TOKYO, Aug 27, 2007 (AFP) - With the opening of The Peninsula, Tokyo is welcoming the latest in an onslaught of international luxury hotels that are adding new glitz to the world's most populous city.

The Peninsula -- with 314 rooms, five restaurants and a spa -- opens Saturday. It is the eighth hotel of Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels, which like other luxury chains waited years to enter the lucrative Japanese market.

Nineteen new hotels have opened in Tokyo since 2000 thanks to a loosening of regulations and Japan's economic recovery. The hotels have a loyal following of customers ready to spend thousands of dollars for lavish attention.

Kaoru Uehara, 40, drinking tea with a friend under the dim lights of a restaurant on the 45th floor of the Ritz-Carlton, said she spends 300,000 yen (2,600 dollars) a month on services at hotels -- not including rooms.

"I try out new hotels as soon as they open, to try their food, experience the atmosphere. I come to hotels to escape, to relax," she said, overlooking the Tokyo skyline from the Ritz.

"I stay at high-end hotels in Tokyo several times a year, even though I do live in Tokyo," she said with an almost apologetic laugh.

Tokyo's new international hotels are posting high occupancy rates despite costs that can run beyond 60,000 yen (500 dollars) a night.

"Luxury hotels that did not exist in Japan are finally entering the scene, offering room prices that are far more than the ones offered by even the most upscale Japanese hotels," said Ryuji Sawada, chief analyst of luxury and leisure industries at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu.

Tokyo of course has long-established Japanese five-star hotels -- namely the Okura, New Otani and the Imperial, which was built by Frank Lloyd Wright.

But while the Japanese hotels remain addresses of choice for visiting dignitaries, they are relatively inexpensive compared with top-notch hotels in major Western cities.

-- The old, the trendy ... and the ladies --

The arrival of international luxury chains started in 1994 with the sleek Park Hyatt, featured in the film "Lost in Translation". Last year, Japan's leisure market including hotels grossed an estimated 80 trillion yen (690 billion dollars).

High-end hotels have sprouted mainly due to changes in laws that allow for larger buildings, and adding non-office space to high-rise complexes.

While Tokyo is drawing a record number of foreign tourists, well more than half the clientele at luxury hotels here are Japanese.

Retiring babyboomers, trendy nouveau riche and independent career-focused women have become important niche segments.

Hotels such as the Tokyo Prince Hotel Park Tower offers "ladies only" packages that include holiday specials with massages using lotions made of chocolate during the week of Valentine's Day.

"We're so lucky in Japan that because of confined conditions that people live in, people love to go to hotels on weekends. They use hotels for refreshment, to relax in a very nice environment," said Malcolm Thompson, general manager of The Peninsula Tokyo.

"And now that the international hotels have come to establish themselves here with very contemporary designs it's even more appealing to the Japanese customer."

But the competition to attract loyalty from Japanese customers, who are known to be finicky, is fierce.

"Japanese consumers are immediately attracted by what's new. There are many tourists who will stay one night at a luxury hotel and so it takes time to see who will be attached to which," said Deloitte's Sawada.

Accordingly, hotels are going for a "boutique" feel -- cutting down on room numbers and putting weight on customer service, giving the customer the impression that he or she is being fully attended to.

"Let's face it, when people come into large hotels they feel a bit intimidated -- they don't want to look dumb," said The Peninsula's Thompson.

"So that's why it's important to make people feel at home the moment they step in and not in some giant airport," said the Briton, as he stood admiring a simple but modern chandelier in his hotel's front lobby.

As customers are ushered through the front doors by white-clad bellboys, they are immediately greeted by the aroma of food from "The Lobby," giving the sense of stepping into a comfortable living room.

"For me what's most important is feeling spiritually at ease in a hotel," said 63-year-old Kazufumi Chiyooka as he sat waiting for family members to join him for dinner at another upscale hotel.

But the fast-growing hotels also have a problem: finding enough qualified staff to cater to growing personalised customer demands.

"The expectation of quality service is increasing," said Chris Moloney, chief executive officer of Intercontinental Hotels Group ANA Japan.

Hospitality schools remain rare in Japan unlike in Europe or the United States. As in any other Japanese firm, workers are expected to enter at a lowly corporate rank and work their way up.

Hotels need employees who can quickly remember customers -- their faces, names and preferences -- and for a long time.

"I think where hotels are struggling is with their staffing," said James Fink, general manager of real estate firm Colliers Halifax's leasing division.

"Invariably the hotels that have the good staff have to replace some of them -- and the ones that are new have to fill in with some people who are not that skilled," he said.


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