The new Oman Convention and Exhibition Centre (OCEC) in Muscat is set to become a major attraction for the meetings industry when it opens from 2014 in two phases. Being developed by Omran, the company established by the Government of Oman to deliver major projects and manage its assets in the tourism sector, the centre will be managed by AEG Ogden, one of the world’s leading convention and exhibition management companies that is also responsible for the Qatar National Convention Centre.
The super-size facility — being built to rigorous LEED Certification by the US Green Building Council — will feature an elaborate tiered auditorium to seat 3,200 while the exhibition halls will feature 22,000 square metres of column-free exhibition space. Halls 1 and 2 will serve as a multi-purpose space for plenary sessions, concerts, performances and gala events on a larger scale of up to 10,000 seated in theatre-style.
There are more than 200 convention and exhibition centres competing on the world stage for a slice of the business events pie but research already undertaken has identified international conventions with the potential to be held in Oman as far ahead as 2024, according to AEG Ogden.
More than a convention and exhibition centre, OCEC is part of a wider mixed-use development that is set in a scenic location overlooking a Wadi and will consist of a five-star hotel, two four-star hotels, a three-star hotel and serviced apartments (providing 1,000 rooms in total) and even a shopping centre.
In an interview with meetme, CEO of Omran, Eng. Wael bin Ahmed Al Lawati elaborated on the vision behind the OCEC and Oman’s wider plan of development.
“We are about to announce two major international hotel management groups that will operate the two hotels,” explained Al Lawati. “It’s about trying to team up with all the right people, with the right brands, that makes it a compelling case. We can go out and say, ‘It’s a mixed use development, there’s a mall, a business park, fantastic infrastructure, you are four kilometres away from the airport and road connections are excellent. And it is in Oman so it’s a bit different, your meeting will be in a green building so don’t feel guilty, and you are an hour away from everything else. Muscat Hills is next door to us, the golf course, The Wave’s Greg Norman course has just opened across the road. There is just so much happening for the place.”
With such a large-scale project being undertaken in an area of natural beauty, there are predictable concerns regarding preservation and sustainability. However, Al Lawati is keen to allay any fears.
“If you look at the convention centre and the way it is being developed – in terms of the green building, architecture, social impact, maximizing local expenditure, looking at job creation for more than 6,000 Omanis, training and scholarships. Everything has been done in such a way that we maximize local benefits as opposed to saying ‘Just get us the building in half the time’.
“That’s not the focus. Yes, we need it because the quicker you have it, the quicker you create the jobs and other benefits, but it is being developed with that in mind. So it’s not just what we develop, it’s how we develop. That’s very important for us.
The development of Oman as a whole also has an eye to sustainability and unlike many countries, Al Lawati explains that this has been a factor from the very beginning of its development.
“The vision of HH The Sultan of Oman has ensured that the development of the country has taken place in a sustainable type of way, which is quite interesting. When I look at the rest of the Gulf destinations, Oman really stands apart. Our infrastructure hasn’t been built as fast as the other places but it has much more natural history, heritage and attractions.
“Our key selling point is the fact that we have the culture, heritage and many historic buildings. So we need to preserve these sites of interest and develop the tourism proposition around them.
“I think now people are starting to understand what we had in mind all along. So when the Sultan enforced strict architectural guidelines, decided against high-rise buildings and enforced Islamic architecture, when he established the first ministry of environment in the region in 1980, a lot of people were asking what it was for. Now they see what those aims and intentions were.
It is very difficult to develop very quickly and maintain your environment, because again there will be corners cut, there will be certain pressures. So it’s something that we don’t only talk about, there are policies and procedures in the country and the thinking is so well established in the government that even if individuals wanted to change that they couldn’t.
Looking ahead to the future, we asked Al Lawati where he expected business for OCEC to come from.
“I’ll be very honest, we have projections and we have all sorts of studies that we’ve commissioned from consultants that are telling us different things. I think time will tell whether assumptions for a small local industry, or more regional or international business is the way forward. Or whether business will be more conference or exhibition focused. It’s very difficult to project until we start bidding for events, going out and understanding the feedback, and understanding our ability to host these events before we can say really our markets are going to be there.
“Talking to our neighboring countries, their markets keep changing. Egypt shuts down for business and you suddenly getting business that you wouldn’t normally get. "Suddenly South America is interesting. Big associations are looking at coming to the region and a few ask, ‘What’s happening with all the unrest? Maybe we’ll pass for the next few years’. So it’s too dynamic really. We have assumptions, but only time will tell.”
But it is full steam ahead in the development of the centre and planning the phased introduction of a management and full team structure.
“We have a dedicated project management team within Oman that’s taking on the technical aspects of the development, which is the design and the construction and the supervision. We are doing it all in-house, with a fantastic team that is part local, part international delivering the project.
"For the actual management of the centre, we teamed up with AEG Ogden. Basically, we said look, we need to leapfrog. We can’t just be waiting here, building up local skills in terms of hosting, bidding, and so on. We‘re up against some stiff competition in the region and we need to raise the flag of Oman and say ‘Look! We’re here as well!’ So we’re very excited to be working with them, with their experience, and their ability to start with a new destination and really bring it up to be incredible.”
There is also a lot of potential for Oman to be combined with other Gulf destinations and something that keeps recurring is the issue of visas. We asked Al Lawati for his view.
“They’ve been talking about it for a while and I think at last check we offer over 70 countries visa on arrival in Oman. So, even if it was a combined with a regional country, it’s enough nationalities that we can get at Seeb Airport in Muscat. It’s not as big a problem as it used to be, and it’s quite fast for nationalities that don’t get visa on arrival.
“Our concern is more about airlift and ensuring that airlines go to all the big destinations and make it easy to come to Oman. Because one of the biggest criticisms here in previous years is ‘Look it’s very difficult to get to Oman, we love it, but we have to change flights from Doha, or Dubai, or Bahrain etc, and it’s a three hour change and so on.’ It gets to a point where people think ‘I’ll just stay in Dubai’ for example. Airlift is being improved by Oman Air now, and it has made a huge difference for groups coming in from abroad.
“I don’t see visas being a big issue at the moment as it used to be. Obviously there are always new nationalities that want to come in, and we are talking to the government about saying if we are going to be hosting international events we need to be flexible. You can’t have a doctor from some country that can’t have an arrangement; he’s stuck in the airport for hours or whatever. It’s a new type of business that requires different ways of dealing with it, it’s not a tour operator who understands what type of businesses you are looking for. But, with Dubai there has been all sorts of arrangements and none of them have really been seamless enough. I don’t think any destination in the region can claim victory on that front yet."
Now that AEG Ogden has been appointed to manage the centre with a fully fledged office to be operational by mid-2012, the business pulse is already being tested.
“We are testing the waters to see who will be interested, what sort of association sizes we can attract and so on. We obviously have a challenge of going out to people and saying ‘Believe me it will open’, its slightly different to saying. ‘Do you want to come over and see an event? So there is a bit of a leap of faith in terms of associations coming forward. But hopefully there is enough technical data to give them a warm feeling of ‘I think it will happen, I see enough’. And the money is there, high oil prices help!”