Onwards and upwards in Oman

EW caught up with Said Al Shanfari, CEO of Oman Convention & Exhibition Centre, who outlines positive momentum in Oman since the Sultanate hosted last year’s UFI Global Congress.

Oman’s hosting of last year’s UFI Global Congress certainly raised the country’s profile in the international events arena and the CEO of the Oman Convention and Exhibition Centre (OCEC), Said Al Shanfari, believes the Sultanate is now in a good position to kick on and win more business after the initial Covid recovery phase.

Across the Middle East, says Al Shanfari, who is now chairman of UFI’s MENA region, big international events are being attracted. “Look at Saudi Arabia, while Dubai delivered the Expo and is hosting the COP Summit and F1,” he notes.

“My intention is to help create a bigger market for everyone, develop the human resources in the region and work on research and statistics that show investors and international organisers they can come to do business.”

So, what changes is Al Shanfari seeing?

“Hosting the UFI Congress gave us a position in the market. People now know where Oman is. We have had many contacts with people looking to collaborate and experiment with our market.”

Al Shanfari reports OCEC is closing the year with higher numbers than expected. “We have passed the 2019 figures and seen an increase of over 30% compared with 2022. We expect the 2024 figures to grow further and are already signing international events for next year. We have 7-8 contracted and another five or so in the pipeline. Typically these are in the medical, energy and environment sector.”

The CEO admits it is a competitive landscape but is confident in the Oman offer: “Our centre is modern, has the right facilities, is close to the airport and has 2,000 hotel rooms within walking distance.

“We aim to close the year on 220 events and have already passed 180,” he adds, and says 700,000 visitors have come through the OCEC doors already this year.

New hotel openings continue in Muscat, with a St Regis set to offer a further 300 rooms, while a JW Marriott has reopened offering 300 rooms at the 5-star end.

Al Shanfari is also expecting the airlift to increase in 2024 and is keen to stress the MICE sector lies at the heart of the Omani economy. “It brings the right business investors and visitors and OCEC gives a platform to meet international business partners. It shows the seriousness with which we mean business in Oman. As we bring in more relevant shows, we create anchor events,” he adds.

Sustainability is very much in focus for Al Shanfari who notes the design of the OCEC is Gold LEED certified.

“We are working to increase renewable energy usage and adding 8,000 solar panels, which will help us to produce 2.5MW of power, some of which we will sell back to the grid,” he explains. “The government has aggressive plans for Oman to become zero carbon by 2050. And we have two major shows concentrating on this very area – Green Hydrogen and Sustainable Week.”

OCEC is also involved in projects creating green landscaping and utilising food waste and a dedicated ‘Green Team’ at the venue is helping drive the sustainable agenda.

Al Shanfari is a keen champion of technology and believes AI can be harnessed to improve the service offer at OCEC.

“Our website has virtual tours and we are working on a new registration system and on a new internal navigating system with indoor mapping and sensors. Through use of AI we are collecting better data on customers, finding out what they like/don’t like and how we can improve our services,” he says.

And the team is already working on the next five-year plan. “Our focus is always on customers and how to create a partnership with them,” concludes Al Shanfari. “We are helping our government look at other venues and exploring how we can we add value in other cities.”