Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Muscat Festival reloaded

It's already November and in three months time it's Muscat Festival Month. I have been out this year a few times with the family and have to say was above my expectations. Obviously there is a lot of work and resources that goes into this event, so it deserves some feedback on improvement.

Include a beach location / venue that has good accessibility and space for some beach and water related activities. Could have some kids area (slides, floating castles etc.) and a separate water sports, fun area (boat pulled gliding, water ski, rope wake boarding  banana ride etc.) and few beach "bars" for shakes, snacks and various soft beverages.

Get rid of the Omani Food Festival, leave a food village and that's it. Omani food deserves to have a proper festival on it's own. A food court that was set up last event can hardly be called a food festival let alone Omani. The Omani women cooking in the heritage village created more of a festival feel then the Indian food served in plastic bowls at the so called food festival.

Enhance the cultural element, get more music and dance in. Diversify to capture the Omani youth as well. There is no harm in having some bigger mainstream names perform a concert or two if they are the right choice. Get some instruments out that can be tried out by interested people. Include interactive drumming session when visitors can pick up a drum and follow the introductions of a drumming facilitator. Having 20-40 people in such a session is an awesome experience even watching let alone participating.

Create an Apple / Android App for the festival especially with date and time reminder for selected programs and map for location guidance. The program is so rich it makes life easier to have an automated reminder feature on your phone.

Coordinate with OmanSail to include a decent Regatta with state of the art in shore program and race coverage along with the Traditional Boat Racing.

Create a Safety First park and visitor center with fun rides and interactive experiences of low speed collisions etc. Almost certainly one of the large car dealers would be keen to showcase such an attraction. No need to mention the educative benefits which are obvious.

Include a football village in collaboration with OFA. Have the bigger names of the National Team there to meet people once or twice during the festival period. Have a small 5 aside pitch, could even be the inflammable vet pitch which is a lot of fun to play on barefooted.

And last but not least control the flow of vehicles (not just by having amateur traffic agents that do nothing but wave to cars) on the Qurum Beach road to avoid total congestion.

Any further ideas welcome...

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Is Sheraton Ruwi recovering?

The long closed old Sheraton in Ruwi is showing signs of life once in a while.  It might be approaching the end of its 6-year coma, as yesterday just blinked, moved one hand and whispered that it might wake up as new in 12 to 16 months.  The doctors and relatives are confident.

As an outsider and not knowing the property well enough, I would speculate that once revived the hotel has good chances in failing to regain its glory, provided it will try to pick up business where it left it 6 years ago.

Things have changed since then, lots of new upscale hotels came on the market and quite a few are just about to knock on the door like the Kempinski at The Wave, the W and the Westin in Shaati, The Intercontinental at the Muscat Hills just to name a few. The city is growing northwards; CBD is not going to stay in Ruwi forever. The Airport Heights are gaining already over Ruwi in offering higher quality office space and better accessibility.  

I am sure the owners have done their homework, but to me it seems that for that location there are two opportunities on the Muscat market that very few really cater for at the moment:
1. the extended stay business guests.  This segment still does not have a decent branded offering in town. If you’d like to stay for more weeks let alone months, you’d either put the big buck on the table or you’ll have to close your eyes and be happy with a locally branded compromise. The short term apartment rental market it also practically nonexistent.

2. the ergonomic, chic economy business hotel. The closest such brand in the Starwood portfolio is Element, however it’s rather unknown outside of North America.  Starwood website quotes an Element to be opened in Muscat in Jan 2016 (while it has no mention of a Sheraton to open any time soon), but that refers to the project replacing the Intercontinental Shaati along with the W and the Westin. A Four Points by Sheraton would also be a better option, allowing for a lower price point and avoid competition with the coastal 5 stars.

In my view, a combination of the above would be a much better bet for the glorious building than just stepping up as a face lifted Sheraton. Let’s see.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Non-existing hotel sold?

I read in Oman Observer last week that Garden Hotel in Dhofar region was sold for an amount that is quite decent in hotel value terms (RO 10 million).

On one hand such transactions are reassuring that there are encouraging prospects on the hotel market on the other hand it left me a bit puzzled as I had no previous knowledge of a Garden Hotel in Oman. I though it's just my lack of knowledge. Quickly searched around but still found nothing.   So it's quite a lot of money for a hotel that is nowhere to be found, I thought.  Then saw some raised eyebrows on twitter from others following Omani press as well, they also had no clue what this could be.

There must be something somewhere for sure, most likely a development project (but the article does not mention this).

I can only think of two scenarios: 1: we are dealing with a PR trick raising peoples interest (like me blogging about it) - very unlikely though.  2. it's just lack of publishing accuracy and journalistic interest putting something out that was not really verified and made sense of - more likely.

Anyways, whenever there will be a Garden Hotel in Dhofar region I hope it will do well.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Tour guide for a day competition

In talking to people who cater for travelers to Oman, and reading some of the few comments I have here in this blog it seems that besides flagship  hotels and natural attractions there is little activity going on in the country focused to provide a whole rounded visitor experience.

I tend to agree, however I think the activities and the animation component of the travel experience has a lot to do with packaging the existing stuff. This is not to say that we would not need new man-made  attractions and services (like a waterpark, or a frankincense house or a dhow museum etc.) but more that we should focus on taking out the maximum from our existing mix.

So I thought to encourage you to turn into tour guides for a few minutes and let's try to draft an ideal travel day for the following type of travelers.
  • "Chilling couple":  25-40 years of age couple with no kids (on a week stay in Oman)
  • "Fun for the Fam": family with 1-3 dependent kids between 4-13 years (on a one week stay in Oman)
  • "Business unusual": 30-55 years old business person on a business trip suddenly finding himself/herself with one spear day to spend for leisure
You can enter the competition for only one type or all three. Please send the brief itinerary, or program only for ONE DAY.

Awards....hmmm, well I don't really have much to offer other than the fun of the exercise and that I am going to talk about the best ideas in future posts obviously with all the credits and references to their authors. So I encourage you to take the challenge and place a succinct comment with your suggestion OR e-mail me to: orielco [at] gmail [dot] com. I will consider anonymous posts as well but I would love to provide proper reference to the authors of the best ideas.

Come on, be creative and courageous! There is no bad idea just lazy reader...:)

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Sink Hole to become a resort

I just read the other day that Muscat Municipality partnered up with the private sector to develop a new resort in  Quriyat region, on the site of the well known Sink Hole.  It is quoted by some prestigious publications as the world most beautiful sink hole.

If you've been there, you know that the place is quite simple and apart of this great natural attraction which is a huge rocky hole formation, filled with deep green crystal clear water (well at least until some less respectful travelers don't through diet coke cans in it) there is not much around. So using up the fame of the attraction it only makes sense to put up services around.

Not having seen plans though I would think there are a few issues of concern, and perhaps some great opportunities as well, hopefully to be considered by the concept development team.

Original form: This natural marvel is beautiful as long as it is kept clean and and in its original form. Overcrowding it with stairs (take away the current concrete monster stair please), terraces etc. will kill it's spirit and beauty.

Crowd management:  I would even limit the number of people (like at the Al Hoota Caves) to be in at the same time to enable it to better impress visitors. The fact that the resort to be built has a relative low room count (67 rooms and 20 suites) is reassuring that the large crowds will be kept at bay.

Edutaimnent factor: When I was there with my family, I kind of missed some informative element from the experience which would explain the natural formation of the lake, and perhaps show some similar ones elsewhere. (in Tawi Attir-Oman, in US, along the dead Sea etc.) Having the resort there an people staying for few days, it's a unique opportunity to create a geological visitor center for them to show a short story of Oman's geo formations and related things to know. Introducing the edutainment factor would give a valuable and unique ad on to the resort at reasonable extra cost.

Can't wait to see the place ready!

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Travel check to boost local tourism

The other day I attended a hotel investment event at Al Bustan. Nice turnout of Omani and Middle Eastern hoteliers partially due to the fact that it was at the same time as the Omani Investment Forum. The stats presented by STR Global and JLL Hotels indicated how Oman's hotel sector is going through a demand supply mismatch with demand lagging behind. This results in drop of room rates especially in the more expensive segment.
Another piece of takeaway was that the only market segment where occupancy, rate and RevPAR were still growing was the lower mid-scale and mid-scale market (3 star and weaker 4 star).

Yet another prof that domestic tourism has a lot of unexplored potential and that the sector is overly exposed to the international  corporate and leisure demand.

Without a major push in demand it will be very difficult to justify new projects, although Omran is currently developing a hotel (Khasab Hotel) primarily focused on the Omani families.  Obviously there are several ways to encourage domestic demand, but one idea could be to introduce a travel voucher for public sector employees. This is practically a check offered  as part of the employment package (as a perk) could only be used up in hotels in Oman and it would not be  convertible to to cash in any other way.  Later this could be extended to usage in other hospitality facilities like spa's and/or health clubs.

I would expect this to give a nice boost to the local demand and it would be a smart way to use up funds to generate further spending and economic benefit associated with the travel to the destination and perhaps other local expenditure. Again there are countries where the system works quite nicely, such as the Cheques Vacances in France,  Hungary or China for that matter. To be fair, in those places the check is further insensitive by a favorable tax regime.

The other existing segment that could be significantly strengthened  is the regional GCC demand but that is a separate topic for discussion.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Affordable variety for local travelers

With just under 3 million people Oman qualifies as a small country. As a comparison it has just a bit more inhabitants than Paris and bit less than Berlin.  In spite of its small size the domestic and regional tourism  is vital for Oman for a number of reasons: a) its remote location relative to Europe, b). it's highly seasonal foreign demand (due to weather) and c) it's niche character as a destination.

What is the best way to engage the Omanis and expat residents to travel more around the country? My call would be: the affordable variety. Now what the heck is that?  For instance a network of 8-15 interesting historic hotels, inns and guest houses located in historic and culturally interesting locations.

I am thinking about renovated and converted forts,  converted fishing villages with beach clubs, mountain vacation villages, desert camps (there are a few already). Destinations hotels in themselves around the country offering a critical mass of nice places to go for long week-end and short holidays (Dar Al Dhiyafa's). And most importantly they should all be different with a separate story to tell.  Hotels and guesthouses of 15-40 units (rooms) with limited service but still up to the standards of 3 star hotels with breakfast and all you can eat buffet dinner (an attraction on its own).

An example of a converted Pousada
In order to make such an initiate viable the rates should be affordable for an average Omani family. Therefore conversion budgets should be low, using existing structures. Staff should be not more than 8-15 for a location. Most of the operational overhead costs should be shared, so a common operator should be established that creates a joint reservation platform (online and call center), with shared sales & marketing function,  and other corporate services (accounting, legal, finance etc.)

There is nothing new in this though, other countries like Portugal have done this long time ago and their experience can serve as a good example. This chain of historic hotels, guest houses and mansions is called Pousadas de Portugal and can be checked out here. (Pousada means Inn in Portugese)