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Oman classifies its hotels

June sees the introduction of a new hotel classification system for tourism accommodation in Oman, with stars for service and keys for space, and 351 specific criteria for hotels to meet to ensure quality

After six months of intensive work, MESA (Middle East Strategy Advisors), working with the Oman Ministry of Tourism, has completed and handed over a new tourism accommodation classification system for the Sultanate.

A 15-strong joint task force including members of the Ministry’s Department of Investment Services and Quality Control completed the work on the new classification system for tourism accommodation, which saw Oman benchmarking its hotel services against those of 21 other international classification systems.

“We benchmarked against 21 hotel systems worldwide and we took the best practices from these. We looked at the US, Canada, Mexico, and Europe, to name a few, and also benchmarked with other systems in the Middle East. Our system is a marriage between the numeric classification system as well as a descriptive system,” says Khalid Al Maawali, director general, investment services and quality control, Oman Ministry of Tourism (MoT).

The new system lists 351 criteria that hotels have to meet, in order to be awarded a star rating.

“Basically, a hotel divides the points it has been allocated by 351, if they get 4.6 that means they are five star, and 3.5 means you are four star,” Al Maawali explains.

The classification incorporates three elements: type of property, rating of the product offering (in stars or keys) and performance against defined criteria. The typology categorises a property into full service, semi service or self-catering and determines its type, such as hotel, motel, apartment or resort.

The rating indicates the quality and market positioning of the property, ranging from one to five stars for full service establishments or one to four keys for semi service and self-catering establishments.

The new system has a wide range of innovative features such as an easy comparable framework, room for future development and a focus on the qualitative aspects of tourism accommodation, such as product and service.

International research shows an ever-increasing emphasis on the quality of service. This important trend has been given special attention through a large portion of service quality criteria built into the new classification scheme. Over and above physical minimum requirements, the classification covers subjective criteria like ambience, the quality of facilities and furnishings, and consistency in the quality of service at each tourism accommodation facility.

The system for Oman also reflects the requirements of international regulations, such as the EU directives protecting consumer standards and rights with regard to their holiday experience. The MoT hopes this will minimise negative travel experiences for tourists.

“The new system took into consideration classification systems from the main feeder markets for the Sultanate of Oman. The outcome is a unique system that has service and other qualitative aspects in focus and that enables small as well as large properties to meet the expectations of the guests,” says Gabriel von Bonsdorff, consultant with MESA.

According to Glen Osmond, managing partner of MESA: “The new hotel classification scheme has been developed to benefit all stakeholders; that is, first and foremost tourists, second hotel operators, third tour operators, travel agents and travel web portals and last but not least Omani hotel inspectors who have undergone intensive training by MESA’s experts.”

The system’s architecture combines best international practice with a new typology, which also considers special lodging types unique to Oman, such as palaces, heritage villages and desert camps. Based on transparent definitions, the classification scheme will assist tourist professionals, tour operators and travel agents in creating specific packages for their clients wanting to visit the Sultanate, offering accommodation tailored to their needs.

“The new system has integrated a special lodging typology which enables such tourism establishments to be classified. One of the main challenges to classify these properties is that each special lodging property is unique and it is therefore very hard to have standardised criteria for it,” says von Bonsdorff.

The MoT’s Al Maawali adds: “We have a special typology for special accommodation types and, since it is special tourism product, we have different criteria with regards to palaces and heritage villages.

“When you talk about heritage, there is a special tourist that would enjoy that type of accommodation. If you go to a five-star hotel there has to be a swimming pool and certain facilities, but in these hotels there might be no swimming pools, and limited facilities. The challenges that we had were how could we meet and fulfil the requirements of the customers. There are a number of heritage villages, also there are many camps in Oman, as we have a big desert, and these will also fall under this typology.”

For hotel operators, MESA claims they will be able to use the criteria to precisely position their properties and services in relation to their target markets overseas, thus maximizing their business potential.

“What the classification system guarantees is a minimum service standard managed by the ministry of tourism,” Al Maawali points out.

“This will market Oman, as all of the tourists will be ensured an international standard and a classification system that manages this. The product will market itself, due to the fact that it will have guaranteed service standards and tangible assets.”

A major innovation is the focus on quality aspects, such as service. Other criteria, such as quality management and working environment, have been added to ensure a complete criteria spectrum, which the MoT hopes will provide a richer tourism experience.

However, for the meantime, hoteliers and hotel owners have to busy themselves with ensuring that their properties now meet the new criteria.

The classification scheme also includes a bonus points system, whereby attributes such as environmental awards and staff environment can increase a property’s rating.

A new team of inspectors trained by MESA will roll out the new classification system, starting later this month. They will act as advisors to the industry rather than pure controllers, thus maximising the quality of the accommodation products and services.

“We now have to classify all the hotels. Our database management system will help us to know each hotel and tourism accommodation in the market. What’s more, we have well trained people and we feel that once we start it will be easy,” says Al Maawali.

“We plan to have a transition period of six months to two years for hotels to change to come in line with the new system. For physical assets, where there is a need to change for example hotel entrances and parking provisions, we will allow up to five years to make changes, so we are very flexible and are taking into consideration the hotel’s needs.”

Hotels will be required to undergo the classification system every two years, to maintain standards. However, the new system is receiving mixed reviews from hoteliers in Oman.

“We have been involved, as we hosted the team of new inspectors that were being trained to oversee the classification once implemented. We also had a discussion with the MESA representatives. [We are now] looking forward to seeing a positive draft of the classification system,” Christopher Pike, general manager of the Radisson SAS Muscat, says.

However, according to some five-star hotel managers, the Oman Ministry of Tourism did little to involve hotel managers in the creation of this new system. “From the hotelier’s point of view, it is far too detailed and an interference in the hotel operation and in standards on a corporate level,” says an hotelier that does not wish to be named.

While some hoteliers still need to be convinced of the worthiness of this new classification system, the general consensus is that this is a move in the right direction, and will bolster consumer confidence in Oman as a destination. As MESA’s von Bonsdorff concludes: “There is a great need for uniformity of the grading systems. The new system enables guests, travel agents, owners and developers to receive the necessary quality insurance from the Ministry of Tourism that is needed for consumer confidence.”

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