New convention centre puts Oman on the world MICE tourism stage

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With the Oman Convention and Exhibition Centre (OCEC) due to open in 2016, the sultanate is taking a major step forward in establishing its position on the regional and global map for meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE). Oman lies within seven hours flying time of around 50% of the world’s population, a geographical advantage that MICE professionals in the sultanate hope to leverage.

New Beginnings

While historically the MICE segment has tended to be dominated by European and North American venues – with Asia a rising challenger – in recent years, the Gulf region has been increasing its share of the global market. Though precise figures are difficult to obtain, with many MICE travellers arriving on tourist visas, a 2014 Strategy& report states that between 2009 and 2012, the GCC saw an average 5% annual growth in the number of people travelling to the region for business.

In April 2015, Bloomberg estimated the value of the GCC MICE market at around $1.3bn. The UAE is the leading contributor, according to Euromonitor, which stated in May 2015 that the UAE MICE market was worth around $653m per year.

The GCC total is a small fraction of the worldwide MICE market, however, which the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) estimated at $2.25trn in 2014. This means there is plenty of room for growth, particularly as MICE revenue tends to be strongly correlated with a country’s trade. With the GCC continuing to grow in this respect in recent times, on the back of the expansion of the construction, oil and gas, and financial sectors, Oman also looks set for a period of long-term major MICE growth.

While the Strategy& report shows that as recently as 2012 the sultanate received as few as 100, 000-120,000 business travellers, international attention and improvements to tourist infrastructure are positioning Oman for a rapid increase in MICE visitors. These elements are catalysts for real growth in Oman.

Passenger throughput at Muscat International Airport (MIA) in July 2015 alone stood at 863,636, with 103,497 more arriving and departing at Salalah. The sultanate has also been engaged in a concerted campaign to boost the profile of its MICE sector, spearheaded by the flagship development of the OCEC.

The OCEC will be a 10-minute drive from MIA, and involves a complex of buildings centred on a two-tiered auditorium with seating for up to 3200 people. Some 22,000 sq metres of column-free exhibition space will be on offer, as well as 14 meeting rooms with capacity for 70-360 visitors each. There will be two ballrooms, each capable of seating up to 2360 guests, along with a VIP pavilion, a food court and car parking for up to 4000 vehicles. The OCEC has US Green Building Council LEED certification, and AEG Ogden will operate the venue. In addition, the OCEC complex will offer three-, four- and five-star hotels, along with serviced apartments, amounting to a total of 1000 rooms for MICE visitors.

In February 2015 the construction contract for the third package of the development – which involves the construction of the conference centre itself – was awarded to a joint venture between Shapoorji Pallonji Mideast and Oman Shapoorji Company, while Barwan Contracting won the award for constructing a JW Marriot at the complex and Larsen & Turbo Oman have the contract for a Crowne Plaza. The first phase of the construction process is expected to be completed no later than 2017.

The OCEC will be represent a valuable asset for growing MICE in the sultanate, which up to now has relied on the facilities on offer at Oman’s four- and five-star hotels and resorts.

Existing Base

Indeed, the five-star Al Bustan Palace Hotel was built in response to the need to accommodate a GCC summit in 1985. A Ritz-Carlton establishment, Al Bustan boasts the 1204-sq-metre Majan Ballroom, capable of seating up to 1200 people, and an auditorium for up to 628. A selection of other meeting rooms is also available.

Also in operation since 1985 is the Oman International Exhibition Centre (OIEC). Located 35 km from Muscat city centre and just 1 km from the capital’s international airport, the OIEC is currently the only government-owned exhibition centre in the sultanate. The centre offers 12,000 sq metres of indoor and 3000 sq metres of outdoor space, as well as a VIP room, parking facilities for 1000 cars in the front and rear, and 1500 more at the sides of the main exhibition hall. For accommodation, the Golden Tulip hotel is located next door. The OIEC also offers four 1000-sq-metre mobile exhibition halls.

Capital Ideas

Another major venue for MICE in the sultanate is the Barr Al Jissah resort, run by Shangri-La hotels. The resort, which includes three five-star hotels, lies outside Muscat on the coast, around 30 minutes drive from the city centre. The Barr Al Jissah Ballroom can seat up to 700 guests in banquet style, with the possibility of extending capacity to 850 guests by using the pre-function area. There are seven other function rooms that can also be utilised for MICE events.

A further five-star offering in the Muscat area is the Grand Hyatt, located 18km equidistant from both the historical city centre and Seeb International Airport. The Grand Hyatt offers three spaces, the largest of which can seat 800 in theatre style, or 500 in banquet style, within an 815-sq-metre ballroom.

One of the more established MICE venues is the Intercontinental Hotel Muscat, which has six MICE spaces, the largest of which, the Jabrin Ballroom, can accommodate 500 people in theatre style at a 682-sq-metre venue.

Another Muscat landmark is the Al Falaj Hotel – one of Oman’s oldest – offering a 900-sq-metre Grand Hall capable of holding 1000 people in theatre style, as well as two smaller conference halls and a breakout terrace area with capacity for 600 delegates. The Crowne Plaza Muscat, meanwhile, has a ballroom that can hold 550 people theatre style, along with three other meeting and conference rooms.

The capital also offers a variety of smaller MICE venues, such as the Radisson Blu, which has seven spaces on offer, the largest of which can accommodate 100 guests. Radisson’s Park Inn also offers six meeting rooms of up to 135 sq metres in size.

Getting Out

Outside Muscat, MICE facilities have traditionally been few and far between, but this imbalance is gradually being addressed. At Duqm, the entirely new port city under construction in central Oman, two new hotels are now open for business that offer MICE facilities. The Park Inn offers two meeting rooms, the largest of which can hold 50 people, while the Crowne Plaza has five meeting rooms, with one capable of handling up to 450 people.

Further south, in Salalah, the Rotana Resort has five MICE spaces, with the Al Hajar Ballroom capable of accommodating up to 400 people theatre style in a 402-sq-metre space.

The Crowne Plaza Salalah also has three meeting rooms, the largest with a capacity of 500, and a total exhibition space of 540 sq metres.

With Oman’s stock of four- and five-star hotels continuing to rise, the number of MICE venues is also set to increase in the years ahead. In terms of incentives, too, the sultanate already offers much, from desert encampments and mountain-top retreats to dhow cruises through the fjords of the Musandam and scuba diving in the Arabian Sea.

Capitalising on all this – and integrating resort development with the needs of the MICE industry – will be challenging in a region where Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are all also seeking to maximise their MICE footprint. Oman will likely want to package its growing MICE facilities with the unique natural selling points the sultanate has to offer visitors.

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