Jet lag, humidity, a baffling language, endless questions about beef and Peter Rabbit - it's not easy selling Great Britain in Japan. But this is what 24 UK tourism delegates endured when they visited Japan recently on a mission aimed at luring visitors from the world's second-largest economy.
As a giant among Asia's economic tigers, Japan is more than worth the effort. Tourism trade missions to this country are still in their infancy. So, it was with some delight that the British Tourist Authority (BTA) enlisted the support and enthusiasm of National Heritage Secretary Virginia Bottomley for the Tokyo leg of its 1996 sortie to Japan.
Sustained on a diet of sales calls, workshops, exhibitions and media receptions, delegates weren't wasting any time. The aim was clear: to sell the UK in all its glory, to promote the hip and trendy alongside the cosy and traditional, and to boost the number of Japanese visitors to our shores. The Japanese travel trade and media were persuaded that a trip to the UK can be a rich cultural experience, and one that is also full of novelty. Just the sort of trip, in fact, that the Japanese look for in a European holiday.
Tea and roses
Having said that, 80% of Japanese leisure visitors to the UK are wealthy females, so the cute and cosy side of British life was heavily stressed - the campaign slogan was Elegant Britain.
The chintzy image was laid on thick. One of the major Tokyo events attended by Bottomley and the delegates was a Tea and Roses tea party for the media at No 1 House, the stately British embassy, which is a stone's throw from the Imperial Palace.
The Tokyo press clinked their Wedgwood cups of Earl Grey, munched on neat little sandwiches and scones and jam against a perfect colonial backdrop: whirring fans, ornate chandeliers, pea-green walls, luxurious furnishings and a view of a manicured lawn outside.
Bottomley appeared, clad in a regal blue jacket, and made her speech to the press with an interpreter on hand: "Tourism and leisure are the issues of the millennium. I am privileged to lead such a top-level delegation. We have all learnt the Japanese lesson of not being complacent. We want to hear what we can do to improve quality." There was no response from the local journalists.
The British ambassador bravely stepped in to ask about beef, the ghost of which had been haunting the UK delegation since it arrived. Bottomley was predictably prepared and dismissed its dangers. She quoted the World Health Organisation and assured all present that she and her family were eating more British beef than ever.
Ryoko Ueno, reporter with the local TM travel trade magazine, said everyone was impressed by Bottomley. "She fits with the images that Japanese women have of the UK - elegance and tradition," he said. "Single women love visiting the UK. But places such as Italy are more popular because Japanese people feel there is so much to discover there. I would love to write more about the UK but the trend is still very much towards Italy and the Mediterranean countries."
Recognising the allure of the Latin countries but keen to stress the UK's accessibility was Diane Lomax, strategic marketing and development manager for the Greater Manchester Visitor & Convention Bureau. She was impressed with the Japanese press turn-out. Her priorities on this trip were to plug Manchester airport, to point out its links with mainland Europe and to try to secure a direct flight between it and Japan. She was making progress but chronic congestion at Tokyo's Narita airport and aggressive competition from an array of other airports wishing to link up with Japan made the task a demanding one.
Lomax was also there to promote Manchester as a destination to tour operators, praising its cultural life, its lively youth scene and its access to a catchment area including the Lake District, the home of Wedgwood, Stoke, and the Beatles' home town, Liverpool - all of which are favourites with the Japanese.
From the same catchment area was Simon Berry, marketing director with Windermere-based English Lakes Hotels. In just three years, he has built up his Japanese clientele from none to a steady 10% of business. This was his first sales visit to Japan and he was keen to meet with the decision-makers.
"Buying patterns are changing," says Berry. "There's a lot more independent travel and that makes it harder to secure. But the Japanese set a lot of store by face-to-face contact."
Bottomley was clearly aware of this too. She met with three Japanese government ministers from transport, telecommunications, and education and culture; she also visited the BTA, British Council and several travel agents, as well as giving several TV and newspaper interviews. An attempt to gain a slot on BBC Radio 4's Today programme was, however, rebuffed. She wanted to trumpet how well the trip was going but the BBC was uninterested.
Another of the stops on Bottomley's tour, accompanied by her entourage of BTA and British Embassy companions, was to the Global Youth Bureau in Minato-ku district. This has nothing to do with youth. Instead, this medium-sized travel bureau offers cultural trips to Europe and has worked closely with the BTA for many years. It is reputed to have the highest repeat buyer rate (60%) of any travel company. It also has the remarkable distinction of having put Scotland on the Japanese map.
A deferential company president, Kenzo Kogi, ushered the group into his office to a background of Elgar. Business cards were exchanged while green tea was served. Bottomley sat opposite Kogi, who is an enthusiastic Anglophile.
After extended pleasantries on both sides, Bottomley tried to find out what the UK could do to further improve its service to Japanese visitors. Reluctant to pinpoint specifics for fear of offence, Kogi merely mentioned certain problems with hotel capacity in London and the slow speed of the UK immigration procedure for arriving visitors. But his real main concern seemed to be the lengthy period it takes to renew working visas for his London-based Japanese staff. Bottomley promised to look into it.
She jotted down a few more errands at her next meeting, a lunch with the top managers of Japan Airlines, All Nippon Airways and a trio of some of the largest Japanese travel companies. Here, critical opinions were more forthcoming although compared with an equivalent European or North American group, the emphasis was on politeness rather than candour.
Yasuo Karatsu, president of one of Japan's largest tour operators, JTB World Vacations, confessed to feeling particularly uncomfortable in London's budget hotels. He said: "Cleanliness is extremely important to the Japanese and this is sometimes a problem with the lower end of the market. Our clients are often shocked by the small size of rooms because, compared with Asia, where everything is new and spacious, European hotels can be a disappointment. Also, things such as poor hot water supplies or bath tubs that are too shallow can be a problem."
British food, often the bugbear of visiting tourists, received praise. Karatsu told the minister: "There is this perception that British food is bad but we find that our visitors are pleasantly surprised. When they go to Italy and France it is the other way around! British people are so nervous about their food. Instead, they should be proud."
Congestion at Heathrow and Narita emerged as another problem needing attention. Immigration procedures are tied in with this and it is clear that many complaints have flowed back to Japan about long queues. Bottomley promised to address this. She was also aware that many Japanese do not feel welcome in the UK, - she was clearly set on the idea of introducing a Welcome Home scheme for the UK's bed and breakfasts.
Someone mentioned Italy, the star performer when it comes to pulling the Japanese tourist. Karatsu pointed out that Italy's cultural assets put it top of the league. He cited its Roman and Renaissance heritage, and the reputation of its food and fashion.
Near the end of the trip, Bottomley shared her thoughts on the exercise. Having fielded questions from a line of Japanese journalists on subjects spanning beef, the National Lottery and the election, she was looking tired. "I only ever go on an overseas trip if it is going to be focused and practical," she said. "I said I would do one tourism visit and the BTA told me that Japan was likely to give the best return. I've been extremely impressed by the BTA's professionalism. I'll make sure things are followed up.
"We're talking to Virgin about getting an extra flight and I'll be looking at ways to improve immigration procedures."
Bottomley says she is determined to maximise the opportunities of the millennium as a year-round festival. "I'll also be emphasising the need for tourism to stress positive things such as our countryside, country houses, heritage tours and galleries. But we should also sell ourselves as a young person's country. We can build on things like Britpop. I will also support any BTA effort to raise the awareness of British food in Japan."
Part of her task will involve letting other government ministries know that tourism is a wealth-earner and that it affects the work of other departments.
Bottomley was realistic about what she had learnt on her trip: "I've had to press hard to get any negative criticism, but my advice to those at home if they want to target Japan is that professionalism is crucial, high standards are extremely important and they should recognise the potential of the Japanese market."
Next week: a guide on how to do business in Japan and a report on how the delegates benefited from their visit.
Featured video - for more, visit Caterer and Hotelkeeper’s YouTube channel >>