Tokyo guesthouse operator diversifies business in response to lack of tourists

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Shukuba Japan President Takayuki Watanabe speaks in a recent interview.

The ongoing pandemic and entry restrictions placed on foreign visitors have hit accommodation businesses hard in Tokyo that have long met the demand from tourists. Among them, guesthouse operator Takayuki Watanabe, president of Shukuba Japan, discussed his company’s efforts to survive the current situation and management plans for the future. The following is an excerpt from an interview with Watanabe.

We operate four guesthouses in Shinagawa and Minato wards. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, about 10,000 people in total stayed at these guesthouses in 2019, and about half of them were foreign visitors.

However, the number of guests dropped sharply as infections spread. It seemed like things would recover at one point when infections were brought under control at the end of last year, but then guest numbers fell again with the sixth wave of infections and the subsequent border control measures that the government implemented shortly after 2022 began.

Company earnings from February 2021 through the end of February this year were down by 70% compared to pre-pandemic levels. Our peers in the Asakusa district who dealt with a higher number of foreign guests than us are facing a much tougher situation. Some have closed down because they could no longer sustain business.

Despite such circumstances, the lodging industry is viewed by the government as an essential service for people’s daily lives and thus required to continue to operate. So, even if there are no customers, we’ve continued working. Throughout this time, we have also come up with ways, through trial and error, to diversify our business into areas other than lodging.

Our strength is that we have experience serving foreign customers. Medium and long-term guests, such as those staying in Japan on business or students, need help with paperwork, such as obtaining residence certificates or switching to Japanese driver’s licenses. Previously, our staff members volunteered to help them find new places to live in addition to assisting them with other day-to-day activities. We want to improve our expertise in that field so that we can offer paid services to universities and other institutions.

In February, we established a travel agency. Staff working in guesthouses rooted in the community know of many local attractions and interesting shopping streets that might not be featured in guidebooks. We plan to take advantage of that knowledge to sell accommodation and guided tour packages.

In addition, we have recently signed an agreement with a Tokyo university to pick up foreign students at airports and deliver meals to their accommodations during the quarantine period upon arrival in Japan. As well, we now arrange PCR testing among other things. We’ve so far provided such services to about 30 foreign students from countries such as China, Malaysia and Indonesia.

At the beginning of the pandemic, some foreign visitors to Japan were unable to return to their home countries due to the drastic decrease of flights and had no place to stay. We accepted some of them free of charge as we had rooms available in our guesthouse. We not only received their gratitude. We also received donations from local residents that supported us, which truly made my work fulfilling.

Small accommodation facilities such as guesthouses are places where people connect with one another and can freely talk and exchange stories. I hope to use the experience I have gained to meet a variety of my customer’s needs and help them with any difficulties.

— This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Shunpei Nakamura.

Takayuki Watanabe

President of Shukuba Japan

Takayuki comes from Shinagawa Ward and graduated from Meiji University’s School of Commerce. He traveled around the world as a backpacker, then at age 29, he opened Guest House Shinagawa-shuku, located near Kita-Shinagawa Station on the Keikyu Line. In 2011, he founded and became president of Shukuba Japan. He is also a board member on the Shinagawa Tourism Association and a member of the council that promotes community development along the historical Tokaido Road.