Editor’s Note – Welcome to “Leaders Talk with Dave Hall” a series of interviews posted every third Wednesday of the month here on the DMG blog. The series features experienced business writer Dave Hall interviewing an incredible line-up of DMG clients, giving you an inside look on what makes them tick. The questions will surround their success, their experience in their sector and the type of characteristics that drive them to be leaders in our community.
Last month we featured Marketing Manager of the Motor City Community Credit Union, Becky Langlois. This month we’re going halfway around the world and talking to President of Rediscover Tours Inc. Jeff Aasgaard.
How did you establish and develop your idea for Japanese Guest Houses?
JA: While working in Japan for 14 years, I often noticed tired and haggard travelers basically following a guided-tour flag and I thought how great it would be if travelers instead had access to a full Japanese experience. I thought it would be better if they were able to stay at a traditional guest house rather than a chain hotel. Our clients experience a Japanese meal each night and feel more integrated into the culture they are visiting because of where they are staying
Given the cultural differences between Japan and the U.S., how were you able to gain entry into their marketplace?
JA: My wife is Japanese and I worked there for more than a dozen years so I think that has helped. We were also able to take advantage of timing. In 2000, Japanese inns in general were having a hard time financially, many had over-expanded and they were looking to attract new business and, in particular, foreign travelers so we came along at the right time. By providing the inns with guests, we have developed strong relationships.
What are you able to do to help your clients prepare for a visit to Japan?
JA: Our website includes most of the information a traveler would need. We also have strong relationships with our guest houses so we can prepare travelers for what they will experience at each one. For instance, some have bathrooms ensuite but some don’t, the rooms are smaller than we might be used to but very functional and some of the guesthouses are centuries old . We also provide information on what to expect at meal times. We don’t want any surprises which may impact our guests’ travel experience.
How important is social media to your company?
JA: We’re on Facebook and Pinterest and we use social media to help show our clients what they will experience in Japan. It’s really the first step in convincing people that visiting Japan is a viable vacation option and we can help them see it in a totally different way than through a tour. We also asked DMG to revamp our website which resulted in a significant jump in business. I highly recommend asking different eyes to take a look at how you do business because there’s often a better way.
What tips can your offer to those looking to build an international client base?
JA: You have to keep the lines of communication open which we do with our website. We provide as much information as possible upfront in an easily accessible format. As a result, we have seen our business grow to include Australia, Asia, Europe and ex-pats living in Japan as well as North America.
What are your strategies for attracting and retaining clients?
JA: We provide personal service which, for serious travelers, is very important. We deal directly with our inns so that we are able to create a personal connection. You need to have open communication between your clients and your hosts because that is what makes this work.
How was your company impacted by the recent recession and how did you survive?
JA: A few years ago the strong Japanese yen made everything that much more expensive and it impacted our business considerably. But since then, we have completely rebounded. Everything is about 20 per cent cheaper now than it was at this time last year. As a result, we have expanded in each of the past few years and now we have 10 employees and we’re very busy.
How have you been able to establish a corporate culture and strengthen your company’s brand?
JA: Travel is a very personal experience so customer service remains our mantra. We have to be available to our clients 24/7 so if they call, someone will pick up. We pride ourselves on our availability and our willingness to solve problems on the fly. For example, the wife of one of our clients fell ill on a trip and was hospitalized. We were able to help her husband find a hotel near the hospital and found him an interpreter to help out.
Do you have a favourite vacation spot and why?
JA: Part of the deal to convince my wife to move to the U.S. was that we would return to Japan every summer for a vacation. So that’s where we go and I love it. I love visiting Kyoto and many of the traditional Japanese sights. It’s a beautiful country, very peaceful and tranquil in many respects.
What is your ideal way of spending a day off?
JA: My son is in a marching band so myself and other parents are essentially roadies, helping carry equipment around to various competitions. I’m also into martial arts which my daughter enjoys. So essentially, weekends are spent with family doing what we can do together.