As your kayak surges into clear air from the top of a rushing 20-foot waterfall, now is about the right time to start thanking whoever you pray to that your new flying instructor is a qualified outdoor guide. For many outdoor adventure operators in Japan, business is much more than a mere nine to five job. It is a lifestyle providing a heady cocktail of adrenaline and book keeping, white knuckled thrills and advertising. Nevertheless, money is the lifeblood of most businesses and these are no exceptions. J Select writer Jonathon Walsh recently got the lowdown on how a select bunch of foreign adrenaline-junkies are managing their businesses and earning their keep.
Quality is the Key
Uncle Bear is Japan’s outdoor adventure professional situated in the outdoor Mecca of Minakami, just 90 minutes out of Tokyo and surrounded by the splendor of the Central Japan Alps. The business has pioneered outdoor adventure in Minakami for over 10 years, setting the standard for safety and leading the way with new adrenalizing adventures. The man in charge is New Zealander Mike Harris, hailing originally from the South Island rugby stronghold of Dunedin.
Starting work at an outdoor company called Great Outdoors, Mike learnt the ins and outs of business in Japan and the outdoor industry. “From there I went on to Uncle Bear, which I managed for three years and then started my own outdoor business, Canyons, in 2000 while still managing and working with Uncle Bear.” Mike saw the time was right to start Canyons, which specializes in canyoning, whitewater rafting, mountain biking, kayak and canoe, when he saw a lull in the rafting market and identified that a new product was necessary for the area. Since 60 percent of its customers come via the internet, staff spend a lot of time and money on their web presence.
“I have agreements with local accommodation who advertise and sell our accommodation adventure products in return for discounted adventure tours,” Mike explains. “Because of the quality and concentration on customer satisfaction, the tours can pretty much sell themselves. Everyone likes to go home and tell their friends about the 20-meter waterfall they slid down.”
Does he utilize any special or unique marketing methods? “Not unique, I just know my customers,” he replies. “Also, as I do all of the web design myself, I think I have a slight advantage. I feel I really understand the needs of my market and therefore can produce marketing material that is more targeted and timely. Our most effective marketing method has been web based and word of mouth, which I reinforce with e-mails to customers after the tour.” In an ever-growing market, Mike says his main point of difference is the all-important quality. “Quality is the key. That means quality gear, quality facilities and, most important of all, quality staff.”
Describing some of the difficulties and frustrations he has encountered in business, the busy Kiwi says it is always difficult for a foreigner in a small town in Japan, even if they have lived there for years. “If other foreigners cause trouble in the town, all foreigners get a bad name, which can make doing business a real challenge.” So what strategies does he propose?
“One of the most important points is to get to know the locals and put time and effort back into the community,” he says. “Making strong contacts in local government will make setting up and running a business a breeze. Without this help you will have to jump through many more hoops to get anything done. I am part of a local government business support group. They do not really do much for me in terms of business support but they have a lot of good connections in the town and it looks like you are doing everything the ‘Japanese way’.”
The key to running a successful outdoor business in Japan, Mike believes, is to know your market and fulfill their needs. “Most of the time in the outdoor business that will mean providing a quality product. The most important factor in providing quality is professional-quality staff.” And if there was one thing he would never do again? “Trusting people on verbal agreements,” he says.
Although Canyons is still young, it is going very well, Mike says, disclosing plans to launch the business in up to three other locations in 2005-2006 as well as opening operations in Thailand and Laos. “I see Canyons becoming the best, although not the biggest, outdoor adventure operator in Japan and having a high amount of loyal customers.”
Right idea, right time, right place
Australian Ross Findlay is the driving force behind Niseko Adventure Centre (NAC), the largest adventure company in Japan. Ross originally hit these shores in 1989 as a ski instructor and after taking one look at the fresh powder has never looked back.
NAC, based in Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido, offers a tantalizing selection of adventure activities including rafting, kayak, sea kayak, ducky, mountain biking, rock climbing and canyoning. On the winter menu are such delicacies as ski snowboard and telemark, back country and snowshoe tours.
Ross launched the business with his wife in 1995. “At the time there wasn’t much to do in the summer months in Niseko. There was golf and tennis as well as mountain trekking, but nothing else; no cafes, no shops, no activities. There are more than 100 pensions and hotels in the Niseko Hirafu area and I thought it would be good to try and create more things for people to do to encourage them to stay in the resort longer.”
Ross can take pride in that his was the first rafting company in Hokkaido. “We have spent our money on improving facilities, improving staff and expanding services,” he says. “About 95 percent of our staff come back season to season [the industry standard is approximately 50 percent], giving good service and a good foundation to be able to work on new projects. Our center provides customers with an outdoor shop for needs on the day, café, terrace BBQ, rock climbing wall, changing rooms and plenty of all important toilets.”
Marketing is carried out through as broad a set of means as possible, on a tightly controlled budget. How does he get his message in front of customers? “We produce and publish our own pamphlet each year that is sent directly to the customers of the previous two years,” Ross says. “We cooperate with different shopping centers, exhibitions, radio, television and magazines as well as managing our own home page, which is updated constantly. We place our pamphlet in as many shops and places that we can and do direct sales to travel agency and other groups.”
Ross’s attitude is that difficulties and frustrations are dealt with using a healthy dose of positive thinking. “Any problems and difficulties are dealt with, taken as experience and used to move the company forward in a positive direction,” he says. “The business was the right idea at the right time in the right place, and with the support of many people it has become relatively successful. One of the hardest things is keeping a good balance between a busy summer and not so busy winter. I have many plans to expand the business, most of them revolving around creating new adventure activities for people (in places) where there aren’t (already options), creating better and more employment opportunities for my staff and trying to enlarge the business on the whole while keeping in the adventure area.”
So, what does he believe is the key to running a successful outdoor business in Japan? “Having fun,” he says, “trying to always provide a better service for customers and continually trying to improve the system that provides that service.”
NISEKO ADVENTURE CENTER
Tel: (0136) 23 2093
Fax: (0136) 23 2094
Challenge getting local Government on your side
On the page, it looks pretty easy. In real life, think again! Hokkaido Outdoor Adventures (HOA) led by Australian Patrick O’Keeffe offers a coronary-inducing mix of white-water rafting, kayaking, mountain biking, canyoning, bridgeswing, jetboating, rockclimbing (indoor and out), trekking, mountain climbing and more. Not content with satisfying only the Japanese market, HOA is also involved in joint ventures in other countries where they have outdoor resorts in Nepal and Myanmar.
Start up teething troubles involved banks that would not accept its money to open an account needed for the start of a yugen kaisha (limited liability corporation), and exploring new things to do and trying to get permission from local government. “They will not give permission if they have to sign anything as no-one wants to take responsibility if something goes wrong,” Patrick explains. “Many local governments think inside the box without much lateral consideration making small-minded decisions.” One thing he would never do again is taking the local governments word without getting them to sign on the dotted line. “At one stage we were planning to import a jet boat from New Zealand. We asked and received permission from all the right authorities but nothing was signed. We went to all the expense of importing a boat and advertising, but when we started running customer trips we had permission pulled from under us. By right they couldn’t stop us as we were not breaking any laws. So the way they stopped us was to block all the access points to the river.”
Patrick advertises his services in an annual brochure produced by HOA every year. Staff place adverts in several magazines and get a lot of school travel through agents, including 7,000 last year alone who went on the rapids.
What is the key to running a successful outdoor business in Japan? “Client satisfaction and safety while offering the best adrenalin ride with all the comfort of knowing you are safe,” he advises.
HOKKAIDO OUTDOOR ADVENTURES
Tel: 01457 6 2668
Fax: 01457 6 2668
Taking Okinawa diving to the World
Running your own successful business more often than not requires a great idea, a sound business plan and an iron will. A person with all three is former military man Richard Ruth. The Pennsylvania-native served with the US military until 1994 and, after being discharged, he opened his business Fathoms Diving on Japan’s southernmost island of Okinawa in June 1998. At that time he observed there was no-one promoting Okinawa to English speakers outside Japan or, for that matter, for English speakers living inside Japan either.
Fathoms Diving carry diving/snorkeling equipment, rent diving equipment, offer diving courses from beginner to instructor level and offer guide services for visitors to Okinawa. They can plan trips from start to finish including tickets, hotels and, of course, diving. Like many entrepreneurs in this field Fathoms has a web presence, but Ruth has found the best advertising method in Japan for English speakers is word of mouth.
“Take care of your customers and they will tell other English speakers about you,” he says. “Our webpage is by far our most effective marketing tool. Although we do advertise in a few newsletters geared to the customers we market to.”
How does Ruth differentiate Fathoms Diving from others in the industry? “As opposed to all the Japanese shops in the area, we stand out because we offer English-speaking services. We also try to offer a better service than others, including better prices on gear sales. And we have the whole world as a market instead of just Japanese customers. That really opens things up.”
“Now we are doing well,” he says. “We are moving into technical diving (diving that is beyond recreational limits, either deep diving or longer bottom times, or even diving with more technical equipment such as rebreathers). I also want to offer dive/English study packages later this year.”
Like other foreign outdoor adventure company owners, Ruth has faced difficulties when dealing with the government. “Mainly I think it is just difficult to do anything official in Japan,” he says. Lamenting the amount of bureaucratic paperwork he is required to fill in, he also points out his frustrations due to lack of trust. “Why do I need a piece of paper from the government to prove where I live? It is also difficult to move totally into technical diving due to laws regarding oxygen and gas mixing. Basically, persistence has gotten me through, and not taking ‘no’ or ‘you can’t do that’ for an answer. If the person at the front counter says ‘no’, I ask for someone above them who can make a decision. I usually can get a ‘yes’ to something that I was told ‘no’ to by the first three or four people. It just kills me that no-one can make a decision without someone else’s approval.”
To learn the ropes, Ruth gleans information from his past experience and current customers. “I had previously worked in two dive shops and took the good and bad from them when I opened,” he says. “I also ask every customer what they liked, didn’t like and then listen. They are the important ones and my mentors.” Finding the right market and taking good care of it is the key to running a successful outdoor company in Japan and with that in mind Ruth is working to shape the future of his business. “I want to make sure everyone in Japan that speaks English knows about Fathoms so they can see what they are missing.”
Tel: 090 8766 0868
Fax: (098) 926 2875
With entrepreneurs like these leading the way and demonstrating that initiative, guts and determination can make a real difference, Japan’s outdoor adventure industry has got some great things in store. The weather’s fine, pack your bags, we’re going!
Need to book?
Outdoor Japan helps support Japan’s outdoor and travel community by providing area guides, travel guides, hot spring guides, race and event information and feature stories about all the great things Japan has to offer. Visitors not only read and do research about where to plan their next getaway, they can also interact with other people on the Community Message Board, make friends, share reviews, photos and information, ask questions, make online bookings at great ryokans, pensions and luxury hotels, and find outdoor operators throughout the country that offer fun and exciting outdoor activities.
For a great range of outdoor gear including tents, sleeping bags, backpacks, boots and bags, visit: MONTBELL JAPAN
Need a place to stay?
Reserve a room at a Japanese Ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) anywhere in Japan. Use a free reservation service to stay at a ryokan and experience Japan’s rich cultural heritage. English speaking service available.
JAPANESE GUEST HOUSES
Need an Adventure?
Adventure Rafting (Gifu): www.adventures.jp
Bigwave Rafting (Gunma): http://bigwaverafting.com
Escape Rafting (Kanagawa): www.escape.ne.jp
Hokkaido Outdoor Adventures (Hokkaido): www.rafting-hoa.co.jp
Kanute (Saitama): www.kanute.co.jp
TokyoScuba (Tokyo): www.tokyoscuba.com
M.O.C. (Shikoku & Saitama): www.montbell.com
Natural Action (Shizuoka): www.naturalaction.co.jp/edupro_rf.htm
Niseko Adventure Center (Hokkaido): www.nac-web.com
NOASC Adventure Tours (Hokkaido): www.noasc.com
Scott Adventure Sports (Hokkaido): www.sas-net.com
Top Minakami (Gunma): www.topminakami.com
Uncle Bear Rafting (Gunma): www.uboutdoor.com
Story by Jonathon Walsh Photo
Photo Courtesy of Outdoor Japan (www.outdoorjapan.com)
From J SELECT Magazine, July 2004