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

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The bigger picture

Recently I had a refreshing discussion with a friend about the economic prospects of Oman.  Since tourism is very much my area of interest I was obviously a bit biased, something that is occasionally reflected in this blog as well.  But I trust in the critical judgment of the readers.

On the back of this discussion I just thought it is wise to put things into perspective here as well.  The bottom line is: tourism is not and will never be an alternative to oil.  Not only for Oman, for any oil rich country!  Nor even UAE will be able to rely on tourism alone. So no matter how much effort and investment goes into the development of tourism, it should only be enough to create a very strong, albeit complementary sector in the range sectors giving the future backbone of economy (chemical, heavy industry, construction, services etc.)

Currently (2011) the GDP contribution of tourism in Oman is a total of 6.5% (including direct, indirect and induced spending).  All-in employment is 70,000 people (including the whole tourism supply chain. If we take only direct employment is 35,000). This is expected to increase by approximately 5% p.a. for the next 10 years.  So, no matter how hard we try (assuming all other things unchanged) it will never be significantly higher than 10-15% of GDP, which is pretty much the world average!!!  Yes, it is kind of depressing but it’s a fact.  Obviously as the oil revenues are decreasing the share of tourism can increase beyond this level, but it won’t make the overall pie bigger.

The only countries that can have significantly higher contribution of tourism to GDP are the island-type destinations like Maldives, Seychelles etc. In fact the mini states in the Caribbean have the highest share of tourism contribution to GDP in the World, in some cases amounting up to 70% all in, like the case of Maldives.

So what? Let’s just assume that there is massive planning work happening to prepare the economy for a post oil sustainability, the time when tourism will have to be ONE major source of income, but it cannot be THE major  one, as it will just simple not be enough.  With that said, I still love this sector and I think Oman and tourism can have a long lasting and fruitful marriage. But in order for that to happen the love affair has to start now.

Making peace with Time

What do you think Dali was inspired by when he came up with the melting clocks?

Only recently I came to appreciate the way most people in Oman relate to time. Westerners are raised to believe that time is money, and the quicker you are the better you are. Time is an essential measure for them.  They are always in a hurry and claim (or pretend) to be very time conscious.  I was puzzled initially and  only recently came to actually experience that here, quicker is not necessarily the better, and time efficiency is not always your best advisor.  Taking the time, “sleeping on it” could put things into better perspective and you end up taking a better decision (or end up not having to take one).  This obviously only works if there is a social acceptance of being slow, which in Oman is more or less there. If everybody around you is going crazy to get things done quickly you will not be appreciated to hold up things in the hope of a...more though-full  outcome.

With the service sectors and cost of labor gradually growing though, it will be interesting to see how this cultural norm is changing or prevailing.

One thing for sure, I think westerners should sometimes ask themselves if their way is really always the best way, given the bigger picture and the cultural context.  I think adapting (but not giving up) your views and routines to what you see and feel (!) around you is a far better way of achieving results, than  just exhibiting arrogance and labeling people (or even worst: groups of people) inefficient or lazy.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Summertime reminder for decision makers

Maybe it’s just me, but I have the impression that tourism professionals and developers in GCC are showing signs of revival. There is an increasing number of news hitting my inbox every day on new campaigns, promotions, packages, destination events, partnerships, new projects.  We all remember the years of new developments launched every week (obviously all of them intended to be sold out off plan) and how that changed with the nose dip of 2008/2009.  Perhaps now it is a good time to go back to the basics in rethinking what is to come next.

The lessons of the “concept-fireworks” showcased during the development race in GCC, (mainly in Dubai and Abu Dhabi) worth a reminder time and again. Having witnessed what was happening those days here’s what I would remind myself every morning before stepping into a spacious corner office anywhere in the region, if I were one of those decision makers.

Original originality is key:  and I don’t mean to hire the most expensive creatives in trying to build a kick ass brand for the water in your pool or the grass in the garden.   I mean do your homework in understanding what gives value to the destination, brainstorm around those ideas and focus on a result that is easy to differenciate. A concept that others – and not only you – think is special.  A good example is TheChedi. After so many years open, it still manages to remain a special destination hotel in a pretty average location.

The good old service: hospitality and tourism is so much more about service than anything else. And you don’t have to be an American to realized this.  Service = people, it’s not about the glitzy buidings or the adventure rides. It comes down to having the right people interacting with the travelers. They should be happy, motivated, genuin and obviously enjoing what they do. You can only achive this if you put effort and skills in selecting them, if you care about them, if you realize and also make them understand that they are your service.  I often hear executives saying  „you cannot work with these people by positive feedback and encouragement, they cannot be motivated, they only perform if they are kept under constant pressure...”   I completly disagree. It migh be harder than in another cultural environment, where foreign labour is not so dominant, but it’s possible. It just takes a bit of skills, experience and above all engagement.

Be yourself:  similar to people, destinations can only have personality if they focus on their strengths not trying to mime others. I think Abu Dhabi for example has still not figured out itself as something better than a toned down replica attempt of its neighbour. China is making massive mistakes on this front, but that is a very different story. Oman has natural attractions that nobody else has (or can replicate) in the region, focusing on those should always be kept at the core of its offering.

Engage locals:  there are no better advocates for a destination that those who grew up there but also understand where are you -as a traveler- coming from and what are you after.  By the simple fact of having only local taxi drivers, Oman has already achieved a huge differentiation in perception from the rest of the region. That should be taken to the next level now.

And the list goes on… All in all, Oman seems to have obvious advantages on the criteria above, hope these already are and will be better put in practice.