Lessons from FCM’s last decade in Japan: an inside look at Japan’s business travel market

After more than two years into the coronavirus pandemic, Japan is making a big push to return to normalcy by allowing tourist groups into the country, the world’s top tourist destination.

Behind closed borders, Japan’s corporate travel scene has also morphed over the past two years. Digital empowerment, brought on forcibly by COVID-19, is increasingly a part of it, said Kenichi Shiraishi, General Manager, FCM Japan at a FCM Th!nk Singapore event earlier this year.

The move towards embracing digitalisation is significant, as the traditional Japanese business traveller has typically relied on human labour to manage every step of a trip. No longer, according to Kenichi.

Offering his take on travel management in Japan’s fragmented domestic market at the same event is Ng Choon Seng, FCM’s Head of Commercial and Customer Success for Japan. He points out that some aspects of Japanese business travel appear to remain steadfast, and their nuances must be taken to heart.

Here are the top five takeaways for the future of business travel in Japan.  

1. The rise of digitalisation

Up until recently, the Japanese corporate world, especially the senior management rank, relied primarily on paper for their travels. “If, for instance, they had to leave for the United States, they would leave with a bunch of papers their secretary had prepared, containing flight, hotel and transportation details. To accommodate changes just meant a call to the secretary,” explained Kenichi.

The pandemic changed all that with the onset of forced lockdowns. As with the rest of the world, Japanese residents, deprived of their typical on-site activities, like shopping and dining, relied on digitalisation to get by the days. That included the corporate travel world.

“These days, even senior management members, from board members to presidents, are used to digital devices. The younger generation has also started using online booking tools on their mobile phones to carry out self-service bookings or changes. This is becoming the norm,” said Kenichi. 

2. Education is a priority

The role of travel management companies (TMCs) is underrated in Japan. Choon Seng elaborated, “There is a poor understanding of what a TMC does. We are seen to be just about ticketing and reservations but a TMC brings a lot more value beyond those. That's something a lot of people and businesses in Japan struggle to understand.”

He stressed that TMCs have “a role to play in educating the market in the years to come”, to drive across their usefulness and longevity, including how they can benefit a company’s bottom line.

3. Language support remains critical

Having adept language support has always been critical in business travel. “This is one area which hasn’t changed, COVID-19 or not. Language is a big challenge for international TMCs,” stated Choon Seng.

Acknowledging that as one of the most important lessons culled from FCM’s decade-long presence in Japan, the TMC’s new Japan office has invested in 24/7 Customer Success teams to provide both English and Japanese language support. It is currently exploring a local-language chat-support function.     

4. Pushing the boundaries in innovation

In Japan, conformity rules. “The guiding philosophy seems to be, if it ain't brokedon't fix it,” said Choon Seng. Such thinking, he feels, paralyses innovation and the growth of one’s business.

His solution? “We need to decide what is acceptable, yet always push the boundaries every day to improve the business as well as add more value to our customers.”

5. Duty of care 2.0

The Japanese are renown for kodawari, or the uncompromising pursuit of perfection. The outcome is a lofty attention to detail in craftsmanship, design and service, a key quality that commands the respect from the rest of the world.

Choon Seng, however, recognises that it can be a double-edged sword, slowing down processes and taking up too much resource to complete a task. “We as businesses have to strike a good balance between resource investment and the perfection we want to achieve for our customers.”


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