Japan’s Budget King Hopes to Revive Bubble-Era Theme Park With Robots

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H.I.S. Co. Chairman Hideo Sawada
Hideo Sawada, chairman of H.I.S. Co. and president of Huis Ten Bosch Co. Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

Light shows and pirate rides helped Hideo Sawada pull a bankrupt theme park on Japan’s western island of Kyushu back to profitability. He wants robots to finish the turnaround.

Five years after buying Huis Ten Bosch, a replica Dutch village that had bled money for more than a decade, Sawada has improved attendance enough that it now accounts for almost half the profit at H.I.S. Co., Japan’s largest listed travel agent. Now he plans a hotel on the site attended by fembot receptionists and other miracles of automation.

“We’re creating the robots now,” said the 64-year-old, who was also the brains behind Japan’s first budget airline. “One’s a female receptionist who laughs and talks. But that alone wouldn’t be much fun so we’re adding a robot-looking one and a dinosaur. Kids should love that.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s policies are weakening the yen, drawing record numbers of tourists to Japan and underpinning both H.I.S.’s expansion plan and its share price. For Sawada, it’s the start of something bigger: He plans to open as many as 200 more hotels in the next 10 years, including in other countries.

While H.I.S’s shares have more than quadrupled since purchasing Huis Ten Bosch and just one of eight analysts tracking them says sell, going Dutch took some convincing. Sawada turned down two requests from a local mayor and only agreed after extracting promises to waive 80 percent of the debt and inject public funds.

One of almost 80 theme parks concocted during the bubble era with public-sector involvement, Huis Ten Bosch lost money every year from opening in 1992 until it filed for bankruptcy in 2003 owing 229 billion yen ($1.8 billion). The red ink continued after an investment arm of Nomura Holdings Inc. bought it that year.

Lights, Manga

Sawada had ample evidence that tulips and wooden houses weren’t enough to draw tourists. So he made changes, lowering entrance fees, starting an evening light show inspired by a French festival, and introducing rides featuring characters from a popular Japanese manga comic about pirates.

Now his mind is on robots.

When the hotel opens, in addition to computerized personnel, it will feature doors that open by face recognition. When guests enter, receptionist robots will tell them they’re having their photo taken: “This hotel uses neither keys nor cards,” they’ll say. Tulip-shaped mechanical entities in rooms will operate the lights or play music. H.I.S. estimates the automation will cut labor costs to about one-third the level of the park’s three other hotels while halving energy expenses.

Falling Population

Robots have another advantage: they don’t age as fast as people. Japan’s graying economy will lose four out of every 10 workers by 2060, according to Cabinet Office projections.

“I wanted to build the most efficient hotel in the world,” said Sawada. “Usually, you’d think service businesses can’t work without people, but it’s kind of cute if robots take their place,” he said. “We don’t know yet how good the service will be, but it’s definitely going to be cute.”

Sawada has made a career of adaptation. He founded a company that imported fur coats into Japan in 1976. When fur went out of fashion, Sawada turned the company into the budget travel agency it is today.

In 1996, he started the low-cost carrier Skymark Airlines Inc. The airline filed for bankruptcy this year after a decision to purchase six Airbus Group NV A380 superjumbos flopped.

Sawada has timing on his side. Record numbers of tourists are visiting Japan and the yen is trading near its lowest against the dollar in 13 years.

“I’m glad I took this on,” he says.

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