The recently opened Nikko Bangkok brings a touch of Japan to the heart of the city – and to make sure everything meets exacting Japanese standards, it takes a Japanese GM. After graduating from Rikkyo University in Tourism, Jo Sato entered the industry as a housekeeping trainee and never looked back. He has been with Nikko Hotels for the past 25 years since his first post in China, and now he’s ready to talk to

What’s the most challenging aspect of running this hotel?

We just opened six months ago, so at the moment we are still rectifying a few hardware defects, but the usual challenges are the competition and the need to train staff in Japanese culture. The market is very competitive, but we do have an advantage with Japanese visitors who make up around 50% of the total. The rest are mainly from Hong Kong and other Asian countries, but they all expect Japanese service standards so that’s why training is so important.

Instead of the wai, we train our staff to bow to guests because this is the traditional Japanese way. In fact, our staff learn to bow not only in front of the guests, but in all public areas. It is still special even if nobody is there – it’s a part of culture and respect.

What makes your hotel unique?

Respect is a normal thing for us. Even when no guests are present, we still show respect for the place, and this is why we will bow throughout the public areas. The Japanese aspect of our service is obviously very important – at check-in there is a welcome gift and hot towel so our guests can feel fresh.

Then we offer a Japanese breakfast in addition to our international breakfast. Usually the Japanese breakfast comes as a set, but we offer a buffet so guests can choose whatever they want.

The interior design also has a strong Japanese theme. It’s important to separate the toilet, and to keep the bathtub and shower in the same area. When you jump into the bathtub there’s no need to worry about the water overflowing. And it’s a Japanese bathtub, so it’s very deep and large, and the water comes at a very high temperature, onsen style. For Japanese guests it’s all standard, but for foreigners it might be a whole new experience.

How do you adopt to new environments?

Thailand is similar to Japan – it’s not that different. Overall, Asian cultures are similar. I started my career in China when I was 23 so I have seen a lot of Asian culture in China, Vietnam, and Thailand.

As for our management team, we only have two nationalities here – just Thai and Japanese. Most Nikko hotels rely on Japanese staff and then the local staff in each market. For a new opening we can choose staff who speak English well and some take Japanese classes here. Most of the staff have a positive attitude towards Japanese culture.

I have heard a lot about ‘sabai sabai’ in Thailand, but for me in this property, I don’t find that to be true. Maybe in some other industries, but not in this industry. Some people can be late, but when we have a meeting, after 2 seconds I start. I don’t wait – and now people come before time.

My management style is simple. Errors happen, people make mistakes, but don’t make the mistake next time. We learn how to avoid it next time. Improvement is better than punishment. I adopt the Kaizen improvement model in my management style

You have been in the company for 25 years. What important lessons have you learned?

It is a small community. You have to be loyal and honest. Everyone knows you. You should always be loyal, honest, and don’t chase short-term results. Always look for the long-term goal. The company has become my family. We merged with Okura and Nikko, which have different cultures, but it’s a big family and we honor that.

What do you expect from your team here?

I appreciate everyone being cooperative. I can create things for guests and my team have been supportive. For example, I’m about to start my own little Iron Chef competitions for my staff. They can be creative about what they cook and we will have judges so chefs can be creative and be a little bit competitive. They work in the kitchen all day, and it’s the same every day, so I want to give them something to challenge themselves and to be creative. That’s my job.

What advice would you give to hoteliers working in new cultures?

You should try to like the culture, and take an interest in culture. Be open-minded and embrace the culture. I usually start from food. It’s the easiest way to start, and then you learn some new words about food and you get closer to the culture and the people. I can talk a lot about food and it seems like people are always delighted talking about their food.