Jean Raphael Felus
Hometown: Paris, France
In Japan: 20 years
Identity: ANA Crowne Plaza General Manager
Jean Raphael Felus is a self-confessed “hotel person”, having worked in hotels for over 20 years, or as long as he can remember. The French born, current General Manager of ANA Crowne Plaza Hotel Fukuoka maintains that the only real choice he ever made was to move from Paris to Yokohama. By going with the flow and taking opportunities as they came along, JR has taken hotel management positions far and wide across Japan- from Tokyo to Okinawa- and overseas in both Korea and Oman. In his current position at ANA Crowne Plaza Fukuoka, JR is constantly striving to offer the best guest experience in Fukuoka. Although the hotel is 36 years old, JR notes that recent renovations have kept its facilities to a high standard. He is proud of his staff and attributes most of the hotel’s success to his hard-working team, praising the natural hospitality of Japanese people. As for his personal success, he owes it to no-one but himself. JR believes that work is the only key to success. In his free time, he enjoys exploring Fukuoka’s natural landscape by car, taking drives with his wife and enjoying the local food, culture and nature.
We sat down with JR at the ANA Crowne Plaza to find out more about his background, his day-to-day life in Fukuoka and his plans for the future…
Tell us about your background. How did you wind up in Fukuoka?
Well, that was a long trip! I’m a hotel person, I’ve worked in hotels for as long as I can remember. It’s the only thing I can do. I went to a hotel school when I was living in France, and then started to work for InterContinental Hotels. That was about 25 years ago. I then married a Japanese lady in France, we lived there together for a few years and moved to Japan for the opening of the Yokohama Grand InterContinental Hotel. I stayed in Yokohama for about three years, and from there spent the next two decades working and living in many places-from Oman in the Middle East to Seoul, Tokyo, Okinawa and finally Fukuoka. So that’s basically how I ended up here. You know, going with the flow and going where I was told to go. The only choice I made was to move from Paris to Yokohama. From there it was “Go there,” “You should go there,” “Why don’t you go there”… that’s about it!
For how many years have you held the position of GM?
I’ve been GM now for as long as I’ve been in Fukuoka—from Sep 2010 to now. So it’s a very short period. I’m still a baby (laughs).
Do you have any short or long term plans for the hotel?
We want to be the best hotel in Fukuoka, there’s no doubt about that! We want to be able to provide the best guest experience possible in the city, we want to have the best employees possible. That’s for the short and mid-term. Otherwise, the hotel is in good shape. It’s already 36 years old, but the new owners have been kind enough to put a lot of money into renovating the rooms and the restaurants. The renovations happened in 2008—recent without being too recent. Now the only thing left is for the owners to invest some money into the banquet rooms.
What’s the percentage of Japanese guests versus foreign guests?
That’s very easy; we have about 95% Japanese guests in the hotel and 5% foreigners. The 5% are mainly Korean, Chinese, Taipei, a few Thai and Singaporean guests. Generally speaking, we have very few European guests. However, with the opening of the IKEA store in Shingu, we do have a lot of Swedish, English, and German, Danish and Australian guests here at the moment. This will mess with my data for a few months coming! It’s a really unusual event.
So, if the profile of the hotel was more for Asian/local clientele, why did the company ask you, a European, to be the GM here?
Oh, I don’t know! (laughs) Actually, IHG-ANA the management company wanted to add some foreign culture because Fukuoka is an international hub, especially for Asia. They wanted the international flavor but at the same time they wanted someone who speaks Japanese. And I was the only one! (laughs) They had no choice, actually! It was the same when they moved me to Okinawa—they needed someone with InterContinental experience who was also able to speak Japanese. So, what they get with me is a foreigner who looks like a foreigner, but is not really a foreigner.
Did you notice any change in tourism after the March 2011 disaster?
There were no major changes for our hotel because we aren’t too dependent on business from foreign countries. As I mentioned earlier, only 5% of our business comes from abroad. So, in that respect, we didn’t lose a lot of business. On another front, our business increased because many companies wanted to relocate their staff away from Tokyo, which was considered a dangerous area at the time. So, we had an influx of people during April of 2011—a period of the year which is relatively slow. Following that, summer came and many people who had planned to visit the northeastern part of Japan changed their plans and instead went west. The whole summer was quite busy in Fukuoka because of all the people who changed their plans and came here.
It also has to be mentioned that the Shinkansen has had a big part in this respect. People had additional incentive to come this way.
Have seen a big rise in numbers since the Shinkansen started operating?
The numbers have risen. But, is it really just the Shinkansen or really just the March 11 catastrophe? I’m not sure… it’s little a bit of both.
Do you notice any difference between the service industries in Japan and your hometown?
If we talk about basic customer services, I think that Japan is far ahead compared to Europe—or America, for that matter. The natural hospitality of the Japanese people is real, it’s here. You can see it in the comments from foreign guests—they say, “Oh, the service is so good,” “The staff are so nice,” “They’re always smiling” and so on.
For us Europeans or Westerners, coming to Japan and experiencing the hospitality is eye-opening. When I go back to France, for example, I complain to no end about the service there! I was used to that service 20 years ago but now I have come to take many things that happen in Japan for granted—things that never happen in France. So in terms of guest service, I think that the Western world has a lot to learn from the Japanese.
In terms of efficiency, it’s a different story. Japan probably has a lot to learn. This presents a bit of an issue because we know that Toyota and similar Japanese companies are some of the most efficient companies in the world—they have great productivity, impeccable timing, everything is perfectly controlled. But in the hotel industry we’re still working on an old pattern where administration takes up a lot of space and things take a lot of time. Japan likes things to be perfect. Here, nothing is ever started without having covered all the potential issues. Meanwhile, in the western world we just say, “Hey, let’s go ahead!” and we fix things along the way. In some ways, this type of flexibility is missing in Japan. So, service-wise, Japanese people don’t have a lot to learn from the western world, but in terms of efficiency, I think it could be beneficial for Japan as a whole to be a little more flexible.
What are you most proud of regarding this hotel?
My staff. The staff in this hotel are doing a great job and they’re always trying hard. They never give up and they always want to please. Sometimes they don’t succeed, but in the end this hotel is what it is because the people are great.
What is the most unusual or demanding request you have received from a customer?
Oh…that’s a good question. Well I don’t know if you could publish the most unusual request I’ve had. The most demanding? It happened with a Japanese customer actually when I was working at the Intercontinental in Paris. The man couldn’t speak French or English and none of our staff could speak Japanese—he was part of a group and couldn’t get in touch with his tour group leader. He called the reception saying “Message, Message, Message!”, so I came to the phone and said, “Okay, let me see if you have a message.” I checked our computer system to find no message, and told him “No, I’m sorry sir there are no messages.” As soon as I put the phone down, it rang again and the same guest was on the line saying “Message!” over and over. By this point, he was starting to become quite angry, and had begun to scream “Message, Message, Message!” And in the end, what did he want? He simply wanted a massage! The situation was very unusual—we couldn’t understand him and he couldn’t express himself in a way that we could understand. The poor man called for two hours asking for a massage! So although it turned out to be a misunderstanding, at the time the guest seemed very demanding.
Do you have any tips for foreigners working in the Japanese hospitality industry?
Be patient, be open, and learn Japanese. To work in the hospitality industry in Japan you have to speak the language. Even as a rank and file where you don’t have to talk to your staff, you do have to understand the customers.
What are your personal tips for success?
Work. I’ll share something that I just read: “Rise early, go to bed late and work hard.” My grandfather told me to wake up early, “The world belongs to early risers” was his message to me. Every morning I get out of bed at 5:30. I have been waking up at 5:30 in the morning for the last 20 years of my life. Work is the only key to success.
When you’re not working, what do you do in your free time? Where do you like to go on holiday?
In my free time I like to go on drives with my wife. Fukuoka is great for that—you have many so places where you can go on one, two, three hour drives. You’ve got the sea, the mountains, the countryside, the history, the culture, the nature, the food. Exploring Fukuoka by car is something that I do in my free time. Holidays for me are primarily returning back to France to see my mum and my family. My daughters live in France so I like to go and see my daughters. If I ever have extra holiday time, I like to visit places I’ve never been before. The next destination will probably be Vietnam.
Any last comments or messages for our readers?
Please come and visit ANA Crowne Plaza Fukuoka! We have a great Japanese restaurant, a great Chinese restaurant, a nice bar and many areas in which people can enjoy a relaxing time.
Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn160, Mar. 2012)