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Saturday, June 23, 2007

Windsor Hotel prepares for second wind

For innkeeper, G8 summit offers a chance for Hokkaido to advance

Staff writer

The Windsor Hotel Toya in western Hokkaido has a lot of things going for it.

Tetsuo Kuboyama speaks during an interview Monday at his office in Tokyo's Minato Ward
Tetsuo Kuboyama speaks during an interview Monday at his office in Tokyo's Minato Ward. His company operates the Windsor Hotel Toya, which will host the Group of Eight summit next year. SATOKO KAWASAKI PHOTO

The hot-spring resort is built on a hill with a sweeping view of Lake Toya, is served by a highly trained staff and boasts a three-star Michelin restaurant serving up the finest French cuisine.

And when the sprawling facility was chosen in April to host next year's Group of Eight summit from July 7 to 9, it received its biggest claim to fame yet.

"It is a great opportunity for tourism in Hokkaido," said hotelier Tetsuo Kuboyama, president of Windsor Hotels International Co., which manages the resort. "We must show Hokkaido's face to the world."

Although the Windsor is riding high now, things were not always rosy for the pricey inn.

For Kuboyama, 59, a former manager of five hotels at amusement park Huis Ten Bosch in Nagasaki Prefecture, misfortune struck in late 1997 soon after he started running the Windsor.

Regional lender Hokkaido Takushoku Bank had gone bankrupt, and as the main bank for the hotel's real estate developer, this spelled doom for Windsor Hotel Toya.

"I was dumbfounded," Kuboyama said in an interview with The Japan Times. "This was a bank with a history of 100 years, and I didn't think the government would let it go bankrupt."

Even after HTB's bankruptcy became official, Kuboyama held out hope of finding a new backer. He went about business as usual and kicked off a campaign to attract new customers.

For a while, the approach seemed to work. With reservations from big-name companies and overseas tourist groups, sales rose. That December, the hotel was even accepted as a member of Leading Hotels of the World, an honor shared by only five other hotels in Japan.

"I thought we could find a new owner soon," he said.

But Japan was still languishing in the wake of the bubble economy's implosion. The situation was particularly severe in Hokkaido. Investors weren't interested in injecting money into expensive resort hotels for the wealthy, and the Windsor shut its doors in March the following year.

Kuboyama didn't give up. But his search for a new owner met with no success. Workers at the operating company abandoned him, and to pay the few who remained he took on work as a consultant for well-known hotels.

More than two years would pass before Secom General Insurance Co., a subsidiary of security firm Secom Co., would purchase the hotel for 6 billion yen. Although that was just a tenth of what it cost to build the Windsor, Kuboyama breathed a deep sigh of relief.

"I was really happy," Kuboyama recalled. "Now that Secom was backing us up, we didn't have to worry about being bankrupt and could focus on hotel management."

On June 1, 2002 — four years and two months after it closed — Windsor Hotel Toya made a comeback with a refurbished interior and new restaurants, including the fancy French restaurant Michel Bras.

It may have seemed like a risk, since few locals can afford to eat at the three-star restaurant, which boasts Michelin's highest rating. But the risk was anything but reckless, Kuboyama said.

The Windsor Hotel Toya overlooks Lake Toya in western Hokkaido in this image taken in April
The Windsor Hotel Toya overlooks Lake Toya in western Hokkaido in this image taken in April. The Group of Eight summit will be held here from July 7 to 9 next year. KYODO PHOTO

"If we didn't do something completely different, we wouldn't have been able to offer a new lifestyle to customers," he said.

Nightly accommodation ranges from 35,700 yen for a double or twin bedroom to 1.36 million yen for the biggest suite. And about one in six customers is a foreigner who tends to stay for up to two weeks — far longer than the average guest.

Attending to exclusive clientele from abroad has been Kuboyama's calling.

After graduating from Keio University, Kuboyama studied at Cornell University School of Hotel Administration and graduated in 1975.

Despite such prestigious credentials, he recalled feeling lucky when he was hired by Hilton Hotel Corp. in the United States. With the world economy still reeling from the effects of the 1973 oil crisis, few of his fellow graduates were being accepted at big-name inns.

Kuboyama was assigned to the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, where he was taken under the wing of the general manager, Frank Wangeman.

Under Wangeman's tutelage, Kuboyama learned that hospitality was about more than business — a lesson that would later pay generous dividends.

During the violent 1977 blackout in New York City, Wangeman sheltered homeless people from the looting by letting them stay in the lobby and providing meals.

"He told me that in times of emergency, hotels and private assets become assets for the nation," Kuboyama said. "The joy of a hotelier is to become part of the community."

This, he said, represents his greater ambition in hosting next year's G8 summit.

Critics say the summit will only profit the Windsor Hotel Toya and not local businesses. But Kuboyama disagrees.

Though the hotel will decline ordinary customers during the summit for security reasons, Kuboyama, who has been involved in providing hospitality to diplomats in the past two G8 summits, portrays the event as an opportunity for the entire region to gain experience in serving discriminating foreign guests.

"If all I cared about was profit, I would not offer my hotel for the summit," he said. "We should all turn the summit into a springboard."

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