The Club’s representative governor discusses the challenges for the Club amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Last month, the Club’s Board of Governors took the unprecedented step of temporarily closing the Club to Members. The decision followed the Japanese government’s state-of-emergency declaration in the face of the growing coronavirus crisis.
In the weeks before the closure, the Club had introduced a series of incremental safety measures, including Member-only access, temperature screening at all entrances and attendee limits on Club events.
In the January issue of INTOUCH, Michael Alfant (pictured top), the Club’s representative governor, contemplated what promised to be a momentous 2020 for the Club. A few months later, he finds himself in very different circumstances.
INTOUCH: How has the Board of Governors approached this crisis?
Alfant: We created an eight-member crisis response team. Five of them are Board members—myself, Mike Benner, Kenji Ota, Alok Rakyan and Jesse Green—as well as Tony Cala, Lian Chang and Wayne Hunter, the general manager and assistant general managers. That team has been meeting either virtually or in person anywhere between two and four times a week and coming up with an approach that is balanced and focused. We then explain our decisions to the rest of the Board and garner feedback.
INTOUCH: What are the priorities for the team?
Alfant: The health and safety of Members and staff is what matters. Once those priorities have been satisfied, there is a rather precipitous gap to the next priority, which is delivering value to Members to the extent possible. Of course, there is a commercial sustainability aspect. We want the Club to be commercially sound, so we are thinking through some remediation on that side.
INTOUCH: What was the thinking behind the decision to close the Club?
Alfant: The decision was based almost entirely on the government’s declaration and the subsequent guidance from Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike. The crisis response team looked at ways to keep the Club open and the decision in the end was unanimous that the only action that was responsible was for us to adhere to the suggestions made by the local and national governments. In that sense, we felt we had to close the Club. We want to keep Members and staff as safe as possible, so we’re coming up with innovative ways to deliver value to Members right now.
INTOUCH: How tough a decision was it to close the Club?
Alfant: Very difficult. We spent quite a bit of time going through the pros and cons and we looked at options for staying open or having a partially open facility. We felt, out of a sense of responsibility and safety, that it was better to be a little bit on the conservative side here and do everything we could to mitigate the spread of the virus.
INTOUCH: What is the next step?
Alfant: The crisis response team is going to continue meeting roughly every 72 hours to reevaluate the situation. The purpose of those meetings is to see if anything has changed sufficiently to allow us to reopen the Club or offer limited access to the Club. We have not conclusively decided to close for the duration of the state of emergency. We’re looking at this with an open mind to continue exploring ways to open up parts of the Club or functions of the Club for Members.
INTOUCH: Some Members have asked whether monthly dues will be suspended for this period. What is the Board’s position on this?
Alfant: The Club is a Member-owned institution and dues will remain in place to cover the costs of staff and to operate and maintain our facilities. With the support of the Finance Committee and management, the Board will continue to evaluate dues as we gain a better understanding of the impact of the crisis on our operations.
INTOUCH: How challenging has this period been?
Alfant: I was president of the ACCJ [American Chamber of Commerce in Japan] on 3/11. These things are always challenging, but it’s very fortunate for me that we have such a strong executive committee, Board and management team, as well as supportive Members and staff. There are multiple dynamics that need to be balanced, such as the commercial dynamic versus the safety dynamic. Leadership is about making difficult decisions and taking responsibility for the consequences of those decisions.
INTOUCH: How have your 3/11 experiences at the ACCJ helped you at this time?
Alfant: As a leader, being physically present is very important. Another thing is balance and not trying to become an instant expert. I try not to get too deep into the subject matter. Instead, I focus on what we can control. I also learned not to be paternalistic and tell people what to do. Being transparent is important, and we have established a regular cadence and tone for communications to Members.
INTOUCH: Earlier this year, you stressed the importance of the Club having a sustainable and robust financial platform to deal with unforeseen circumstances. Does the Club have that kind of platform?
Alfant: We do. Depending on how long this goes on, we will have to take measures to ensure the sustainability of that platform. The Club is a business, ultimately, and there is no business on the planet that can sustain a protracted or precipitous drop in usage and revenue. We do have some financial wherewithal and we do have membership dues coming in every month. My gut feeling is when the dust settles, we will have to explain to the membership where we are financially and what the options are going forward.
INTOUCH: How do you see things developing in the weeks to come?
Alfant: We’re still in the disaster response stage. During this phase, I feel the best thing we can do is to be sensitive and responsive to governmental policy and adhere to it to the extent possible. The next phase is the recovery phase. This is where you rebuild what you had but perhaps you find ways to make it better, more efficient or more valuable. After that is the post-disaster phase, where there is a new normal. That could be far out to the future.
INTOUCH: With the Tokyo 2020 Olympics now postponed until next year, where does this leave the Club’s role as USA House for the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC)?
Alfant: The Olympics have been rescheduled for next July. We have not decided what that means. I don’t think the USOPC has decided yet what that means, but we have a good working relationship with them. We don’t yet know what the various governing bodies and committees will do, and when they decide, we’re happy to engage.
INTOUCH: The Club was set to open its first satellite facility, in Nihonbashi, at the end of the year. What is the status of that project?
Alfant: Things are still on track, with a reasonably high probability of a delayed opening, but not a significant delay. I don’t know how this [crisis] will turn out, but I have a lot of confidence in our Club community and Japanese society to push forward and emerge stronger.
Check the Keeping Your Club Safe webpage for regular Club updates and developments.
Words: Nick Jones
Images: Kayo Yamawaki (Michael Alfant) and Jeff Goldberg (Club exterior)