese instrument) players. Dinner was prepared in the room, with the main dish cooked on a hot charcoal grill in front of guests. The foyer outside the main ballroom was host to more live cooking and ice carving.
PHOTOS: Courtesy of Orgiast Co. Ltd.