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BCCJ Member Spotlight: Terrie Lloyd
BCCJ Junior Editor, Yu Takahashi caught up with Terrie Lloyd, CEO of Japan Travel KK. Terrie talks about adaptability, innovation and diversification in the travel and tourism industry, and shares how the company became the largest producer of online Japan travel content after the Japanese government.
Tell us about yourself and what brought you to Japan.
I have been in Japan now for 37 years. I was lucky enough to join the first wave of Australian working holiday visa travellers back in 1983, starting my journey with only a backpack and an open mind. I fell in love with the country right away so decided to stay. Japan was brimming with exciting prospects and opportunities, and after just 6 months, I decided to start a business.
What was your first impression of the country and culture?
I was initially shocked by how much concrete there was in Tokyo! But soon I realised that you can find a very different and traditional side of Japan should you venture not too far out of the city centre. Japan also gave me the impression of being very technologically advanced, and in a way, it is, especially as an innovator of game-changing products. But every time Japan strides forward, the world catches up, and often overtakes! This has been the case with everything from the Shinkansen, to carbon fibre and semiconductors; all areas of innovation spearheaded here. While Japanese innovation is second to none, it lags behind when it comes to merchandising and marketing. The challenge is how to bridge the gap between creating revolutionary inventions, and marketing them.
How did you come up with the idea of ‘Japan Travel’?
The original concept of Japan Travel came after the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. It was designed to inform people that although Fukushima was off-limits, many other parts of Japan (Osaka, Hokkaido, etc) were still perfectly fine to visit.
I am a strong believer in contrarian investment. Meaning that when the markets are down, that is the best time to invest. In the year after the earthquake, inbound tourism plummeted from around 8 million people, to 6 million at the bottom of the cycle.
And so, I decided to apply the technology that I had invented for crowdsourcing content and moderation. With a platform called ACQ2, I connected it directly to tourism. This idea actually came to me in a very vivid dream!
Getting into inbound tourism while everyone was still concerned about radiation seemed like a very counter-intuitive idea at that time. I was convinced there was huge potential, and at the same time, people needed some morale-boosting. I spent many late nights contacting around 300 mostly foreign friends living in Japan and asked them to help me make Japan’s first community of travel writers, and to share their experiences online showing that the country was very much still open. I received a great response, with many people feeling downbeat about the whole situation, and wanting to do something to help. Before long, 300 contributors became 1000. Today, we have 18,000+ people writing for us and are number one on Google for key travel-in-Japan related terms. Also, we are second only to the Japanese government in terms of the actual amount of content produced about the country.
Do you have any plans to take the concept to other countries?
We did a trial run in Thailand, and became involved in some deep conversations with a recruitment team in Indonesia. The platform is ideal for non-English speaking countries because our community-centric design allows us to translate content as well as share a more authentic, local perspective.
If you take a country like Thailand, it is already known for bringing in high levels of tourism in well-documented areas. However, that tourism does not reach regional provinces where the money is sorely needed which creates a perfect opportunity for our model to be replicated and support local communities. But honestly for me, I am too busy focusing on Japan right now. There is always so much happening here!
How has ‘Japan Travel’ adapted to the current Covid situation?
We have three divisions. The first is our media, marketing and publishing business, which is still doing well. The second is our travel agency team, which six weeks after Covid was announced in Japan, dropped from bringing in 4 million dollars a year to zero. Our third business is a software development operation which will be launching its products later this year. The reason the media and software teams are doing well is that many of our clients are major corporations and regional governments who have the luxury of being able to think long-term.
If Covid has taught me one thing, it’s that it pays to diversify your operations and support structures. Accordingly, we have re-purposed many in the travel agency team – something we are grateful we can do. This has meant staff cross-training; for example, our Customer Services Representatives are now involved in marketing and research. This has also meant that in the last 12 months of Covid, we have created a huge amount of non-English content, most recently rolling out German and Italian sub-sites, taking us up to 15 languages in total. Secondly, we have become experts in virtual tours, taking in new customers, from government organisations and major US universities, to private companies arranging “employee tours” as incentives.
Do you see any opportunities in adopting technology to evolve Japan’s tourism industry?
The travel sector itself is very competitive and quite complex. There are lots of moving parts, lots of suppliers, poor technology competence, etc. So, it is a fertile ground for start-ups and new technologies. For example, companies specialising in experiences, such as Klook, GetYourGuide, Asoview and Veltra, are doing pretty interesting things with technology to streamline marketing operations by tour operators.
Recently, we have been spending quite a bit of time on AI and predictive analytics, to study the behaviour of how customer groups interact online. As a company, if you can make sense of such data, you can start to create some compelling customer journeys.
And let’s not forget that while the travel sector has suffered greatly in the past year and a half, it will quickly return to being the world’s largest industry. Once people begin to move again, we will likely see a very rapid recovery and a surge of new investment in the sector. Our job is to make sure we are poised and ready to go when the markets re-open.
After everything you have achieved so far, what’s next?
I am not done with travel yet, and our plan is to take the company to an IPO. But changing direction a little, I personally have a strong interest in fermentation. I’ve been using fermentation as part of my travel portfolio, approaching local governments and offering tours to traditional breweries and fermentation locations. One of the reasons I am interested in fermentation is because recent scientific studies are showing that there is a strong correlation between the health of your gut biome and your mental condition. I am very interested in how to provide support for people suffering from Alzheimer’s or various other degenerative mental diseases if indeed, these diseases really do turn out to be diet and gut-related.
At home, I have learned how to make excellent sourdough bread which utilises sakekasu (sake lees) enzymes in the bulk fermentation stage. The resulting product has outstanding taste and texture – even compared to regular sourdough.
Looking forward commercially, I can see an opportunity to take Japanese ingredients and merge them into foreign fermentation methods and products and create a fresh take on our food selection. I’m currently working on making some localised cheeses, GBP naturally fermented ginger beer and other products. Will this work be a new business? I’m not sure yet, but the food space has certainly caught my imagination. The number one thing tourists want to do when they arrive in Japan is eat Japanese food, even more so than shopping or sightseeing. So how will they react to a western product, like bread or cheese, but with a distinct Japanese twist? It’s going to be fun to find out.
Let me just finish off by saying that at Japan Travel, we were faced with some difficult decisions when the pandemic began. We had to take a big decision whether or not to downsize, or go in the opposite direction and drive new products and services. The Japanese government announced subsidies for employees which gave us breathing space. One of those subsidies was to cross-train employees, which led to our developing virtual tours.
The New York Times even did a piece featuring five virtual tours from around the world, and ours was the only one (in that particular article) featured for Japan. Surprisingly, the tour, which is now available on Amazon, was of a vintage clothing tour of Shimokitazawa, Tokyo. What we have learned from this is that virtual tours are all about immediacy, which a service that allows audience interaction (like buying clothes) and the ability to talk to the guide while on location, appears to be a successful formula.
Looking back, the Japanese government subsidies that were originally designed to avoid a sudden surge of unemployed people on the streets, has inadvertently… allowed companies like ours to develop new products and services, which in return provides great value to the country. This is certainly one of the few positive outcomes of the past 18 months, and collectively such efforts will make Japan even more competitive when travel returns.