Interview: James Wilson

What role do you see for the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) segment in boosting the growth of tourism in Oman?

JAMES WILSON: The opening of the Oman Convention and Exhibition Centre (OCEC) is a huge step for the country. The convention centre, which is on par with any other across the globe, will be able to host 3200 people, with conference and banqueting facilities that have space for 4000. This has truly put Oman on the map.

However, a MICE industry is more than just a convention centre. When planning conferences and company retreats, many companies look for something unique, and Oman certainly offers this. The country has a deep cultural tradition, around 400 forts and castles, natural scenery and hiking opportunities in the wadis (valleys), as well as many other attractions. People are starting to realise that conventions and events are not just about the meetings themselves; they are also about the experience outside of those meetings.

For example, the Condé Nast International Luxury Conference will be held in Oman in April 2017, and for that conference we are developing a partner programme through which the attendees will be able to bring a companion that can explore the country while the conference is going on. On the hotel side, it has been proven that a successful MICE industry adds around 30% occupancy to hotels. With most hotels in Oman coming in at around 45% occupancy for the year, adding 30% to that would be a big boon to the industry.

How can more Omanis be encouraged to view hospitality as a viable career path?

WILSON: The Omanisation rate in the hospitality industry stands at around 38%, which is quite high compared to other countries in the region. Still, we can always do better. For a few years now, there has been a bit of a disconnect between the industry and education programmes, meaning that many times, the graduates of the country’s programmes did not have the skills and knowledge that the sector wanted. But this is now changing, and we will fine tune the Oman Tourism College, with an eye on what the industry currently requires, including a significant focus on on-the-job vocational training.

In terms of the mindset, I used to think that it would be a challenge to attract Omanis to the sector, but I now realise that this is not the case. Hospitality is a great sector for young people to start careers, and there are many cross-sector opportunities available in accounting, marketing and so forth. To continue attracting Omanis to the sector, we must ensure that our training programmes are exciting and innovative.

What can be done to further incentivise investment in hotel developments in the country?

WILSON: There are already a number of projects that will greatly increase Oman’s hotel offering in the near term. In the vicinity of the OCEC, there are already two hotels coming up for a combined 600 rooms. The feasibility study for the centre suggested that we need around 1200, so we are currently in negotiations to bring two more hotels to the area. We also have the 300-room W Hotel coming in Shatti Al Qurum, as well as numerous additional hotels in the works.

Still, the country needs to focus on expanding the amount and diversity of its current hotel portfolio. I do not think the country has seen a new five-star development in over 10 years. However, looking at current and proposed projects, I think we can expect a 70-80% increase in the five-star segment in the next few years, which will increase competition in the segment and likely bring down room rates.

Looking at the three- and four-star segment, we conducted a study recently and found that the segment is being undermined by a lack of branded hotels. Many times travellers are weary of staying in hotels they do not know, so we see a lot of opportunity for partnerships with international brands in the country.