Tuesday 14 October 2014

Inspirational break

I have been a bit slow in the last 6-8 month with the blog. As tourism development is receiving a fresh momentum in Oman, I wanted to cover a number of topics but only managed to address a few.

Work has been more hectic and has kept me away from thinking and writing about my favorite topics. So instead of having a sloppy and random blog, I'll just call it a day and take a
break for a while.

If I'll feel the energy buzzing again or just come across issues that inspire me, I'll be back.

Until, then you guys take the time to travel across Oman and enjoy what it has to offer!

Thursday 2 October 2014

How strategic is your strategy?

Synergy, Leverage, Though Leadership, Strategy, Transformational change, ...these are used and abused words in everyday corporate life. More often than not when the word strategy is used the speaker does not actually refer to strategy in its true sense of the word. Sometime then mean tactics, action plan, thinking, effort, intention...but rarely real strategy.

So I though maybe would be interested to have a quick look at what strategy is and what it is not in the context of tourism development.

  • can be a) evolutive or b) visionary but both are based on a clear sense of how I see myself or my company in quite some time, say 5-10 years. Strategy is the answer to the question of Where I want to be? and How am I going to get there?  This can be answered through a) a precise plan which has a shorter horizon and follows the direction of the vision (but is not laying down the route all the way through) - which is an evolutive approach or b) can be a bit less detailed but marking the milestones all the way till the endorsed vision - visionary approach.
  • implies more losers than winners on the short term (1-3 years) and more winners then losers on the long term (5+ years). In other words strategy is focus. Spreading thin and being everything for everybody is not strategy. It can work in certain context but it's very tactical and certainly not achieving long term impact.
  • is discipline. For the reasons above strategy (especially if is wrongly managed) tends to be annoying for the environment, it can come across as stubbornness. Think of all the visionary people who have achieved long term impact, they all had their doubt war to fight, and those who stayed afloat marked their names and thinking.
  • is a living process. Especially the evolutive approach assumes a constant revision and adjustment, but along the same lines. And this is the key, you can adjust and be all over the place, or you can adjust by keeping your course.
  • is sustainable. It can be executed and followed systematically without special circumstances that are at risk.
  • can be expressed simply in  few words and few numbers. The more you need to talk to explain your strategy the less are your chances of execution.
Strategy is not
  • a good speech or a circular the top executives send around on all staff emails.
  • a document prepared by expensive consultants, approved and then forgotten.
  • a catchy tagline or mission statement.
  • a recipe or sheet music that tells you what you need to do to comply with the plan.
Maybe you will recognize some if these in your work, and hopefully you'll have a chance to do something about them.

Eid Mubarak.

Thursday 3 July 2014

Traction for Attractions: what would work for Oman?

It seems that the public sector is shifting one gear up on its efforts to boost tourism.  In this favorable context, I thought it would come handy a few thoughts about attractions in general spiced with some random ideas. 

First of all I would challenge the idea of a tourist attraction and emphasize the concept of a visitor attraction: locals, I mean all residents, are and will be key to the sustainability of any attraction in such a seasonal country like Oman. So what are these places of interest that carry value which motivate people to spend time and money visiting them?  Natural or man-made, cultural or adventure driven, experiential and educational.

I know this is a far bigger and more exiting topic to cover in a post, but let’s just highlight some main types of attractions that would have traction among local and visitors alike.

a) Action, Sports and Fun – Adrenalin treats, thrills and spills.  Water parks, theme parks, extreme sports parks, sports facilities, riding tracks, rides etc.  They are very divers in size, from park rides to complex extreme sport centers or multimillion visitor water parks. Some relevant examples for Oman:
  • Sea Soul Water Park –  certainly not a small replica of a Dubai one. Details in an earlier post.
  • E-Quest Academy – a state of the art equestrian center to activate the heritage of the Royal Cavalry Oman and equine culture of Oman.
  • All-Wheel-Park  - take your wheelers off the road at various levels of difficulty and fun in a controlled, facilitated environment. Cars, dirt bikes, quads, or just mountain bike, they will al find a track inhere to remember.
  • Extreme Sports Center – to teach and test you. Your mind and your body. A range of attractions that will engage kids and adults alike.
  • Ocean Sport Center – complimentary to what Oman Dive Center and Oman Sail has to offer, a dedicated complex for all kinds of water sports. From Kite boarding, to water paragliding, Water skiing, Jet ski tracks to test your skills and many more.  All and everything about balance, power and skill on waves and flat water.

b) Culture, Heritage, Religion – a collection of attractions that convey the essence of the Arabian and Omani culture and its heritage.  This a very versatile and complex category, here are just a few examples:.
  •  Sailing and Maritime Heritage Harbour – Dhows and dhow making manufacture. Fishing village feel,
    where you can  experience throwing a fishnet, or experience the feel of a 10 kg tuna on the other end of your line.
  • Pilgrim Paths - The spiritual trails, a collection of sites with religious relevance that can be accommodated for a form of pilgrimage. Apparently there are quite a few such sites in Oman.
  • Fortlife  -  a selection of forts that are converted as themed hotels/lodges with elements of reproducing the fort like living.
  • OmanCraft – a number of accredited workshops and manufactures where visitors ca experience various forms of traditional craft making (e.g. pottery, weaving, rose water manufacturing, dates processing etc.)

c) Health & Wellbeing – as healthy living and lifestyle is becoming and increasing aspiration for many, related consumption is ever popular (perhaps to compensate for the lack of fundamentally accommodating a healthier life). Spas, Wellness hotels, Holistic health centers to name the soft ones, up to surgery and medical treatment driven dedicated clinics and  hospitals.

  • Scents and Senses – parfumes or Arabia visitor center. Amouage to take their visitor center to a whole new level…
  • ShifaSpa – A destination spa in a signature location based on local traditional healing methods and treatments. Condense the essence or Arabian natural healing, body and soul pampering.
  • Fit farm – lifestyle and nutrition boot camp, for those who want to start respecting their body. Make a name that resonated to Dubai and beyond. Build on the exotic, rugged and natural perception of Oman.

d) Education & Entertainment – one can hardly separate this from b) Culture and Heritage, however certain visitor centers, museums, theaters can have a strong educational element besides entertainment.

e) Nurture the Nature - natural attraction often attract more people then man made wonders. Oman has plenty of such places they just need to be properly packaged and managed.
  • HajarHikes  – guided trails in the Hajars Mountains for all abilities and skills.
  • WadiWonders – like it says explore the best of the hundreds of Wadi and provide informational content besides the visual and tangible experience
  • and many more…
Some of these elements are already available in a way or another, and they only need a boost in terms of concept or size or both. The key in the overall offering is to have a balance that suits the seasonality constraint of Oman as well as the mix of foreign and local demand.
Nice challenging task for tourism planners but definitely worth addressing.

Wednesday 4 June 2014

Share and rule: Qatar and the FIFA World Cup

Qatar is under a sort of international media siege for an alleged deal it made with the FIFA executive committee members to obtain the right to Organize FIFA World Cup 2022.

The press demands no less than FIFA to take the right back and implement a new, clean bidding process. Well, I am not sure that will happen as it would result in way too much embarrassment for both parties. A solution that would mitigate a big part of the problem is to actually share the right with the rest of the GCC countries.

I have written about this back in 2012 and I think this proposal is still one worth consideration. I thought at the time "Doha plus another Qatari location could host the opening, two groups, one quarter final, one semi finals and the final, while Dubai/AD, Kuwait City, Manama, Muscat and perhaps Riyadh could take one group each and some quarter finals and one of the semis.

This would result  in a more balanced event, culturally more interesting experience and above all totally sustainable legacy and impact for the whole region. A region where the most popular sport is by far the football."

Sport diplomats, think again.

Thursday 22 May 2014

Action on the hotel scene of Oman

We have been reading about a number of new hotels projects in Oman, as the efforts to grow tourism in the country continues.

I have been repeating myself over and over on attractions first hotels second, however I have to admit it is far easier to come up with new hotel projects than with meaningful attractions that indeed do the job. So let's just stick to the hotel landscape and have a look of what's in the pipeline at various levels.

Recent openings - please go and check them out
Alila Jebel Akhdar
  • Rotana Salala - hosted in the Salalah Beach project of Muriya
  • Atana Khasab - new skin on an existing hotel. Atana - the new brand of Omran meant to be a hotel with an Omani soul. The idea is notable, and I am interested to visit it.
  • Alila Jebel Akhdar - announced to open and opened on the 8th of May 2014. Initial feedback is positive and in spite of staffing and operational challenges of a hotel in a remote mountain location, Alila has taken the challenge, successfully so far.
Ribbon cutting phase - those on the last 100 meters before opening. Good luck!
Broke the ground - to the best of my knowledge these are the ones fro which work has already started on site or is about to start.
Kempinski The Wave Muscat
  • Kempinski The Wave Muscat - a new addition to the beach side luxury resorts of Muscat, having the advantage of a very competitive ballroom, the proximity to the airport and a state of the art marina.  
  • Anantara Jebel Akhdar - a strong competitor for Alila, concept yet to be revealed.
  • Rotana Muscat - a slick and smart business hotel by the airport next to the Golden Tulip.
Dream and design - Concept design, CGIs, models, fly through videos...all or some of the these are being produced for these new hotel projects. In this category there must be lot more the the following: W Shaati Al Qurum, Element, Fort Hotel Boucher, Intercontinental Muscat Hills, JW Marriott Muscat Convention Center, Crown Plaza Muscat Convention Center and the recently announced Jumeirah in Bandar Jissah.

These are at different levels in the  planning process. In a next post I will aim to write about those of the above that are in a bit more advanced stage of planning.

Thursday 6 March 2014

Details that matter: small ideas for hotel room design

I had given some thought to it earlier, but recent experiences refreshed the idea of hotel room design not being an easy discipline. It has to obey functionality and desperately follow trends bearing in mind that the use of hotel spaces is for a wide array of people by age, motivation of travel, professions and lifestyle.

Bringing the bathroom into the room, revolutionized the hotel room design in the early 20th century, and there was not too much happening since then, if we are not interested in the capsule room design segment of the 21st century no frill hotels.

The ancient  rules of creating a satisfactory hotel product hardware (service is obviously the software) talk about the 3B: bed, bathroom, and breakfast. Two of these are in the room. Let's highlight some ideas for the room that are often ignored even by the most recently built hotels. These are based on my own user experience, and some operational and  maintenance considerations:

//Discrete coffee shop - It is much more functional if the coffee/tea making station with the cattle and/or coffee machine is placed in a more discreet but accessible storage (shelf or drawer). The purpose built drawer in the picture works very well. Leaving these out on a desk or a dresser creates the impression of a messy room especially after they have been used.

//Elevate the mini bar - There is not need to place the mini mar under the TV stool any more. The mini bar is already an operational challenge, why make it hardly accessible for both guest and staff. Keeping it in a cupboard mount at eye sight, makes the content more appealing, easier to access and more likely to generate revenue.

//D day for Doors  - apart of the main door, conventional doors are for the past. If the bathroom is well ventilated and the toilette and the shower space has a glass door, we can even forget the bathroom  door which better connects the room space with the often used bathroom. Another solution is a sliding door which on one side closes the shower space on the other the toilette bowl. (you would not use both at the same time)

//Step up not in - The time of the shower in the bath tub is just over. If a tray or stone tiled shower box is not enough then find a separate space for a tub. But a larger more comfortable shower is by far more appropriate for a hotel room than a step in tub/shower combo which kills both. And if you are in desperate need of your evening bath, than upgrade or take a walk to the hotel spa.

//Tidy desk - Flyers, marketing materials, newspapers, menu, phone user manual, house rule etc. etc. never ending pile of paper on your hotel room desk. A lot of time for housekeepers to always tidy it up in a brand standard arrangement, and just one second for the guest to through them off creating usable work space on the desk. Dear hoteliers, let's continue learning from the airline industry. We have already learnt the revenue management from them, let's adapt the way they arrange and display in flight written material. It's simply tidied up in a functional holder, no need for a book stand. If you need something you will get it fast and easy.

//Show TV - TV cabinets are the past, unless it opens electrically creating a 6-star wow effect. There is no argument to hide the TV any more. Instead integrate it into a nice wall design, creating  stylish frame or flexible holder that allows for a minimal rotation. This frees up the space of a heavy TV stand and it allows for a creative use of a wall mounted high resolution display.

//Arty touch - Hotel rooms tend to lack personality or a personal touch. One easy and affordable way of solving this is placing some locally hand crafted small souvenirs in the room. A nice story can be built around them and if there is a series of such items the guest can even buy more from the hotel shop. A good example I saw in an African city hotel is small hand crafted statues of the big 5 mammals of the continent.   You got 2 in your room and your could purchase the rest in the shop.

Some of these can be useful for exiting hotels as well, who are looking to refresh a bit the room experience without major capital expenditures. Enjoy!

Saturday 18 January 2014

Sea Soul Water Park Muscat

Don’t get too excited, there is no park in the city by this name. Let alone water park. It's just a working title for some thoughts around the idea of a water park concept for Muscat. Let’s give it a run.
The bigger picture
A Water Park is an obvious leisure attraction for a city with subtropical climate like Muscat. They are highly capital intensive, with operational costs that leave little room for decent returns for an owner. Given their ability to attract high volume of visitors they tend to enhance land value around them. Often they can be catalysts of urban regeneration projects along with a number of other sports and leisure facilities. In this region they are either part of resorts or are placed in an accessible but green-field context to create the desired land upside.
The water parks are part of the wider amusement/theme park industry which is one of the fastest growing within the leisure industries. On a global comparison Asia (with South Korea, Australia, Malaysia, China, Japan, UAE) is set to a double digit annual growth in their water park visitation, swiftly catching up with the Americas, yet market leader in this segment (with US and Brazil).
In terms of visitation, the largest water park in the world (Typhoon Lagoonin Disney World Orlando, FL) has just over 2 million visitors annually (2.1 million in 2012). The second largest is in China (Chimelong Waterpark) with 2 million visitors albeit recording 6% growth year on year, while Orlando is growing at a much lower rate.
Closer to us, The Aquaventure at the Atlantis The Palm Dubai is the 7th largest in the world with 1.3 million annual visitors growing at 8% while the Wild Wadi WaterPark Dubai is the 17th with 850,000 annual visitors in 2012. The Wild Wadi has lost market share to Aquaventure in the recent years. To put this in context, the top 25 water parks in the world attract a combined annual attendance of over 25 million visitors.
Context for Muscat
The largest water parks are located in areas with high population density (Brazil, Japan, Korea) and/or destinations with very strong year round tourism demand (Orlando, Dubai).
Muscat cannot really stand out on any of the above and this should determine the fundamentals of any water park concept planned to be sustainable and viable.
Most mega parks are focused on the thrill with all the same scary and wet rides. The answer of Muscat to the water park question should obviously be something better suited for a local market of 6-800,000 population and total annual tourist arrivals of 2.5 million. Affordability, uniqueness, a local touch through creative originality would be key in my view, as opposed to the conventional wow factor.
In terms of the style of the attraction mix, a balanced combination of thrill, skill and chill, is what would give an optimal mix as opposed to a thrill only focus.
  • Thrill – the classic wet slide rides built on speed, gravity, freefall, and a wet and safe landing. These are often combined with some themed context (Posseidon’s castle, marine world etc.). You will find these on all water parks, as being at the very heart of the concept.

  • Skill  - Rides, tracks and skill based challenges that puts all age groups at various tests. Flash flooded rope tracks, floating islets, balancing bridges, spinning logs, slippery steps etc. (an easier verios of the Wipe-Out like giant pool toys). All designed to safely put at test your concentrations and physical abilities. The worst it can happen that you plunge in the water and start over again. There are few water parks that feature such attractions. They are more labour intensive to supervise and they cater more for those looking to challenges themselves, which is not always the case with holidaymakers.
  • Chill – this is the part which is missing the most from all these mega parks. By definition they are land of adventure and adrenaline, chilling out is not their strong suit. However I think there is a strong need, especially on the mid-eastern markets, to offer an alternative for those who are happy to be there with the family but nor really looking for the action. They prefer more to have a coffee with a cupcake and wind down over a book or their ipad. Terraces with outdoors bar tables, small gardens with shaded and sunny decks, lots of greenery some sandy areas and water views around. More importantly away from the screams and splashing sounds of the thrill and the skill. Not a big deal but can make a big difference.

A third and loosely related element would be the educative one (edutainment). Including it strictly in the core concept of the park would probably not be ideal, however to create an interactive marine life museum and visitor center next door, would definitely be a good combination. The marine life museum at the Bandar Rowda marina are well outdated and quite tired.
This also give the main character of the park which is my view should be the sea and the marine environment.
Now let’s see what would be some ideas worth considering or discarding for a potential park. In no particular order or alignment to target segments I thought of:

  • The Tide – “wet lounge” part of the chill mix. It would be a lounge with a shallow pool as the floor area, where water level can be set from dry to ankle high of knee high. Some short distance wooden piers facilitate access to various areas.
  • The Robinson Crusoe Island – only the best survive the challenges of this island. A series of water based and areal tracks, rides, cable slides, floating bridges, spinning logs and flash flooded tunnels. Every age group can test its skills and stamina at various levels.
  • The Tsunami – a surf pool with a variety of wave surfing, body surfing or paddle boarding activities. If space allows a shorter wakeboard cable track would add a unique and popular feature.
  • The Kids Beach Club – an indoor and outdoor kids only area with animated activities and programs, linked with the neighboring Marine World visitor centre.
  • The Swamp – this would be a combination of mazes, rides and water attractions that are more on the exciting and mysterious end of the spectrum than on the fast and furious type rides.  A number of animated challenge  games could also be included (the Fort Boyard syle or Pirates themes games)
  • The Cave – a major indoor facility that can run year round and offer a selection of slides (perhaps in an octopus design) and other smaller scale attractions.
  • The Bay – who said it’s all about adrenaline? Away from the noise of the thrill rides, this hideaway offers the piece and the chill you need between two sessions of fun or can be your wind down escape while the rest of the family plunges into action.
  • The Reef – a marine life encounter area, perhaps part of the Marine World visitor centre or separate. It offers the chance to see live marine life and learn about the marine habitat of the Arabian Sea.
These are few concepts that could be fresh and unique in the world of aqua parks. However coming up with the a right and sustainable concept for water park for Muscat is not an easy tasks and will require thorough work and hundreds of hours of research and creative work. The aim for me would be a delicate balance between the optimal size of creating the critical mass without overspending and/or planning with an excessive operating costs. The balance between the indoor and outdoor functions will also be key.
I am really excited to see how this is going to evolve.

Sunday 5 January 2014

So...what next?

I am sure most readers of this blog have much better things to do, but in case they are kept at bay by the chilly weather of Oman, and were to skim through my posts of the last two years they'd see quite a few small ideas on how to improve tourism related things over here.  Some more policy related, others very practical. Some posts were on urban development thoughts focused on increasing the appeal of the city and the quality of life.

I was presently surprised that some of these have been slowly happening, quietly in the backyard. Obviously this is a mere coincidence and has nothing to do with me muttering over here.  It is  good to see however new things like a 4 wheel drive park by Suhail Bahwan Group, a larger scale initiative by Bank muscat to support public spaces for sports, the somewhat sporadic programs of Royal Opera House Muscat promoting music for Omani youth, a proper go cart race course back in use, initiatives for a decent  home for cricket, etc.  Is there still a long way to go? Most certainly, but we should also celebrate the quick wins and encourage "governtrepreneurs" to further improve the happiness index of the population. Oman currently ranks the 23rd (just behind UK) in terms of happiness out of the over 150 countries in the review by UN.

With your kind support, I will just read these achievements of Oman as a motivating factor for me to carry on scratching my head for some new ideas, although my time for this is becoming increasingly scarcer.

On the same note: since it has now finally been announced for Muscat, my the next post will be on water parks, Inshallah.

Until then wish all of you a humorous and memorable 2014!

Thursday 2 January 2014

World's young sailing elite in Oman

It is now over a year that OmanSail has won the right to organize the Laser World Championship in three categories: Standard, Masters and Radial Youth. The Radial Youth Championship started on the 27th December 2013 and will last until Friday the 3rd of January 2014.  I have been covering the news of winning the bid to host the event back in the summer of 2012.  At the time I  was quite exited about the great work they have done in securing these world class events. I have also came up with some ideas how to make the event more appealing to the local audience.

Well since the venue is only a 45 minute drive from Muscat it did make sense to start the year with a trip
down to Mussanah to see for myself the world's elite under 18 sailing squad in action. Approximately 80 sailors from over 25 countries.

Al Mussanah Sport City and the Millenium Resort, hosting the championship is just optimal for such  events. Apart of the fact that it is a bit secluded (which I found ideal for corporate away days and outings, but that is a different post) the sport base is very spacey, clean and well maintained. The event and race management was smooth and professional. Proper signage, spares shop, media center, gym, event tent, etc. It seems that with will and skill things do fall in place properly.

To be fair there is still a lot that could be done to enhance the visitor experience, bringing the action and the frill of sailing closer to new fans, creating a bit more buzz around the sport base, but let's not be inpatient, those will also come in he future. It was great to see however that Oman is making steady steps towards promoting sailing as a national sport, and hopefully soon the world elite will have Omani kids in the fleet as well.  It already took a lot of work and resources to place the country on the international sailing map, which not doubt has happened. It will take more time to create the sustainability for this. Patience from officials is key, as such initiatives yield fundamental results only on the long run. So keep up OmanSail and hope to see these guys back in a few years as Olympians.

Enough of words now, let the images tell the story.

Event tent at the marina

Race office
Sunrise over the boat park

British team to start rigging first

Others to follow

Around the committee boat

More than 50 boats at the startline

Jury watching for jump starters

Everything seems in order

...until wind starts to play around and race is canceled. 

...good time for a nap.

or some tactical discussions

...a chat with the team mates.

Sailing is serious business.
Coaches at work

Downwind action after the new start

The fleet though the leeward gate

The Hungarian sailing in a dominant lead

Some action at the leeward bouy

It is not chaos, they all know what they are doing
German-UAE battle...

...or rather friendship.
...all sorted.
The Finish girl in the lead

...rounding the bouy

Norwegian to follow...

...in style.

Japaneses and Qatari girls in action.

The Hungarian crossing the finish line first in the boys fleet.

And the Norwegian in the girls fleet.

it takes fitness to sit like this for hours

Winner's smile

Monday 28 October 2013

2013 Challenge Tour at Almouj: The challenge remains

The National Bank of Oman Classic golf tournament, part of European Tours’ Challenge Tour was a great debut for Muscat on the international golfing scene.
While the organization of the tournament itself seemed very smooth and professional, there was a whole lot that could have been done for the crowd.
People of Oman are not used to golfing events and their relative charm, so this was a great opportunity to showcase some of it and attract more and more people to the game.
Having visited the event on Saturday I had the impression that the organizers fell very short on this front.

The so called Public Village set up for some sort of “golfing” entertainment was an empty square battered by the sun most of the day with very few people around. I don’t blame them, trying out a worn mini golf putting green or hitting a few irons shots in a net, is not exactly something you bare the afternoon sun for more than few minutes.  The kids area was practically two inflatable slides and air castles in dark in color and got so hot by mid day that you could easily prepare your morning omelets on it. Needless to say the kids preferred to stay away. Somewhat disappointed by the public village, we headed back to the clubhouse to have a drink and collect some strength to watch another hole with one of the favorites (Im). Well, the plan remained a plan, the clubhouse restaurant was reserved for VIPs and players, and two smiley gatekeepers sent us back to the public village furnace.

I think some more attention to detail and a focus on the visitors could have made the event a true success not just on the sporting and tournament but also on the entertainment and public event side. Since NBO was generous enough to sponsor it as a free access event, assumable with the intention to promote the game locally, it was a great chance that in all fairness this time was missed.

Perhaps next time, among much more there will be:
  • A proper covered space for the non-VIP visitors as well. The Wicked tents sponsored a huge VIP tent in front of the 18th hole which was 80% empty most of the time. Perhaps they will consider seeing up one for the participants with families who came out curiously to experience this thing apparently so popular with Europeans and South Africans.
  • Facilitated visits to a number of easily accessible holes, with a dynamic and engaging “guide” explaining what’s going one, the rules, the goals of the game etc.
  • Animated activities in the Public Village with stuff like: “Fix one thing” - golf clinic, “Your first 15 minutes of golf” – for newcomers, “Why we love golf” - for kids etc. all done by people who are good with people
  • Competitions: Hole in one mini golf competition – to engage, waffle draw – to keep people around, Small food court – to keep stomach happy etc.

Again none of these require more fancy equipment or much higher costs, just a bit more creativity and engagement.  Organizers need to acknowledge that this climate is different and if you want to popularize this game you need to adapt to it.

Congrats for the organizers of the tournament and all payers, especially for Roope Kakko for winning the event. Hope the local touch and more engagement of a future golfing crowd will be achieved next time.
(picture source: European Tour site)