Monday, 31 December 2012

The bottom line 2012

Let's just have a quick look back on 2012 and see where the tourism offering of Oman has moved in a year. I am not talking about hard facts not announcements and press releases. What do we have more compared to 2011 that attracts more tourists? Off the top of my head:
In terms of sweet talk, promotion and softer type issues there was much more. Here are a few:

  • Muscat Arab Tourism Capital for 2012 - and all the nice buzz around it
  • An agreement to develop a Kempinski Hotel The Wave was signed by a consortia of investors
  • A new Intercontinental was announced for Muscat Hills (since the one in Shaati will be replaced by a W hotel)
  • Alila hotels signed up to manage the future Omran Hotel in Jebel Akhdar
  • Oman Sail has waved the country's name all over the sailing word this year, wining the Extreme Sailing Series, tourism promotion awards and bids to organize international sailing events
  • And of course Sheraton managed to stay closed for another year.

The above suggest to me that perhaps we need to remind ourselves of the basics: visitors are coming for attractions. The better they are packaged the more will come. Hotel are just services, parts of the package but are rarely the attractions themselves. I am really looking forward to new tourist products in the coming years that act as attractions rather then just services. Here are a few with some potential: The City Walk Muscat could finally be proper master planned activation of beach areas, The Oman Convention & Exhibition Center,  The Alila Resort in Jebel Akhdar, The Club Med in Salalah, and the de-industrialized and leisure focused waterfront regeneration in SQ Port in Mutrah etc. Insha'Allah.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Omani success...through sports again

I have been enthusing over the role of sports in building a competitive mind set and subsequently economy for some time now. I know the link might seem pretty  remote at the first glance, but put in a cultural and strategic context it does make sense to me.

So here's another success of Omani sportsman that should encouraging, inspire and drive kids to take up  various sports and if suits them to engage in professional performance pursuits.

The Oman Sail teams in the Extreme Sailing Series have finished the championship in top position.  The Wave (skipper Leigh McMillan) has won the gold by a narrow margin ahead of a French team, while Oman Air (skipper Morgan Larson) clinched the podium in a tight and exiting last race, literary winning on the last meters.
This is a huge result for Oman and Oman Sail, a timely justification of the strategy they took some years back.
What will be important now, it to provide proper media coverage to Hashim Al Rashdi (@hashim_alrashdi) from The Wave Muscat team and Nasser al Mashari from team Oman Air to talk about how much work and dedication is needed to achieve these levels.

To tell the story of the journey that took them from aspiring young dinghy sailors to members of the best sailing teams around the word. They should not forego this opportunity and act as inspirational figures. Having the professional backing of OmanSail behind this might be an easier task than for many other promising athletes in Oman.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Health camp or lancet?

I have read the other day in the Hi magazine's readers comments section on ways  to improve the domestic tourism.  If you have been following my tourism related mumbles inhere, you know I  emphasized a few times the importance of domestic tourism and means of improving it.
A new thought is related to health tourism. This is normally associated to wellness, spas, thermal water, nutrition, holistic light treatments (non-intrusive). Not to be confused with medical tourism (dental, plastic surgery etc.).

I have a couple of surgeon friends in Muscat and they always amaze me. Not just their ability to save lives and improve conditions of living, but also of how much they have to work on obesity related malfunctions. And these are very costly interventions most of the time covered by the patients themselves. So there is a whole lot of disposable income available for painful interventions with the hope of quick and sustainable result. These are certainly quick and in most cases result in noticeable  improvements,  however they are all but sustainable. For that it would take change of habits, mentality, the proof of results through nutrition and lifestyle. No lancet can do that.

But, there might be an opportunity for some retreat programs aimed at changing your lifestyle, nutrition, exercise habits achieving sustainable results and a healthier population. Maybe it sounds naive but it's actually not. There are several examples of such 'fit farms'  where guest partake in a 7-10 days strict retreat type programs, living in  a remote "hotel" which resemble more like a camp. It's not an all inclusive, all you can eat health resort with some light morning stretching followed by beach pose all day long pretending you are recharging. It's more like a boot camp that once you sign up and pay the expensive fee they guarantee you will walk out as a different person. With more self confidence, more healthy nutrition habits, being aware of how to push your limits, and perhaps with a bit more inner balance. The best such example is The Ashram (in California and Spain) and perhaps the Canyon Ranch in US.

Obviously there are thousands of variations from a sports and endurance focus to weight loss, from detox and nutrition to body and soul balance etc. The bottom line, with people struggling for a healthier lifestyle and willing to spends thousands of rials on surgeries there must be a case for such programs and facilities.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Multi-sport complex for Bidbid area

It was some time ago I wrote about my views on the importance of sports for developing a competitive, just-do-it mentality.
It seems that others see potential in sports development as well. According to the Omani press,  yesterday was signed an agreement to implement a $300mn worth greenfield sports complex development  for Fanja Club, known as the defending champions of the one Omani Football League.

The integrated project in Al Seeh Al Ahmer is planned to include outdoor sports facilities for football and tennis and indoor sport hall for sports like handball volleyball, basketball and swimming. The integrated feature will be completed by a 5-star hotel, 60 villa units and a small golf course and other leisure elements.

Such integrated sport complexes are known for some time, especially in urban context in Europe. In many cases these huge areas (often ex horse racing tracks) became centrally located through the gradual expansion of cities, so they are facing a mismatch between value and functional utility. Through such integrated re-development, value is unlocked  while maintain the sports and social function.

In this case I am not aware of enough details to provide a proper opinion, but based on the public statement it seems there is quite a bit of conceptual uncertainty in the scheme. First of all I am not sure such a complex needs a 5-star hotel, a 4-start would seem a better match. What they mean buy a small golf course: par-3, 9-hole, 6-hole or eventually a themepark-like minigolf? How will professional sports be wed with access to public, or it is just meant for professional sports? Will the sports demand be enough to sustain a full time medical center or intention is to have a fully blown sports clinic to service the whole country? The circulated amount seems way too big for any possible payback within a reasonable time frame. And so on...

Let's look at the bright side: even if nothing will happen which I hope will not be the case, there is talk about sports development and that increases awareness on its importance.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

The asset called employee contd' - Motivation

It is not difficult to differentiate between a job done by a motivated and a non-motivated employee. Lack of motivation can hardly be compensated even by the most of experience there is. Sooner rather than later the sings of ignorance and apathy will be show on the job done.
In contrary when we are dealing with a motivated team, the sky is the limit, even if the sky is actually never really reached.

While there are many elements to it, I found that there are three major things that make or break employee motivation:
  1. 1. Job security – How much effort you’d put in a work knowing you might not be around next month, or next year to witness the consequences. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean a job for life and that you cannot be dismissed even if you are clearly not doing your best to perform. I mean an environment where team members are not sent away without a clear explanation, where before somebody is sent away is given clear messages about his performance and given the chance to change and improve, where if somebody is fired there is subsequent communication to the team on explaining the main reasons (without discrediting the ex-employee) of his/her departure.
  2. Sense of direction and progress – it is difficult to push hard without knowing what are you pushing for. Letting people know where is that they should be heading and how is that relevant for the team progress as a whole, is key. Same as the appraisal of where we are on our route to those goals (or where we think we are).
  3. Recognition and reward – even the best steering can only get you that far without the fuel for the engine. A pet on your back can do much more than most managers think. Let alone some modest but clear words of praise (avoid being cheese, that sometimes does more harm than good, especially in front of peers). Finally a good asset’s worth and paycheck has to be in balance. You cannot defy the market value for too long (some employees are mastering this skill though.)

Notice, I put the money in the third group. Not that I would not welcome a raise and it would not improve my motivation, but in general there is a whole lot that can be achieved before giving a pay raise. Provided the other conditions (job security, sense of direction and progress and recognition) were not met before.  You would often hear people saying that “I am a mercenary and I am here for the money but…” this and that…
I always take this with a grain of salt. The explanations that usually follow relates to elements under 1 and/or 2. Obviously this might not apply to everybody but in my experience of working with superiors or team members, they typically proved to be the reasons for lack of motivation. What about you?

Photo by: Helder Almeida

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The asset called employee contd' - Aquisition

Like with any asset let's start with the acquisitions, recruitment that is. It is probably the most difficult HR decision for an employer. No matter how many HR professionals are around you equipped with an arsenal of tests and interviewing techniques, it still remains more often than not a shot in the dark. The more sophisticated the assessment tools, the more books and blog posts are written in how to "read and trick" them if you are an applicant.

I noticed that in case of companies and organization in Oman a nice CV with the right buzzword and professional acronyms will do most of the job. Probably there is an overreliance on the academic and professional track record of the candidate, and less emphases on it's personality and non-technical, soft skills required for the task at hand.

Of course I am aware of most factors that distort the process such as, quotas to follow, wasta etc. but some of those you'll find in other economies as well.

I have interviewed for a junior and mid level position around 70-80 people so far and hired around 8-10 in the last 16 years, in my various earlier positions. I can say that in perhaps two cases I was absolutely certain it was the right hire. In most of the other it was the least doubtful choice and in one case we went for a risky approach but did not really paid off.  I learned that the best approach for me is trying to understand the candidate from the following three perspectives:

  • 1. motivation - is (s)he really up for this, would  this job  put him/her on fire, at least for the first 12 months or so. How does this position fit in the candidate ambitions etc.
  • 2. ability - does (s)he have the skill set required to perform the job. And I don't only mean the background, as most of the technical knowledge is not learnt in schools anyway, but more the essential soft skills, personality, social skills (especially when it comes to sales or team work), learning skills (are they systematic learning by doing persons or quick learners - learning by watching types etc.)
  • 3. fit  - do you as employer feel comfortable spending more time with this person than with most of your friends or even family? Is there a natural click, a "kind of like this guy" feel? This is probably the most sensitive one. Rationality should be put aside and instincts should be at play here.

Anyways, no matter how hard we try it will remain -more often then it should- a trial and error game.  One thing for sure, do not let your HR do all that work for you, get involved from as early as you can. As team leader you will bring in the real perspective and look at the candidates as potential colleges not as people to fill positions.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

The asset called employee

There are too many countries in the world that would envy the infrastructure Oman has and is about to have.  But what about the people the soft power of a country so to speak? The hardware which is pretty much there worth only as much as the software that runs on it.  Obviously it can always be running on imported apps and home made programs but better to have a well established own operating system, an open code that is ready to continuously improve and learn from outside inputs.

I have worked in organizations which had as only assets the people at their desks. They did not own the desks though, nor the buildings  or computers, no cars either. Everything was leased. So they had to make sure talent is retained and accounted for as well utilized asset. One can imagine that in these environment there is a lot of effort put in continuous development, retention, personal and carrier development programs, performance management etc. Much like the maintenance work in a factory or in a computer park. I also worked in organizations that lack all of this. Totally. The only thing they had is some sort of rationality regarding the employer-employee relationship, stemmed mainly from a master and servant customary setup. This came though with some degree of fairness but totally random and limited in capacity. Much like a family business with lots of personal involvement, emotion and all. Needless to say both have advantages and disadvantages and both have their own role in an economy.  Problem is when one or the other is missing.

I don't think there is anything new in saying that is key to the sustainability of the Omani economy to  have the institutional practices of being able to continuously maintain, refresh, and at times to rewrite the software. And I am not referring to a checklist to include in quarterly reports to the board, but more to a culture, a belief that my employee is my value, the better he does the better I do. So I better be spending time and effort in making sure he/she is at its best.

Not being an HR professional I can just write from my own experience of working under both styles and leading a team under the former. So I have decided to share some of the low hanging fruits that I think are easy to implement, cheep and have almost an immediate impact with regards to employee satisfaction, commitment and performance. And I hope you'll find them applicable to Oman. So maybe you'll find something of use if you are leading and/or managing (there are two very different things) people in Oman. Stay tuned.

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)

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

New trends in tourism?

Soul searching
It is kind of a known way of travelling, typically associated to backpacker travelling in South East Asia.  I have an increasing number of friends who are trying to escape from their everyday life (typically in tough periods) for 3 to 6 months or more, just to have some time away with themselves and figure out what is really important for them in life.  Bali, India, Thailand, Nepal, Vietnam are typical preferred by these travelers, who’s age range from 25 to 60.  There is a good chance that such lads are coming back home with a fisherman look (suntanned &  bearded) practicing yoga and being vegetarians. Well at least that’s the modal character of a soul searcher trying to adapt back to big city life or just kissing good bye to it forever.

Travel to a new skill
Have you heard of the muay thai boot camps in Thailand, where they make you suffer few hours a day for 2-3 month with the reward of coming back to your real life ripped like a kung fu warrior and never being scared again by the big guy in the pub? Well that’s just one of the options you have if you want to spend few months of your life away from home, returning with a totally new skill.  Visiting certain monasteries for an intense language course is another such formula. I am sure traveler creativity has all figured it out already and one can become a sushi chef, coastal lifeguard, or sailing instructor in few weeks or month of intensive training in exotic locations.

Movie locations catcher
Probably Paris did not need the DaVinci Code to promote itself, unwillingly however several locations within the French capital that featured in the movie (like the Saint-Sulpice chapel) became known and visited  by hundreds of thousands of DaVinci Code enthusiast. Same goes for the clay houses where a few shots of the Star Wars were taken back in the 80's in Tunis (today The Sidi Driss Hotel, in Matmata), the locations of the Jaws in Massachusetts or even the Nothing Hill in London.
This is still a very niche kind of segment but I recon it is growing in volume and importance as the Asian travel market is becoming increasingly significant. Somewhat similar is the sport fan travel. Football games or even stadiums within the English Premier League and the Serie A of Italy are becoming pilgrimage sites for thousands of traveling fans annually.

Time travel
Let’s be honest, probably you thought about how’d be like to live a few centuries back for some days? Waking up as a knight in the age of Arthur the Lion Heart, or as Robin Hood? Eventually Maryann or another princess in the royal court? Well if not than you must have had a very different childhood than most of the people I know. Or, the only thing you thought about is how’d be like to live 50 or 100 years from now in the future. Well, not too bad either.  I am actually not aware of places who offer the full experience of living like centuries ago or decades ahead, but I bet there would be a demand for it.  Obviously the future one would rely on the known master pieces of sci-fi literature and the creativity of attraction designers.  So I expect that not too long from now there will be castles and the villages that specialize in taking you back or forward in time not only for the hour (as museums do) but for a few days with no cheating.

Eco neutral travel
Have you ever wondered how much environmental damage you do when climbing your SUV on top of a mountain or taking your family to ski? Probably not and that’s almost all right.  But think for a second what it would take to go for a weekend holiday and plan everything such as your ecological footprint would be neutral. I.e. the net environmentally impact of your visit is nil. Think about what you do during a trip and you’ll see that it pretty much take a Homo Sapiens to stay almost neutral.  Probably there would be very few travelers interested for such type of recreation, but anyways, it was worth the thought.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Strongest Omani brand abroad...

Following up on my earlier thinking on the brand promise of Oman, I was trying to figure out which Omani brand is possibly the strongest abroad. When I mean the strongest I refer to the most known, and when I mean brand I not only refer to a product, but rather a name that one can associate with.   Most probably the best know Omani name internationally is the one of HM Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said  for all the right reasons.  My thinking here though is related more to commercial names and brands, their current awareness and future potential.

One of the most obvious calls would be Oman Tourism (i.e. Sultanate of Oman), especially considering the recent efforts put into the promotion of Oman as a tourism destination. Another possible candidate could be Amouage with a bespoke strategy of becoming a major player on the international luxury fragrances market.  Perhaps Oman Air with a best in class business class seat award, a growing fleet and regional presence?  I was also thinking of Oman Sail given the recent successes and huge exposure on the sports channels around the world. Let's face it, the brands that have a strong local call like Bank Muscat, Omantel, Nawras, The Royal Opera House Muscat  etc...have little to no traction to an international audience yet.

So let's have a closer look to the ones before:

  • Oman Tourism - strong presence at international tourism fairs, adverts on international media, a strong  offering for active and spa tourism, a smart complementary choice to a Dubai mainstream experience (@OmanTourism)
  • Amouage - strong story, good product,  potential for a strong frankincense association, exotic apeal (@AmouagePerfumes)
  • Oman Air - young fleet, best in class BC seat, strong regional routes (@omanair)
  • Oman Sail - world class team, several recent successes on the world tour, solid local roots and case for existence, mix of sports, heritage, lifestyle story (@OmanSail)

All in all I think probably Oman Sail is currently the best positioned to take a lead on internationally most known Omani brand. However a bit more coordination (I am not assuming there is none) between the strategies of all three could result in benefits for all of them. E.g. why not see a Frankincense or Amouage boat in the Oman Sail fleet? Why not create an Oman Sail line of Amuage fragrances for a sporty, fresh feel.

Any other candidates you'd ad?

Sunday, 16 September 2012

The brand promise of Oman. Delivered?

What comes to your mind first when you think of Oman?  What colors, feelings, scents do you associate with Oman? How would Oman look like had it been a person? What are you most proud of as an Omani when you think of your country? These are all important question from tourism and country brand perspective.

Most likely the Brand Oman Management Unit has done its homework before coming up with the country branding strategy and collateral.
According to them the brand has the following core elements:
  • turtle, ocean wave and life - navy blue color wave (in the logo)
  • mountains - light blue siluette of the mountain 
  • dhow - dark blue shape reflecting the tip of the dhow boat
  • frankincense - light green shape
Not a bad call at all. These are pretty much the unique features the country has to offer.  Like with any brand the promise has to be kept. Any tourist visiting the country should find it difficult to leave without unwillingly meet most of these features. Is that really the case today?

We have so many museums, but we don't have (or I am not aware of) a House of Frankincense where the whole story of this great natural product is presented in a creative and interactive way. Visitors could experience and understand that importance of frankincense in the history of Omanis. 

Same could be said with the Dhow. There are some initiatives in Sur and maybe elsewhere, but an interesting and creative Dhow heritage center is yet to be done. This should be by the sea and include several interactive features for visitors. Would be a very nice and challenging work for any museum and visitor attraction planner.

The mountains and wadis do most of job themselves, however some visitors centers in the most popular mountain destinations (Jebel Ahkdar, Jebel Shams, Wadi Bhani Khalid, Wadi Sham etc.) could do a lot of justice for these marvelous places and help protect their environment. And offer jobs for locals.

There is an  Ocean and sea life museum (Aquarium and Marine Science & Fisheries Centre) at the  Marina Bandar Al Rowdha in Sidab but it's somewhat outdated, could really  take a nice revamp and some new features that would worth the trip from Muscat for any visitor.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Red balloon over the stadium

I have had the fortune of wining a ticket to the Oman - Australia match before the holidays, through Mr.Sythe's blog. For my first time seeing Oman play live I had great fun and enjoyed the atmosphere.  For a country where football is so popular and with so much potential for change, there is a whole lot more that could be done to improve the experience and the show.  (I noted that the Omani Football Association OFA has launched a few new initiatives like the Super Fan Program or the Support the Shirt Program. These are all good initiatives and merit attention, but they mainly focus on the online sphere less on the show itself. I also noted that the FunZone section of OFA website is still empty).  I thought to put down a few ideas myself, perhaps they will be useful for the OFA and whomever else has a say in the Omani Football.

1. Improvements of the fan experience:
  • Place more, much more (temporary) signage around the stadium to direct to parking areas and different stands (VIP, Media etc.)
  • A half time raffle or anything similar with perhaps a short half time show will do a lot of good for the overall experience and spice up the idle time   
  • Install giant LCD screen capable of the live showing TV footage
  • Besides vending table/points, engage walking vendors on the stands, it increases the sales and make experience more comfortable especially if you need a bottle of water every 20 minutes
  • Instead of one-sip small water cups, better use water in 300ml plastic bags with a straw that is equal safe and no need to buy 6 or 10 to temper your thirst.
2. Commercial ideas:
  • Design aOFA polyester or artificial silk shals/masars, much better in this climate than the knitted scarfs which are hot, heavy and less appealing. Adding on OFA designed funky hand fans for cooling can also be a practical merchandise gadget.
  • Create larger merchandise points, not just for shirts but also other items (hats, fans, full gear with name printing on etc.)
  • Consider creating a large red hot air balloon with OFA sign on (or any other head sponsor if not FIFA rules apply) that can be lifted over the stadium on each match day. It would be seen from many areas of Muscat (including Expressway and SQ HW traffic) informing that its a match-day. In case of Oman victory 11 smaller red hot air baloon can be released at the end of the match so everybody in Boshar, Khuwair and Ansab Seeb would know about the triumph without even being there. It also can be done in a bit of a ceremonial way (player of the match releasing the balloons etc.)

The idea of charging for the entry to most matches (tickets from RO 2) will probably justify more the case for an improved fan experience.  These are relatively low cost ideas (with the exception of the LCD screen) and can have a nice impact.

Next time you can see the Reds will the their match against Ireland on the 11th of September in London (Fulham stadium).

Monday, 3 September 2012

Leisure to do list for 2012-2013

I decided to do a selective leisure to do lists for the 2012-2013 winter seasons in Oman. I am not sure me and my family will be able to tick all of these but we will try our best. I also plan to come back with some short blogs on the travel ones. Let's see how it goes...

  • sniff the air above 3000 meters on Jebel Shams - details
  • stay overnight at a local family at a traditional home in the interior - no details yet
  • visit the lost village of  As Sab in Wadi An Nakhur - details
  • dive at the Daymaniat Island - details
  • go fishing with a local fishermen in Al Jerry Village, Musandam - no details yet
  • drive up Wadi Ghul and climb to the top of the "Grand Canyon of Arabia" - details
  • get some pampering in Zighi Bay Six Senses hotel - details
  • complete my first (sprint) triathlon (750m swim, 20km bike, 5km run) - details
  • bike up the Col of Al Amirat serpentine - details
  • tennis once a week - in JAS
  • soccer once a week (provided my colleges are not too lazy to join) - in Bowsher at the lamp round about
  • some yoga and stretching once a week - details
I could go on, but better to commit for something that is achievable. What would your list be? 

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Qatar2022: The utopia of sharing

You don't have to be a football fan to know by now that Qatar has won the right to organize the FIFA World Cup in 2022.   Just before the UEFA EURO 2012 Championship (hosted by Poland and Ukraine) Michel Platini the president of UEFA proposed that the following EURO championships should be hosted by cities across European countries as opposed to one country.   He gave as a bad  example Qatar, a country of 1.7 million set to host the FIFA World Cup, an event that needs at least 10-12 stadia with capacity of 45.000 and above each (700.000+ football stadia seets in total) and close to 60-90.000 new hotel rooms.

He claims that spreading the right of organizing across more GCC countries would have a much larger ripple effect and result in sustainable developments.

Personally I think it is a fantastic idea, which huge international and regional potential, but with a probability of being implemented close to if not spot on zero.  But if we were to be just a bit critical a huge amount of doubt arises with respect to the opportunity and legacy of a World Cup event in Qatar.

The country has 12 registered A level football clubs with an average attendance on a "Stars League" match of 4,150 spectators. Yes four thousand, one tenth of the smallest stadium to be built.  So, no matter how positive we try to be, it hardly makes any sense what the small state with unlimited resources is about to engage for: building 12 air conditioned stadiums, an additional mega airport of 24 million pax p.a. (remember population is 1.7 million), launch above 200 infrastructure projects and practically "spend" 100 billion USD to put the country to lead the world rankings of highest stadium seats per capita, per square kilometer and etc.

With the short travel distances between GCC capitals, engaging other capitals in the region seems a no-brainer. Doha + one other Qatari location could take on opening, 2 groups, quarter final, semifinals and the final, while Dubai/AD, Kuwait City, Manama, Muscat and perhaps Riyadh could take group each and some quarterfinals and one of them a semi.

This would result in a much 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 football.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

The Just-do-it factor

During my not so long stay and work here in Oman I often observe a symptom that keeps provoking me especially in work context, and that is the general lack of striving to achieve things, the lack of appeal for a sense of achievement or success.  It might be because of the predominance of inherited wealth and shortage of created wealth, because competitiveness is not (yet) in the DNA of the economy, or just because culturally compromise is preferred over confrontation. Or a blend of the above.

It is far from me to generalize but the effects are so negative that it well worth trying to change this slightly apathetic work culture. I am sure the topic has been overly worn out  by HR professionals and loads of expensive training programs have been developed to improve work morale and motivation in many places.

My humble suggestion is very simple, albeit it requires a bold policy commitment and leadership rather then micro level HR work.

In my view there is one thing that could naturally change this on the long term, and that is not the fear of running out of oil or the ex-pat labor leaving.  It would be sports! Sports as form of play for kids, sports as  entertainment and education for youngsters and sports as a profession for grown ups. I am not saying Oman should be a sports nation only but there should be several times more done to infect Omanis with this wonderful drug of competitive physical activity.  There is not one training program that can achieve a level of personality formation than competitive sports can.  Hard work, practice, concentration, patience, talent, ability, perseverance, self awareness, self knowledge, knowing your limits, team work and above all FUN, lots of FUN. 

So all in all it provides all the ingredients for a striving personality.  Besides education and shier knowledge, I think using sports as a formation tool would be the key to achieve lasting change on this front. It's never to late.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Omani Olympians

The London2012 Olympics are officially on.  Danny Boyle, the mastermind behind the opening ceremony who is also the director of the brilliant movie Trainspotting, made sure the show had lots of originality, some humor but above all he grandiosely proved us that there is probably much more Britain gave to the world than one might suspect.

We have also seen the Omani Olympic Team of four athletes marching in traditional costumes. (If the Football team had qualified avoiding the pathetic defeat against Senegal, the delegation could have been more impressive). These four athletes will be the ambassadors of Oman to the sporting world in the next three weeks or so. With a surprise success they would be capable to attract more attention on Oman than any other country promotion could. So let's have a look on who they are.

We have Ahmed Al-Hatmi (27) from Al Rustaq, competing in shooting - men's double trap. Then three track athletes: Shinoona Salah Al-Habsi (19) from AL-Khoud, compeating in women's 100 m, Barakat Mubarak Al-Harthi (27) in men's 100m and Ahmed Mohamed Al-Merjabi (21) in men's 400 m, both from Ibra.
The odds seem to favor sprinter Mubarak Al-Harthi as most likely to stay in the race for longer, eventually making it to a quarter final, eventually a semi final or -through a small miracle- even to the final. However that would probably mean a massive improvement from his personal best (10.17s). The weakest qualifying time in Beijing was 10.14s and the last sprinter in the final stopped the clock at 10.03s, while Bolt has scored the depressing result of 9.69 (WR) with his handbrakes on in the last 10 meters.

We can follow Ahmed on the 2nd of August, while Shinoona and the sprinter boys will have their track events between 9-12 August.

Good luck tó all four of them, and let's hope they will be able to cause some surprises and convert their success in  great sources of inspiration. Inspiration for people to check out where on earth this country of Oman is, and inspiration for young Omani athletes to work harder and dream big in their sports disciplines.

Photo: Reuters

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Smiles of Oman

They say the shortest way between two people is a smile. Judging by this Oman should be a rather crowded place. I always had the impression that people of Oman smile much more than people of other GCC countries. Hence, the title choice of  "Smiles of Oman" for the latest training initiative of the National Hospitality Institute is just great! So is the idea! - a service level improvement campaign underpinned by training modules for customer facing staff, their managers and supervisors.

Although I have not had a chance to see the training materials I hope that the one-day modules manage not only to scratch the surface by offering canned formulas of welcome address and deal with problematic cases, but also providing insights on customer behaviors, emphatic understanding and more. I always have the feeling that there are two main issues causing service problems here: 1) failure (or unwillingness) to understand customers perspective and/or 2) lack of knowledge on what they are selling. Perhaps a third one is response time.

Like any campaign the real benefits should be in the follow up. Not knowing what the plans of NHI are I attempted to put down a few ideas:

  • Sell it to consumers: a strong social media component of the program (twitter, facebook) could help selling the certification concept idea to consumers as well. If we -consumers- will not be aware of the service value of the Smiles of Oman tag, I doubt it will be able to offer enough for businesses as a one day training program.
  • Incentivise businesses to use it: like most new things people have to be convinced to use it. Coming up with some arrangement with radio/tv and written press to favorably price Smiles of Oman certified ads, might help business in considering the program and some fresh promotion as well.
  • Build it into a certification program: this is a bit of a larger bite and requires significant resources but in exchange would ensure long term impact and sustainability. An annual rankings and award system for the service sector would do good for everybody.
There is a lot in a smile true, but let's not forget the ultimate goal is to make us -customers- smile.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Who do we want the most?

It's always good to know who are you after, especially if you are a destination/hotel/restaurant who wants to do better. Shifting to a more leisurely mode, and without trying to be exhaustive here I listed a few types of travelers that we might or might not want to chase down with unbeatable offers.

  • Business travelers: They love (hereafter "Love"): airport transfer in room rate; to be called by name at the reception; spacious lobby with free internet; loyalty programs; night club within premises. They hate (hereafter "Hate"): to press shirts; to take the shower in the tub; the 15 different light switches in the room; to explore the city and eat alone; admitting that they buy stuff at the airport that they don't need.
  • MICE (conference and incentive) travelers: Love - to be overly looked after by the organizers; souvenirs; to discover the best shopping deals in town.  Hate - to be in time; agenda starting at 8.30am; to be discovered at the pool during the afternoon plenary.
  • All inclusive travelers: Love - animated programs for the kids; buffet breakfast; buffet lunch; buffet dinner; buffet bar, complementary facial, more animated program for the kids. Hate - rainy weather, another family from their home town next door, to accept that "all-inclusive" package does actually not include the four-hand, water-bed, hot-stone Ayurvedic full-day treatment.
  • Golf and Spa tourists: Love - to travel with buddies; nice bars around the corner; an afternoon nap; to be told "nice shot sir" and/or "you look very healthy today mam". Hate - to call home, to loose balls, the thought of settling balance at check-out; not knowing how much they'll have to wait before they can be do this again. 
  • Shopping tourists: Love - mall-hotel transfer in room rate; discounts; buy-one-get-two's; junk food after a successful raid; to put on clothes they just bought; VAT rebate at the airport. Hate - the text message on their credit card balance; to see their new purchase at a discount in the next shop; to sum up the damage done; to be asked at the hotel what they have seen today?
  • Active and Adventure tourist: Love - to explain what they are here for; full cover insurance; Hate - to be in need of the full cover insurance; to watch "127 hours";
  • Honeymooners, "Romantourists": Love - to be upgraded as a present;  breakfast in bad;  sunrise at 10am; sunset when the hot chocolate fudge cake is served; candles in the room. Hate - to be stared at; having to pay for the scooter they crashed; one of those days.
  • Backpackers: Love - to think they are soul searching;; to meet Frida the Swede PR student or Raul the Spanish photographer; Hate -  hitchhiking  in the rain; not meeting Frida or Raul; having to call mom every other day.
  • Stag/Hen party goers: Love - to be stared at; to think they are less ridiculous then the groom, to watch "The Hangover" Hate - running away without paying and 2 minutes later being caught, red eye flights; to watch the "Hall Pass".
As you see these groups have very different needs and motivations for travel and consumption. So one cannot do enough to understand a bit more what makes the difference to them. Which few should we seek to target? Easier to tell which we should not.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Locals always save the day

If you were following my thoughts inhere you might remember that I have emphasized the importance of domestic tourism for any country. It's not just lip service, 70% of world tourism activity is related to domestic travelers.  A rule of thumb says that if 50% from the tourism of a country is domestic, it provides a healthy balance in case of international economic volatility.

Anyways, it seems that the tourism authorities in Oman have all their homework done and more. They have just launched "Now is the time", a campaign to promote domestic tourism in off season periods like summer. Well done Ladies and Gentlemen! You might want to stop reading at this point as there will be nothing new for you inhere. (I secretly hope I am wrong).  I think this is a good start and certainly would be interested to see results. The private sector support is also impressive, see all the discounts they are willing to provide for residents.

There are a few other thoughts that might be considered as follow-ups:
--travel vouchers as employment benefit: this works in many countries as there are tax incentives in place to provide travel vouchers to employees as opposed to cash. Here the tax part would not work, but there are other ways to make employers (public and private) interested in providing such benefits to their employees. Since these vouchers can only be spent domestically it just boost internal demand. It is a no-brainer.
--ad an extra day to the week-end: in off peak periods most hotels and resorts are struggling  during weekdays and they are a bit relieved (from the pain of being empty) during week-end. A good way to partially mitigate this is to offer an extra night free for week-end guest. For resorts it generates extra food ad beverage revenues anyways and most people consume on site.
--extend campaigns to restaurants: eating out is much more present in local culture than local travel. Bank on that and combine the two. There can be days of the week (usually first or second day working day the week) when restaurants give huge, up to 50% discounts for hotel guests
--local travel is all about packaging and offering activities: having this in mind never advertise just a stay somewhere. A Muscatier is unlikely to travel to Salala to check out the city and the hotel. If it comes with 2 full days of activities in a package, it's a much easier decision.

And last but not least, since the ideas are there we might as well focus hard on the implementation. The proof is in the pudding, so monitoring the results of such campaigns and learning from their impacts is key. I cant' wait to see some public numbers on that. Celebrate your success!

Pictures from Celia Peterson, and Keith Sell