The biggest problem facing Oman's meetings development is the lack of large-scale venues for corporate events - but that's all about to change.
Oman's Ministry of Tourism is looking to the future of the region's tourism industry and has targeted the meetings industry as a key growth area.
Oman Tourism has appointed market based representatives in Europe, the GCC and Asia Pacific to develop business into Oman and the meetings and incentives market is a very important part of the overall marketing objective, according to Mark Senior, director of Afkar Marketing Company, which represents Oman Tourism in the GCC.
The meetings and incentive market brings significant revenue to the hospitality industry from air transportation to hotels, resorts, meeting venues and local destination management companies (DMCs), he explains.
And in order to place Oman on the meetings and incentive map, the country has looked to increase its visibility in the marketplace through attending industry trade shows and working with the media.
"The Ministry of Tourism participates in most of the major business travel and meetings industry events; IMEX, EIBTM, GIBTM to name but a few," says Senior.
The Ministry has also sponsored a number of meetings aimed at attracting international events.
In 2005, Oman was host to the annual meeting for the UK's Guild of Travel Management Companies and in 2006 the Sultanate hosted the UK's Institute of Travel & Tourism Conference.
"Both of these events attracted key decision makers from the UK's [meetings] industry. Their feedback has helped the Ministry of Tourism refine its future strategy for the [meetings] sector and move ahead with projects which will enhance the Sultanate's capability to host even larger international events," Senior says.
It would appear that the proactive nature of Oman's marketing drive is paying dividends, with 2007 recording a 19% rise in visitor numbers staying in hotels compared to the figures of 2006, taking them to 1.4 million visitors in total.
However, there has been a problem holding back Oman from becoming a meetings destination of choice: "The current lack of large convention and exhibition facilities restricts the size of events that can be brought to Oman," Senior explains.
"The tourism, infrastructure is developed, the road network is good, the destination is easily accessible and hospitality services are of a high standard. We just need more of it in the future."
And this is precisely what is happening: the Omani Government is investing in a multi-million Rial project to build a state-of-the-art convention centre in Muscat, close to the existing facility, opposite Seeb International Airport.
Construction is scheduled to commence later this year and once complete, the facility will be able to seat more than 7000 people, making it one of the largest convention centres in the region.
"The project is expected to be completed in 2012 and as well as the convention centre, the facility will also house a large shopping centre, a four- and five-star hotel, as well as luxury serviced apartments," explains Senior.
"There is lots of interest from major event management companies and once the convention centre is developed, along with more hotels and resorts, then the business will definitely come.
Furthermore, the Omani Government has stipulated that all new major hotel and resort projects must have a range of services and facilities to cater to the future needs of the meetings and incentive sector, he adds.
Currently the meetings and incentives market represents around 20% of all tourism arrivals into Oman and the feedback from domestic tour operators and international meetings and events organisers, shows that the potential for the market in Oman is significant.
"With the right infrastructure in place, regional and international arrivals into Oman for [meetings industry] purposes could easily double over the next five years," says Senior.
And over the next five years, the number of available rooms in Oman will double from the current 8000 to around 16,000.
But tourism officials and the Omani government are keen to manage the growth of the infrastructure that will not damage Oman's unique selling proposition: "Real estate construction is heavily controlled ensuring that the environment is properly protected," Senior explains.
"The 310,000m² of land mass mean that the country offers a completely different visitor experience in the rugged, mountainous north, when the fjords remind you of being in Scandinavia to the sub-tropical south, where in Salalah, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in the Caribbean," Senior explains.
Mountain hikes, caving and mountain climbing more than 3000 metres above sea level are all popular activities with adventurous incentives groups, but Oman's tourism officials are now keen to offer responsible eco-tourism opportunities and these are now the focus of the country's future development.
"Omani people are visible everywhere and visitors interact with them in everyday life. A taxi from the airport would be driven by an Omani.
"Off the 1700kms coastline, visitors will experience some of the best diving in the world, great snorkelling and luxury dhow and yacht cruises," Senior says.
Owner of team and leadership-building company, Hud Hud Travel, Sean Nelson, is excited about the future of the meetings and incentive industry in Oman particularly when considering the amount of business already being generated.
"Oman is currently seeing an unparalleled level of investment from overseas and with it a huge influx of new businesses, opportunities and people," he says.
"These are exciting times in Oman and we feel that companies that make the effort to invest in their people will be the companies that maintain the business advantage and produce the competitive edge to stay ahead in an increasingly competitive market.
Nelson believes that once planners and agents are aware of the beauty that Oman offers as a backdrop to training and incentives and the exhibition centre is completed, corporates will flood into the region.
"Our hope is that companies and organisations will view Oman as a first choice venue for meetings and conferences, particularly in the light of the development of the Oman convention centre.
"Not only will the convention centre offer world class conference facilities, but in a country that offers real diversity, unspoilt beauty and a completely refreshing change," he concluded.
It is the ‘unspoilt beauty' and diverse environment that Nelson capitalises on when creating his development training packages, he explains.
"We operate all year round from our five-star camps, private villas or resort hotels in Oman and around the Gulf," he says.
"We also run more adventurous experiential activities, these are set in the mountains, deserts or sea of Oman and range from a day, to longer corporate expeditions.
One of the largest meetings and events venues in Oman is based at the Shangri-La's Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa.
The five-star resort, set in 124 acres of landscaped gardens, comprises three separate hotels, with a total of 640 guestrooms as well as restaurants, lounges, bars, a nightclub, an Omani heritage village, a marina, a diving centre and a 1000-seat open-air amphitheatre.
And according to assistant communications manager Christopher Chorus, the Sultanate has a great deal to offer the meetings and incentive market.
"Unlike its more commercial neighbours, Oman embodies the true essence and mystique of Arabia, being steeped in history and myth, from Sinbad the Sailor to the Queen of Sheba," he says.
"The dramatic mountains, vast deserts, imposing forts, crystal clear waters and a capital city that bustles with history make Oman a diverse tourism destination.
With direct flights from many cities in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, getting to the Sultanate has never been easier, and visa-on-arrival facilities are now available to citizens of more than 60 countries he adds.
With this in mind, the resort is looking to capitalise on its extensive meetings and business facilities.
"The 1,056m² Barr Al Jissah Ballroom, with a large pre-function area, can accommodate up to 850 guests for conferences or cocktail receptions," says Chorus.
The ballroom features state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment and an outdoor terrace that faces the beach offering 180 degree views of the ocean.
In addition to the ballroom, the resort offers eight function rooms which, in total covers more than 360m².
Furthermore, the hotel has seven additional meeting rooms complete with AV equipment, lighting support, wired and wireless high-speed internet access, various projectors and a simultaneous translation system available upon request.
It is also possible to take meetings and events outside as well as offering a range of activities for incentive groups or active break-out sessions according to Chorus.
"Outdoor receptions can be arranged on the resort's three private beaches and adjacent to the Heritage Village is the Al Midan Amphitheatre, with seating for 1000 people which is available for private and corporate functions.
"We can cater to groups seeking either adventurous thrills or rest and relaxation. The coastline and temperate waters are ideal for almost every type of water sport," he says.
Diving, deep sea fishing and dolphin and whale watching trips are all available from the resort's dive centre and marina or clients can take advantage of one the 12 treatment villas at CHI, The Spa at Shangri-La, Chorus adds.
It would appear that Oman's natural beauty, combined with the range of activities on offer and the eagerness of Oman's tourism officials and government to attract meetings industry business will hold the Sultanate in good stead for the future.
And once the conference facilities are completed, Oman will be looking to be a destination of choice for the meetings and incentives industry.
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