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)

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Evening entertainment for motor sports enthusiasts

People in the region find it easy to relate to cars and motor sports. They often get carried away by the spirit on public roads as opposed to dedicated venues. Well they aren't too many the argument would be.  Most certainly there is one at the Oman Automobile Association (AOO) headquarter opposite the airport in Seeb.

The recently renovated go cart track and racing center is well endowed and relatively well managed. The track is roughly a kilometer long with 10-12 versatile turns involving hairpins and long fast right handers as well. The carts are not new but in decent shape, perhaps they would need a bit more care here and there.

The Mini GP package that I participated in, replicates the exiting ambiance of a car race, with qualifying sessions followed by 2 races of 11 laps. If you don't have enough buddies to convince to join you for a race (between 8 and 12 is ideal), you can just show up and do some practice laps with whoever else is on the track at that time.  The full package of RO. 250 involves renting the track and the carts for one hour for up to 12-15 people (RO. 20-30 per person). If you show up individually it would be slightly less.

Strict safety rules are in place and the course marshals make sure they are followed, which is somewhat reassuring.

I personally think there is still a lot of unexplored potential in this facility, and many things can be improved to maximize its potential, but overall its a great attraction that is perhaps currently underrated. It is also a great venue for team building or similar corporate events.
So I suggest every interested motorist  put its  skills at test there instead of the roads. You can book on the OAA website.

Well done OAA, looking forward seeing similar facilities in the area, like I mentioned some time ago

Thursday, 1 August 2013

A very good investment for Oman

A bit of an unusual post for this blog, but these thoughts were chasing me for some time.

There is a lot of talk and some actions as well on strengthening the employment in the private sector, enhancing the SMEs, creating an Omani labour force that will play a major role in the sustainability of a non-oil economy. This is all good and encouraging. There is one aspect thought, that - in my view - will have a massive impact on the future of the country and that is parenting.  Education and pedagogy as an activity carries a major paradox that of trying to prepare kids for the future, a future that is unknown for the educators themselves.  Parenting is somewhat similar.  We are all trying to educate our kids for their 20s, 30s 40s and beyond; not really knowing what will be challenges they will face in 10, 20 or 30 years time.

One thing for sure, we as parents have a window of 10 to 14 years when we can set the grounds for the development of their personalities.  After that the high school friends, the sports club buddies, coaches, often the boarding school teachers abroad, or the street ‘gangs’ themselves are the educators with most of the influence. All we can do is follow the events and give an opinion eventually try to intervene when things go off track, or we think they do.  In some cases we are very vocal in expressing our opinion in some others we try to be more persuasive given explanations and examples, but no matter what we think, our teenage kids will still consider it just an opinion. The last time I remember really taking away my parents advice I was around 10-12.  But is not just our communication with the kids, and the pieces of wisdom we want them to remember, it’s the whole experience of home, spending time with Mummy or Daddy. Seeing how they relate to each other, how they solve a conflict (do they solve it of just swipe it under the carpet), how they encourage their child. The patience they show and the trust they put in their development. The determination to curb things that are seen as wrong and the creativity of enforcing the good. There is a whole range of situational and contextual information that shapes their personalities and values.

Now this might seem all boring parenting textbook, but here’s the thing.  Most families are heavily relying on nannies, or even worst, maids that are asked to work as nannies. Now think of all these aspects above in the context of being raised by a nanny that unfortunately more often than not is just doing a job.  An underpaid, under motivating, often frustrating job. She cannot behave as a parent for obvious reasons, she is not a mere baby sitter as a full time nanny, and often times she has her own child back home.  Therefore a whole generation could grow up under a very loose and particular parenting environment. A generation the country will have to rely on.

I don’t really know what is the solution to this, but parenting in Oman  - and everywhere else for that matter - definitely needs more investment.  Investment from the scarcest resource 21st century people have: time.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Small ideas to boost the urban appeal of Muscat

The perception of a city is influenced by many factors such and transport and traffic, cleanness, architecture, green areas.  One of the most important factors is a general visual appeal of public areas and their suitability for leisure use. This stands for shopping streets, walking areas, parks, squares/piazzas and terraces.

While the first impression and appeal of Muscat and its mountainous backdrop is not bad, it can be significantly improved by some projects that could be considered along the current major infrastructure spending. Here are a few ideas:

Qurum beach & the “Love road” –  Qurum beach needs a general re-thinking and a revamp. Period.
I am not only thinking about replacing the corroded hay umbrellas and cleaning up the beach.  It is the most centrally located beach. The rocky bay on the right it confers a dramatic and interesting feel. Unfortunately the whole ares just does not connect organically to the city. The public which rather drives around at 5km/h on the beach road then take possession of the space and populate it for leisure activities. Would be an exciting master planning exercise to solve this disconnect and create an active beachfront along the so called “Love Road”. Some ideas would be to activate the lower level of the beach along the road for pedestrian access, creating some bays that are accessible by stairs from the road. The other would be to minimize the traffic there and create more pedestrian areas on the "bridge".  The creation of two main attractions on both ends of the road could activate the areas in between. There could be water features and/or small squares with benches, public space furniture etc. Using the marshlands behind the coffee shops as a paddling lake can also add some appeal to the area.

Shatti Al Qurum shopping area – The area between Oasis by the Sea and Jawarat al Shatti is very popular with locals and tourists alike. It is almost the place you want to be on a mild breezy evening, to have a coffee, ice cream or just a walk on the beach. There is so much additional potential in that area which could be unlocked by just moving the parking out towards the tennis courts. (Maybe a -1+2 level parking house could be considered.) The space created could be converted in a blend of green and paved areas for restaurant terraces, water features, and space for events and entertainment.

Mutrah Cornishe - is another main attractions of the city which yet has to step up from its past. Again a higher emphasis could be given to pedestrian areas (car traffic can be reduced significantly, eventually diverted trough a road at the back of the Souq). A more uniform and nicely designed retail outlet signage that is better suited to the architecture of the area could give a major boost to the appeal of this strip. In fact the signage issue could be a nice project on its own applicable for the whole city.

[On a side note I have just seen at the Muscat Hills Caddie Shack two terribly looking Ruwi like signage boards indicating ‘Coffee Shop’ above the entrance to the restaurant and Sports ‘Equipment Retailer’ over the entrance to the Pro Shop. Apparently it’s a municipal rules.  I know the Caddie Shack is all temporary but I’d like to see what Intercontinental will have to say when the hotel will be ready and they will want to put this signage on the new clubhouse.]

Seeb cornishe – another totally underutilized area, which massive catchment areas and already high traffic.

Urban master planning is a complicated discipline but there is plenty of expertise available among the engineering and design consultancies present in ME.  It’s time for the city to take this to a next level.

PS: If you can think of any similar public space, which once improved could have a massive impact on the appeal of the city, drop it in the comments. Thanks.

Pictures are sourced from: Tripadvisor, Maqwa on Fotki and Andy in Oman

Monday, 10 June 2013

How hot is the Omani hot?

Oman is clearly a highly seasonal destination. Most hoteliers would consider May, June, July and August the worst to overcome and then November, December, January and February being the months to milk for the austerity of the summer.

We are not alone with this pain; most of the region is struggling with the same problem. In fact there are very few destinations equally strong year round, at least when it comes to leisure demand.  Some mountain destinations can achieve that combining winter sports (skiing, snowboarding etc.) with summer outdoor activities (tracking, hiking, mountain biking etc.).  In terms of offering a consistently nice weather throughout the year, very few destinations have the luxury like the Caribbean has.

So what are the obvious practices for extending the hotel / tourism season in Oman?  Gradually increasing discounts, the +1 packages (nights for free or additional person for free, or kids for free).  The special targeted offers and packages like detox or diet packages, body and mind programs that place the draw card from the weather and the outdoors into the indoors and the program that is offered.

But it would be too easy to say that by applying these we have done everything. In fact the one and only main negative perception that any attraction/destination in Oman has to fight is the “unbearable, unpleasant” weather.  And that is something the country promotion could support.  After having lived here for a few years, I am not saying summer is pleasant (although this year so far was quite generous), but I think the MidEast including Oman, had the misfortune of being stigmatized with an underrated weather. Probably working to soften  this stereotype will not result in people showing up in Oman in the middle of August, but could refine a bit their attitude. Just think of when you have a chat over the phone with anybody from Europe of North America, it is almost a rule that they will express some compassion for you bearing that “extraordinary heat”.  In reality many other touristy areas are almost comparably hot to Oman, but people rarely think of them as such.

Let’s have a look of a quick weather benchmark for today (June 10, 2013):
  • Muscat: 30 (feels like: 38), Clear and humid
  • India, Goa:  28 (33), Rain and mist
  • Pukhet, Thailand: 30 (36), Light Rain
  • Seychelles: 27 (31), Sunny
  • Maldives: 31, (44), Partly cloudy
  • Colombi, Sri Lanka: 31 (39), Partly sunny
  • Caribbean (the Bahamas, Georgetown): 29 (35), Sunny to partly cloudy
  • Hawai, Honolulu: 31, (31) Partly cloudy
Souce: AccuWeather

Wow, it is not as bad as I instantly thought.  If I was to priorities country marketing money, probably I would not fight frontally the perception of the country being a furnaces. What I could certainly consider though, is loading an app on the Oman tourism website which benchmarks the Omani weather (maybe the one in Muscat and the one on Jebel Ahkdar or Jebel Shams) against the usual suspects of mainstream overseas leisure (sun and sea) destinations.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Service, service, service: selecting the right ones

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” M.Gandhi

Travelers, and generally those who pay (own) money for any kind of travel related service, expect value. Value in what they see, feel and learn. It’s really down to these three things.

Landscapes, breathtaking views, stunning interiors, inspiring monuments, fascinating traditions and cultural artifacts can do a whole lot to attract tourism, but cannot do it all. They are the hardware of the destination, the preconditions of tourism, but service is what enables them to create economic value. The service is the software. And as is with software it is more prone to bugs, flaws and mistakes.  Hospitality unfortunately is more about service than anything else. It's a whole lot about  how you felt while there. There are tons of good and bad examples of how service can make or break a business in tourism.  I have included here are just a few ideas, and tips to help SELECT, TRAIN and RETAIN your best service people.

Does he really mean it?
I take the risk of stating: good service cannot be learned by anybody. Period.  There are types of personalities that would never be able to serve at quality levels. They are just not meant to make others feel good, always, under any circumstances. They don't like to care and think love of others is a weakness.  There are others who have the right personality fundamentals to serve. They are empathetic, attentive, quick, they know how to listen (and not just pretend), they have decent memory, they are creative, have good humor, they are extroverted and just love people. They get their energy from others and not from themselves.

So the better you are able to select those who have these fundamentals, even if they have never worked in a service job, the better off you are. One can save months of frustration and lost business by avoiding hiring service people who are not meant to serve by design. They typically have very high level of self-confidence and esteem, are impatient and impulsive, they often prefer conflict over compromise, they like to take the bull by the horn, they are critical and skeptical by nature etc. They can be great at many other important things but not at service. Let them strive in areas where they can excel and save them buy the misery of pretending to serve.
There is whole science (preached by expensive consultants and usually practiced with major flaws) of best selecting your employees, but at the end of the day it is an art. That of reading a personality and understanding if it fits in your team or not.  Here are some tips that might work: ask the applicant to rearrange the seating in the interview room, or to serve the coffee for themselves. Watch they way they relate to you, to details. Ask them to show you the way to the bathroom, or to explain you the shortest way out from the building, etc. etc. These are situations, where facial expression, gestures, style and approach to helping the other are reviled. It won’t tell you who is the best to hire, but if you have the right feelers, it helps you avoid disasters and save time.

I am not saying anything new by the fact that Oman does have a huge potential in the fundamentals of tourism, but it has to come a long, long way in service. Combining the genuine friendliness and helpfulness of Omanis with consistency and promptness of service will yield the desired results.

Any similar ideas to share? Some more to come on training and retention soon.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Wadi Shab Resort II. - ideas for the concept

I have finally seen the Wadi Shab Resort during the last week-end.  My assumptions shared earlier turned out to be fairly accurate. I found the location and the views just great so I thought to put down some ideas (not all) that with minimal extra costs can do some more justice to this place. This is not really a visitor review (it is meant to be more for hoteliers and/or owners) but is does offer some info for you if you are interested in spending a relaxing week-end there.

Entrance (below) and some ideas (above)
The hotel has a great LOCATION, stunning sea views and good visibility from the road. It is practically impossible to miss as you drive south, unless you are sleeping.  They have also done a good job with road signage along the way from both directions: Muscat and from Sur. You have multiple signs indicating the decreasing distance until the hotel.
They have recently updated the imagery on their website, which is much better than it was before.  The building nicely blends into the environment but the finishing of the structures though is not meant to have a very long life.  (They better start allocating a replacement reserve by now.)

The steep slip road leading up to the ENTRANCE from the highway is not completed yet, but ironically, the dark red color of the gravel it confers an interesting visual factor with some sense of arrival. This sense of arrival however vanishes as soon as you park your car and head to the gate.  There is a whole lot that can be done here to improve that experience and impress the guests. Plants in pots and some landscaping could already achieve a lot. A real extra would be to put some stone carved imagery (like on the Cornish) on the barren wall facing the parking depicting the main attractions you can visit reach in the area (Wadi Shab, Tiwi, White Beach, Sink Hole, Sur etc.).
wilder ideas (above) and the current

The SIGNAGE within the resort is unfortunately not as good as the roadside one. These signs lack originality and they are often misplaced. Having a set of creative well designed (perhaps poled) signs would result in a greatly improved visual and visitor experience.

The RESTAURANT has a boat themed terrace which I found interesting and creative. With an absolutely stunning sea view it does give you an impression that you are on the deck of a boat. The details could be further enhanced by furniture and related decorative objects but the concept is good.

The ROOMS are a bit small for a resort but still manageable. The view of each unit from outside and especially their terrace could be enhanced perhaps by hanging some plants or similar.

The POOL is relatively nice and it even has a small wading pool on the side for toddlers. A (partial) shade would improve the pool experience especially in hot season. There is a small playground as well but it needs some soft pavement, maybe even artificial grass over it to make it more enjoyable and safe.

The terraces (above) and ideas to enhance them
For its 34 rooms, it has a relatively large OUTSIDE AREA, a large part of it steeply sloping toward the beach, which is not really used for anything. It is rocky and rough but a couple of nice patios could be set up further down closer to the beach, for watching the sunrise, or just have a relaxing hour in the shade listening to the waves.  With a smart design it could also be used for barbecues in the evening.  The fence around the property, especially from the beach looks a bit overdone. It resembles more of urban or industrial fencing than a resort one. I don’t think there are many intruders in the region especially interested in a property with constant surveying.  Just lowering it and changing the wire fence into some friendlier material or design would do a great deal (if not taking it away altogether).   Also adding more plants on the terraced area (I know it’s costly to maintain and replace) will change  the rugged exterior into a more friendly one adding more life to the place.
The nice restaurant terrace (left) ideas to enhance (right)
In terms of ACTIVITIES within the resort, there is a whole lot more that can be done, such as: water sports (banana pull, water ski, kayaking, etc), animated programs for kids (during week-end), cooking workshops for quests etc. etc.  I assume this will come with time and an increasing request from the guests. The place is also a nice hub for a number of daytrips in the region, so local guides could also find this an opportunity. Wadi Shab, Wadi Tiwi, Sink Hole, Ras al Jinz, Sur dhow yards, Dhayqha Dam, and many more are all under or around 80km.

As for the interiors…I have no idea, but as OPNO mentioned before, the place could certainly help a creative eye with some Omani affinity and a modest but reasonable budget.

I know this is intended to be a mid market hotel, so we cannot expect a whole lot but the overall experience and subsequently the occupancy and the revenues can be enhances significantly by a similar thinking to that of above.
Idea for beach patio and maybe grill area

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Is there any impact of the week-end shift on tourism in Oman?

Every major policy decision has a macroeconomic impact.  These impacts can be modeled fairly accurately.  Econometrics uses the so called input output tables to quantify the impact of certain decisions.  Such modeling can be applied to assess for instance the cost benefits of hosting the Olympics in a city, that of introducing VAT or other taxes, or the impact of a visa policy on tourism. The macroeconomic implications of changing the week-end from Thursday Friday to Friday Saturday can also be assessed.  If you have the right economic and statistical data, by applying a proper modeling it is actually possible to estimate the increase/decrease of total economic output, that of the GDP and job creation as well.
I am sure there have been a lot of considerations given to the recent week-end change and the benefits far out weight the costs especially in the context of SMEs and job creation in the private sector.

Let’s have a lighter look on the possible impacts on tourism and the hotel sector in Oman.  It is important to note that I have not performed any input-output modeling on this; therefore I am not in the position to give any quantitative impacts.  My intention is only to identify some soft considerations. It remains to be seen if they will turn valid or not on the short and medium term. Perhaps some entrepreneurs and hoteliers can work towards making full use of the advantages and mitigate the potential draw backs.

1. The yielding week-end: from May 1st there will not be a spread of domestic week-end demand for hotels between Thursday-Friday and Saturday. Leisure demand will peak on Friday and Saturday creating more occupancy on these days and the ability for hoteliers to drive (increase) the rate and yield better. This logic will apply for short haul airlines fairs as well, more people wanting to travel at the same time. (+)

2. Busier Dubai: Perhaps by having the same week-end we won’t experience a calm-working-day-Dubai on Thursdays any more. This perhaps will encourage some people to spend the week-end at a domestic destination as opposed to up in the “city of life”. (+)

3. More alignment with sender markets: I know tourism and especially hotels are a 24/7 business but still, sales and marketing teams, agencies etc. are having their regular working hours. With the new week-end they will be able to work one more day in line with the agencies of the main European sender markets of Oman. This would have some positive impact in service and perhaps in volume as well. (+)

4. Less net holidays: By aligning the private and public sector holidays, at least based on recent articles, public sector workers will benefit from less statutory days off than before. This could have a negative impact on domestic tourism, hence local hotels restaurateurs.  This impact could be slightly balanced off by the foreign corporate hotel demand on those working days which initially were holidays. (-)

5. More Omanis in tourism sector: Another one on the positive side would be the initial intention of the measure, namely to present private sector jobs as more competitive and to attract more local labor to such businesses, like hotels. (+)

6. The one extra day when shifting: a once off benefit would have to do with “transition Thursday” being a day off which could result in a slight positive impact for domestic tourism, balanced off to some extent by less hotel demand from corporate guests on that particular day.

Overall I estimate the shift will not have a massive impact on tourism and hotels, but if any it will have more positives than negatives.
Any other consequences you can think of?

Picture source, slightly modified.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Trends in hotel design

It seems developers are back at flirting with hotel developments again. Since hotels are perceived as riskier investments than other commercial real estate (reflected in their pricing), a renewed appetite is good sign of positive investor expectations towards real estate. With an increasing number of projects on the design board, I thought to share some of my thinking regarding what could be the new trends in hotel design. Take this as loud thinking and by no means a crystallized trend analysis.

--In the remote past hotels were places of status, appeal and glamour. The Bristols’, the Continentals’, the Astorias’, the Savoys are all hotel names that resonate with luxury, white gloved butlers, massive chandeliers and huge rooms. Interestingly enough these names are not affiliated brands. They just exist as traditional hotel names used by local hoteliers. At the time there was little functionality involved in the design. It was all the exclusive look and feel that mattered.

--In the recent past, with the increase of mobility, hotel design was more about a combination of functionality and recreating the home feel.  Some used to argue though, that travelers are not looking for something that is ‘home away’ but for better or at least different. Right or wrong it seems that trend wise we have already put this behind.
--The most recent efforts were about combining the experience (how I feel while there?) and motivation (why am I there?) driven design, and the attempt to create the best of both. Think of the business hotels tailored to corporate traveler’s needs, or the kids friendly hotels, family resorts focused on an all including coherent experience.  Emergence of chic or hip hotel brands or collections like DesignHotels, W, Aloft, Andaz, MGallery, or Morgans, etc. all focused on the lifestyle and the wow feel of spaces, often (not always) compromising on the functionality. Then the fashion brands extensions came along with Armani, Bvlgari and Missoni hotels which I mainly see as mere branding exercises rather than any substantial change in the fundamentals of hotel design.

For the short term future I don’t think there is a whole new school of thought taking shape (if you know of any please share). What I see more is that there are increasing efforts in keeping up with the changes in life and consumption habits of people. Hotels are trying to become very high tech in their distribution, appearance and experience offered.  The lifestyle features (mainly interior design related) are reinvented and recreated in an ever changing brand and trend context but the basic fundamentals (like the bad, breakfast, bathroom etc.) have not been addressed. Here are a few thoughts that do suggest some concepts are being re-thought and we might see them spreading out in the hotel world:

//Living lobby – recreating the lobby as a living room, a multi-use space for casual talks, short informal meetings, logging into conf calls, or just work on your an ipad or notebook. Most of these activities all go beyond a couch and a coffee table. They require small bays, more intimate corners, visual barriers that segment the space, tables with varying height, sockets everywhere,  etc. and above all much personality, though design but also through service.

//Light on lighting – There is no traveler on earth that has not been annoyed by the light controls in a rooms. There is a typical case of less is more. Having 3-4 predefined lighting schemes (e.g. lounge/reading mode, office/desk mode, TV mode and full on/off) would just do a perfect job and spare you of playing piano on the light switchboard.

//Big Bed Small Room - Bed is an essential feature of hotels, but it takes up most of the space in the room, at least in the mid scale, economy hotels. We should find ways of using the space above the bed, during the day. Weather it's a temporary roll-in desk, pressing board, storage shelf, or other, I sense opportunities there. I have not seen solutions other than the folding bed that might be a compromise on the quality of the bed itself.

//Kitchen breakfast – Breakfast is essential part of the hotel experience, more than the fine dining that most luxury or upscale properties offer. But since the buffet concept, there hasn't been any revolutionary improvement on that front. The response on the need for business breakfasts was also quite slow, or non-existent.  Having more flexible breakfast areas with several smaller kitchen-islands, including a small bar stool and chairs could add a fresh feel and way people have breakfast. It would also make the process a bit more fun and interactive.

Day Dining – staying at the food subject, lobby bar food typically sucks.  The whole lobby bar space should be rethought moving away from the cocktail and coffee space clichés and make it more integrated with the lobby and it’s diversity and multifunctionality.

//Top to toe – There is always room to improve on the use of space from rooftop to basement of the hotels. There are quite some properties with rooftop bars or pools, but less so with extensions of executive lounges, or meeting rooms. Or even just a small garden for a newspaper or a coffee. Obviously sound considerations should apply. Basements can also do much more than just a bar, or a club. Parking coupled with value ad services like car cleaning, etc can offer a good yield as well.

//TapTrip – It is not strictly design related, but the tablet/smartphone experience of hotels is also swiftly changing. We are not far from the online check-in solutions (airlines have it for a decade now), and the touch your phone room key either. But that’s a whole other subject…

Monday, 11 March 2013

Wadi Shab Resort

New hotel supply on the horizon.  In fact, much closer than that as one can already book a room in the new Wadi Shab Resort, say for the coming week-end. It's a small, 34-room resort type hotel next to Tiwi just off Wadi Shab, hence the obvious name association.

I have not seen the hotel up and running yet, just did a bit of digging on the web. Having been in the area a few times, I was trying to get an initial feel of what the product could or should be.
Well the good news is the strong local entrepreneurial spirit triggering a new venture on tourism, in a rural area. It is still striking how few facilities are in the catchment of such a wonderful place like Wadi Shab and Tiwi. Now at least we have a nice hotel that can be used as a basis for some star day trips in the area or use it as a stopover for traveling further south. Or just to spend a couple of days on the beach away from the city and not having to compromise on your sleep.

The less good news is, that while the place is magnificent, the new hotel does not seem to show much originality, personality or unique touch. It does not seem to capture the feel and essence of the area: a blend of calm and pristine coastal and a wild, rough mountain feel. But then again, let’s stay positive. Maybe it’s a bit too early, maybe the photography on the web page can be improved a bit. A lot of the offering can also be shaped as we go.  Maybe the kitchen will be a main drawcard. As we know, in Oman a strong cuisine can make guest forget about many other issues and have them leave with a smile on their face. 

So I urge you to go and try it out, and maybe let us  know how did you find it. (Btw. they should also register the hotel on tripadvisor). In any ways I wish the owners good luck and success in their business. As it looks now they have quite good chances to do very well in the week-ends and will have to run for their money during week-days.

Side note:
Some say it’s bad that the tourism developments in Oman have not been undertaken at a bolder pace. This maintained a more pristine and traditional feel of the tourism landscape, as opposed to a shadow of the volume driven strategies of our neighbors. Some others are proud of this traditional feel and a bit underdeveloped status. Either way, the country is increasingly popular among international travelers and efforts are also being undertaken to finally encourage the domestic tourism. This coupled with the vacuum in quality offering, especially in the countryside, gives Oman the opportunity to leapfrog a trial and error type organic growth and focus on a smarter process. That is consciously controlling what is built in the context of a clear vision.  To have a strategy of what do we want and what we do not want. (They will always be more of the latter. Any strategy has more losers than winners in the short term.)  Entrepreneurial thinking is good for Oman, but leaving it all on it is not yet advisable.  Expressing a vision, encouraging, guiding and supporting entrepreneurs it is!  In one word to plan!  To master plan!  Tourism and land planning decision makers will never have the (relatively) clean sheet of paper they have now. Let's rehears the lessons learnt and plan. And If we think we already do plan, well that's good, then let's try to improve. There is always room for that.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Most popular Omani blogs

It's been a while since I posted. No excuses, just travel, work and lack of inspiration.

A fellow blogger and social media professional (if there is such a term) Maurizio, who is running the Omani Collective Intelligence blog on social media and PR issues in Oman, has recently posted an updated ranking of Omani blogs.

I was pleasantly surprised to see Omanly qualifying as 19th on the list of 46. Given that I usually cover a rather narrow set of topics and my posting intensity is more or less in line with the pace of life in the Sultanate, I am proud of this result.

Thanks all of you for your interest. In case you work in a tourism related area and find anything  relevant inhere, and more over, you perhaps can even use it in your work, well then I have certainly achieved my goal.

The season is soon over, with a bit of well deserved rest to come for everybody. Once this is done, let's shake up the brain cells and come up with fresh new things to make this country excel in originality and appeal of its tourism offering.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Making the most out of cruisers

We are well into the cruise ship tourist season. In case you take a walk on the Mutrah Cornish practically any time between 9am and 4pm you'll most probably meet holidaymakers anchored in Muscat for the day.

Hotel operators and owners don’t really like cruise liners as they are huge  floating hotels that don’t bring any value guests for them. With quite a few of  these ships having around 1000 cabins (some have 1500) they typically carry between 1000 and 2500 passengers.  No wonder retailers and museums have a different take on this than local hoteliers. The volume these cruise liners create for them can amount up to hundreds of additional clients/guests per day. In 2011 these floating villages have disembarked close to 250,000 visitors in Oman.
Due to their very short length of stay and the fact that they are fully served on the ships, it is very difficult for any destination to squeeze value out of this transient traffic.
But due to their shier size the industry should focus more in finding ways to cater for these guests. Here are a few ideas:
  • Visitor center for the Al Alam palace and Mirani Fort: there are practically hundreds of visitors daily walking around the palace and its parade square without the opportunity to get any insight into this impressive attraction. While recognizing that public access (even if limited) might not be an option, a visitor center perhaps presenting the story of the Royal Family and the development of the modern Oman would be something relevant.
  • Rethinking of the food and retail offering of Mutrah Cornish and Souk.  Like I said before, there is a lot more that can be done in that front, especially in terms of Omani cuisine.
  • SQ Port area regeneration: to my knowledge a comprehensive re-conceptualization of the port is under way with various versions of a new master plans exiting. It is still unknown (at least to the public) when this is going to materialize. A truly leisure centric regeneration concept with restaurants, cafes, fish market and carefully selected retail outlets (not to jeopardize the offering of the Mutrah Souk) could open up more the purses of these travelers.
  • “Truly Arabian show” – a dance and musical hour show around a regional legend or similar topic, focused on artistically showcasing parts of the Arabian culture or history. It could be performed late afternoons at a suitably converted location in Mutrah area
  • Lastly a crazier one: cable car to a panoramic viewpoint in Muscat. Could be coupled with a restaurant as well. Using up the natural assets of the city and its surroundings, this feature would be a unique feature in the region.
Even if these attractions would not always yield a high return on investment, the impression given to these short stay visitors would convert them into international advocates of Muscat as a must see destination. I would not underrate that.

Photo: Sebastian Abbot/The Associated Press

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Jabal Akhdar Resort delayed

It seems there is no magic around hotel development in Oman. The much expected Alila Jabal Akhdar Resort developed by Omran  is announced to be delayed with a year. A 90 days extension was awarded based on a variation order for construction of an additional building. As of January 2013 the project is above 50% completion. Expected opening is  Q4 2014 as opposed to Q4 2013.

I was on my way of getting exited on the push this property would give to the domestic tourism, when this news reminded me of the coded mismatch between planning and realization in this part of the world.

Anyways, given the relatively short delay, I thought would still worth having a look at the proposed concept. Alila is a Singapore based small hotel operator and brand. Their proprieties are promoted as luxury hotels and seem like a lighter version of the more established Aman Resorts. I have never been at any of their six properties (two in Bali, two in Jakarta, one in Bangalore and Goa) but have looked on the reviews the corporate website and checked some of the pricing. This property is planed as a 78  86-room luxury hotel with extensive spa and relaxation offering along with a cliff-side restaurant and pool. Alila was selected as a strategic partner for Omran, as they expressed interest in also managing other future properties in Oman.

I hope it will not cost too much Omran to get Alila run their hotel, as I see little value in having such a brand on this particular property targeting primarily the local and regional market.  Generically I would say you are better off with your own brand rather then going for an expensive international operator when most of the following conditions apply: 
  • your location is just great and it pretty much sells itself,
  • you have relatively easy access to your sender markets, though own channels or online travel agents (like etc.)
  • you don't have much competition in terms of rate, your product is clearly higher in value proposition, and last but not least
  • when you cannot afford an international operator (intl' brand affiliation is an expensive operating cost and can pretty much kill your profits).
Looking at the above, it seems to me that a well construed own brand would make just about the same work or better than Alila would. Of course with a proper management and sales channels in place to address the local and regional markets.
I guess we will have to wait and see.

After posting the above I have been informed by Omran's communication people that some of the information above was not accurate. I was sourcing the factual data from publicly available articles and websites. While I tend to double check what I quote and always link the references, I cannot possible verify the accuracy of these sources. That being said I thank Omran for their clarifications and interest in this blog, and have amended my post to reflect the new information received.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Vocational job creation

So here we are in 2013.  Sure with lots of plans, hopes and resolutions.

Just saw that the government aims to create 56,000 jobs forOmanis this year:  36,000 in the public sector (of which 20,000 in military) and 16,000 in the private sector. Wow! That’s over 1000 freshmen every week of the year.  There is certainly a challenge in the volume and also the relatively short period over which they have to be achieved. One might think this will not encourage quality in the selections.
Perhaps on the longer term, some more consideration could be also given to the qualitative, vocational aspects of job creation.  It is hard to believe that all those 20,000 who will be newly employed by the military, do see their carriers as soldiers or support staff. Perhaps a lot of them yes but more likely not most of them.
May sound a bit like leapfrogging some stages of labor market development, but I think employers should have an increasingly vocational perspective towards new hires. Even when it comes to quotas.  Asking people why they are going for that job should not only be a checklist interviewing question. Add on  how do they imagine a day work in that position looks like, and what they see themselves doing in five years, and you’ll pretty quickly get all parts of the puzzle.

There is nothing more disappointing than seeing a service person hating his/her job. Especially in the hospitality and tourism related service areas. It’s not only about service level and quality. It’s also about the sustainability of employment figures. Those people forced in their jobs, sooner or later will feel frustrated and quit, or survive day by say doing a crappy job and discouraging others who might like what they do and want to be good at it. The labor market does not really work on a meritocratic basis (at least not for the Omanis) and in most of the cases, if you have the nerves you can hold onto a position for quite some time without really excelling at it, to say the least. As a result you would be better trying to choose something that you feel some vocational call for.  Assisting youngsters in a vocational job selection is something would do a lot of good in this country. A combination of high school programs and more conscious hiring practice would certainly yield results in the medium to long term.

The other extreme is having your hobby as your job and be lucky enough to a make a good living out of it. Where are you on the scale…?