Riding the waves

Oman Sail is playing the twin role of rekindling the Sultanate’s sailing legacy and promoting it as a tourism destination. Mayank Singh reports

Oman’s sailing heritage goes back to the days of the legendary sailor Sindbad. This tradition has been showcased by the Jewel of Muscat – a ship modelled on the Arabian dhow – which sailed from Oman to Singapore in 2010. Given this background and history The Ministry of Tourism established Oman Sail in 2008, with a vision to use the power of sport as an enabler in the development of the country and its people. Says Salma al Hashmi, marketing and communications director, Oman Sail, “The organisation has three pillars a sporting pillar, a brand pillar and a commercial pillar, all of which are underpinned by people development which is at the heart of everything that we do.”

Sporting element 

Oman Sail is tasked with the job of rekindling Oman’s maritime elements and connecting its youth with its history. The Government is trying to achieve this in different ways — the Jewel of Muscat and the Oman Sea Exhibition held in Paris in October 2013 were some of the ways of demonstrating the Sultanate’s strong link to sailing.

Oman Sail is also working on engaging the youth of Oman at the grassroots level with a vision to create a national team, which will be trained all the way to the Olympics. The country’s vision is to take Oman to the Olympics by the year 2020 and Oman Sail has established a clear pathway for it, which starts at the grassroots level from community sailing. There are three sailing schools at Marina Bandar Rowdha, Musanah and The Wave Muscat. A fourth one is coming up at Sur, with the help of Oman LNG. Oman Sail wants to make sailing accessible to all Omanis and keeping this in mind it is looking at rolling out schools in Khasab, Sohar, Salalah, Duqm in future.

Oman Sail offers Omanis a chance to participate in various sailing options ranging from amateur to professionals. Some can enjoy it as a sport, enabling them to be healthy and active. Then there are people who are talented; and a performance pathway has been created to spot and nurture such talent. There are youth clubs in sailing schools, and those with the requisite talent can join and get trained by dedicated coaches. These youth clubs compete against other clubs creating a competitive spirit and a sense of belonging. The next step is the race club. At the race club level real talent starts getting identified and athletes are being developed in a much more competitive environment. There are people belonging to the 8-18 age group, hailing from different walks of life and various regions in the race clubs. Sailors at the race club level are given a chance to compete internationally. A select group of 30 sailors from the race club go into to the National Youth Squad – where the field become really competitive with an enhanced focus on fitness and skills. AS many as 20 sailors from the National Youth Squad go to the National Development Squad – the elite team that would represent the country at the Olympics at a future date. The highest stage of the pyramid is the National Sailing Squad, which represents Oman internationally. Training as a sailor opens up a number of career options for young Omanis as sailing instructors as well as in sail making, boat building etc. Oman Sail facilities are free for young Omanis.

Branding benefits 

The other big mandate of Oman Sail is to build Oman as a tourism brand internationally, and this is where it’s tie-up with The Ministry of Tourism and Oman Air plays a crucial role. Says Ghasi Humaid Al Hashmi, assistant DG of tourism promotion, “We are promoting Oman as a tourist destination and see organisations like Oman Sail very important in this endeavour.” Adds Khalid al Zadjali, director of tourism events, Ministry of Tourism, “We believe that sports gives us a chance to promote Oman as a destination. In the last two years we worked closely with Oman Sail to add value.”

Salma explains, “While selecting races where we are going to compete. The discipline plays a part, but we also look at selecting those races that exist in the key tourist markets for Oman like England, Germany, France, Italy etc. The competing athletes play an ambassadorial role and we do a lot of shore activation.”

Oman Sail works closely with the Ministry of Tourism and their market based representatives. For example, when Oman participates in an event in Europe, the Ministry usually capitalises on it, by bringing in their tour and travel operators, while Oman Air promotes itself on site. The Cowes Week, UK in August 2013 saw the participation of the Oman Air Boat. The Ministry of Tourism invited Advantage Travel, Destination Store, The Adventurist etc to the event and all the parties joined hands to give visitors the chance to experience Oman. A portable tent was put up on shore exhibiting Oman. Says Zadjali, “Inside the tent we take visitors through a journey of Oman. We had dates, Henna and an iPad competition wherein people could win a hotel stay. Mohsin al Busaidi, the first Omani Sailor to sail around the world was in the tent talking about Oman, in an ambassadorial role.” Similarly when Raya al Habsi, the first Arab lady sailor from Oman went sailing in England on the Mode 70 boat at the Rolex Fast Net in the UK, it drew a lot of media attention. The data gathered at such tents are collected and given to The Ministry of Tourism and Oman Air so that they can follow up on such leads with offers and packages.

Whenever there are sailing events in Oman, Oman Sail shares the contact details with Oman Air, asking them to create a package along with its partner hotels. “This is a synergy that needs to further strengthen further to deliver footfalls for the tourism industry,” says Salma. Adds Mohammed Mubarak Al-Shikely, general manager marketing, Oman Air, “In 2008, even before the first Oman Sail boat had arrived via Dubai, we went ahead with the opportunity, sponsoring and branding the boat as Oman Air as we were convinced that the partnership was a perfect fit for Oman Air and Oman.”

The Ministry of Tourism’s focus in Oman is on high-end tourists, and the audience that sailing attracts falls in this category. A recent study shows that 56 per cent of affluent people in Europe consider themselves to be sailing fans. “The audience that sailing talks to are in the A B category and that’s the kind of audience that Oman wants to invite. We are a destination that is not looking for mass but quality tourists – people who are interested in history, culture and tradition. The name of Oman Sail and Oman Air begins with Oman, so whatever we do promotes Oman,” says Mohammed.

The other link is sports tourism. According to a recent survey released by The World Travel and Tourism Council, despite economic challenges, there has been a growth in sports tourism and this is forecasted to a grow at 4.2 per cent over the next ten years. Says Mohammed, “We have a transparent relationship with Oman Sail, which starts from choosing the skipper and the crew of the boat. We want to have a team that gives us podium finishes, because a winning boat gives extra exposure to Oman.”

Holding sailing events in Oman will attract tourists into the country as a number of athletes, teams, supporters and the international media come for such events. This translates into room nights for hotels, leading to revenue generation as visitors spend money during their stay. Some of these events also lead to investment opportunities. “When we participated in the Extreme Sailing event in Italy, we found that Italian businessmen were keen on exploring opportunities in Oman. Therefore, we organised a business delegation of Italian businessmen to Oman linking them with their local counterparts like the Oman Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Bank Muscat and so on. Some of these leads have translated into business,” adds Salma.

The RC 44 event in Muscat also opened up such business avenues. The RC44 is a sailing race, wherein each team is owned by a wealthy individual. Moreover, this person is not just an owner, but a part of the sailing team. For example, there was a gentleman who was 99th on the Forbes list of wealthiest people in the world, with an estimated wealth of $9.1bn. In consonance with their profile, these people stayed with their teams at The Chedi and spent good amounts of money. Oman Sail capitalised on the opportunity by organising a networking dinner between them and prominent local businessmen and companies.

Starting a discussion at times leads to a joint venture, attracting investments and creating job opportunities in its trail.

Participating in international events helps create awareness about Oman. Oman Sail works with major broadcasters like CNN, BBC, Sky News, constantly measuring its returns and getting the most cost effective exposure for the Sultanate. For example putting an advertisement on CNN or BBC is very costly, but when these broadcasters are invited to cover an event, the cost is limited to hosting them, and while covering the event the international media features the country.

The ISAF (International Sailing Federation) annual Conference, held in November 2013 in Muscat, turned the spotlight on Oman. Overall, the conference generated 17,500 room nights. Similarly, Laser World led to 720 room nights for the seniors, while the masters saw 900 room nights being booked. “We do a number of activities with Oman Sail out of the country but they also have a number of initiatives within Oman and we are using them to promote inbound tourism,” adds Ghasi.

Commercial aspect

Oman Sail realises that it cannot depend on government funding for ever. “We have to raise funds through partnerships and we have to give back to our partners. Secondly, we have to encourage and stimulate marine and leisure tourism,” says Salma. Oman Sail is looking at creating shot term packages for people who would like to visit the Sultanate’s beautiful shoreline. Says Khalid, “We are working on a programme with Oman Sail on using their skills and facilities to build tourism activities around them and are in the process of creating a detailed itinerary. A number of countries are using these kind of associations and tools to promote the destination.”

Oman Sail has demonstrated sponsorship at a higher level. For example, Sailing Arabia, one of its events, has attracted EFG Bank, a private bank from Monaco as a lead sponsor. This is a tour that goes across the GCC in two weeks and as EFG wants to promote itself in the region it has associated itself with the event. Sailing Arabia gives EFG a platform to target its core audience, as sailing attracts high net worth people. “We have shown that we can deliver return on their investment. Our sponsorships are not limited to local sponsors, but we are looking at regional and international sponsors,” adds Salma. Oman Sail’s current sponsors include Oman LNG which is funding the sailing school in Sur; The Wave Muscat; Oman Air; Renaissance Services whose focus is on investing at the grassroots level, giving Omani youth an opportunity to try sailing; Muscat Municipality (in the past); Rolls Royce; Oman Shipping Company; Omantel which is focussing on pathways in the youth category; Bank Muscat for promoting women in sailing. Whenever a sponsor signs a contract with Oman Sail it gives it a media value target and the organisation has had a track record of delivering on it, measured independently. Says Mohammed, “In every sponsorship we use an independent media monitoring firm to review the value of the exposure that the country and Oman Air receives. We set out KPIs before we sign on the dotted line and keep track of the returns from country-to-country.” Oman Sail is truly in the vanguard of keeping Oman’s sailing spirit flying high in contemporary times, moulding a traditional passion into a opportunity to develop youth and to promote tourism.

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