SNEAK PEEK: Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar

The Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar, which is perched on the edge of a cliff and is determined to provide an authentic Omani experience to all its guests

Inside the Cliff Pool Villa at Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar.
Inside the Cliff Pool Villa at Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar.

Anantara Hotels, Resorts & Spas is set to add to its portfolio with the Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort in the north east of Oman, 2,000m above sea level. Initially pegged for a July 2016 opening, the website is now taking bookings from October 1, and is set on the Saiq Plateau on Oman’s ‘Green Mountain’, making it the highest five-star resort in the Middle East and one of the highest in the world.

The project is located on a 66,000m2 plot, and consists of 115 keys including 82 deluxe rooms and 33 one-, two- or three-bedroom villas with private swimming pools. Located two hours away from Muscat International Airport, the journey to the hotel passes date plantations, valleys or ‘wadis’ and historical forts, along with the ancient city of Nizwa, a 30-minute drive from the hotel.

Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar general manager Darren Darwin, who has more than 26 years of experience tells Hotelier that throughout the pre-opening, there’s “never a dull day”. “It’s the most challenging project I’ve ever been involved in — for obvious reasons. It’s 2,000m on top of the mountain on the edge of the cliff, but it’s the most rewarding by far because when things happen on this project, the results are amazing,” he enthuses.

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RECRUITMENT WINS

The results are also down to the people working on the project. Indeed, one of the general manager’s personal milestones, Darwin admits, was recruiting the right team for the project.

Arriving at the resort in April 2015, Darwin interviewed nearly 200 people for 14 key pre-opening positions. “We’ve been very particular about having the right people that fit — not so much the role, but Anantara’s philosophy, service and attitude. You’ve got to have the attitude to drive a project like this,” he says.

The pre-opening team of the Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar has also employed more than 70 Omani nationals, aiming to increase this to more than 95, which will represent 35% of the 291-strong team.

Led by director of human resources Sami Al Balushi, an Omani national, the resort works closely with government entities such as the Oman Tourism College and National Hospitality Institute to recruit newly graduated Omani citizens. Moreover, in cooperation with the Ministry of Manpower, Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar held an Anantara Career Fair at the Nizwa Ministry of Manpower Hall, where candidates were selected and sent to be trained at the Oman Tourism College, before joining the resort.

Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort marketing & communications manager Ekta Gandhi says that as part of its recreation team, the hotel has hired a “mountain guru”, who will be leading excursions and tours through the local area.

“He’s from Jabal Akhdar, from a village down the canyon. It’s part of the Omanisation plan that we have; but it’s also a good guest experience to see locals on property,” she adds. Supporting Darwin’s emphasis on finding the right team members and the Omanisation efforts, Gandhi notes: “The most important thing with the local workforce is sustainability when it comes to meaningful roles — it’s not just filling the gaps.”

CSR, THE OMANI WAY

The local focus has carried on through to the hotel’s CSR efforts. Another initiative to support the local community, for example, will be the resort’s ‘Friday Souk’, which will take place each week in the courtyard. Omanis from local villages will have the opportunity to sell their handicrafts to guests, whether it’s jewellery, pottery or paintings. The resort has also been supporting a group of local women who sew traditional Omani scarves, which the resort will give to guests as souvenirs.

Darwin says: “Our company is huge on CSR, and we really believe in giving back to the community. Every Friday we will have a souk where we are going to invite all the local vendors from the villages — pottery, handicraft, weaving, and we’re going to have a lady making Omani bread. We will complement it with an F&B offering and Omani folk dancing, and obviously the villages will get good revenue from the guests.

“Secondly, we are teaching English to the local schools in the village as part of giving back to the community. We’re also teaching English to our Omani team members who are not that advanced in English yet.”

“In terms of the environment, we’ve got various tree planting campaigns, we’ve already got a mountain clean-up campaign planned for the near future. Having CSR is important in any hotel or resort, but certainly in our location, it’s a sensitive subject that we respect.”

Certainly, when constructing the project, more than 200 trees and plants from the original site were conserved in their original location. Furthermore, the team has name tagged all the plants in English and Arabic so guests can learn more about the local plant species.

Gandhi also points to the artwork in the rooms as being from local photographers and artists, with woven ceilings inspired from local crafts and typical Omani doors found in villages nearby. All the rooms were designed with custom-made Omani furniture, with the spa-like bathroom carved out of sustainable material from the local area, with even the spa treatments and F&B outlets incorporating local ingredients to lend authenticity to the venue.

She reveals the resort will also house a ‘museum library’ where interactive stations will allow guests to learn more about the Omani culture, the different areas of the country and local attractions.

RECREATION ATTRACTION

Allowing guests to experience the local heritage and attractions is a big part of the ambitions of the team. In light of this, recreation will play an important role at the resort, with mountaintop sunrise yoga, stargazing, archery, quad biking, adventure hiking and mountain biking, and excursions to nearby heritage attractions such as the UNESCO World Heritage site Birkat al Mouz, and the ancient city of Nizwa.

Heading up operations is director of spa & recreation, Kim Milton. At the resort itself, recreation includes the cliff-edge infinity pool, a fitness centre, tennis court and Anantara Spa. The spa will offer a hammam, five treatment rooms, private outdoor relaxation areas, and an indoor swimming pool. It will also cater to children with a dedicated kids and teens’ club. Milton highlights the spa’s different treatments which cater to both men and women, with the signature experiences using local produce and ingredients including the Damask rose, frankincense and pomegranates.

But it’s the mountain itself that provides a lot of recreation and adventure opportunities to guests. Milton tells Hotelier: “One of the key attractions that we are building on-site, is our Jabal activity wall, which will be rock-climbing abseiling, via ferrata, which will give a safe but adventurous edge; it’s fantastic for all fitness levels and all age groups. The route is not too high but enough of a challenge to be an experience.

“We also have the indoor Freedom Climber, the fifth resort outside of the USA to have a revolving rock wall.”

The resort also offers three signature hiking trails, and Omanis are on-board as guides, who also, she reveals, start a fire on the hike to make local Omani cardamom coffee. Milton adds: “We want to give guests the feeling of true Omani hospitality on the trail.”

When it comes to long-term development, Milton is keen to target schools and corporate businesses for activities such as camping. She also notes that the mountain offers lots of potential for education with the plateau on which the hotel is located being covered in fossils. “We are in a very unique location and have set quite a few attraction points. We really want to get our guests out and about, enjoying the ‘Green Mountain’, which is very well known in the area,” explains Milton.

SOURCE MARKETS

Echoing Milton, the rest of the team is confident that the location is perfect, and will drive a lot of demand for stays at the property. Darwin says: “We’ve got great facilities that cater to the GCC market and we understand that the UAE will be a prime market for us. It’s only a 4.5 hour drive, and part of that drive is driving through the beautiful mountain, it’s inspiring. We’ve got 33 beautiful villas with complete privacy and they have their own pool. For GCC families, it’s perfect for size and privacy. Five of our villas have their own driveway. We cater to all potential guests but it’s very accommodating for Arab guests.” Gandhi also asserts that privacy will be an attractive factor, as well as the halal food.

Darwin says that there will be an opening offer for predominantly GCC and Oman residents. The next big markets, he adds, are Europe, UK Germany, Italy and France. “There’s also huge group business in terms of weddings, seminars and team building.”

Gandhi notes: “Weekends are going to be very popular especially for the GCC market, so two to three nights is going to be our average length of stay. Once the European market opens up, it would become longer; there is potential for extended stays.”

Darwin concludes: “I’ve had the privilege with Anantara to see many beautiful resorts that we have in Asia and the Middle East. I’ve also frequented many beautiful hotels, and I’ve not experienced anything like this before.

“I tell all the managers, ‘this will define who we are’. It’s the highest hotel in the Middle East, one of the highest in the world, one of the few hotels that’s perched on the edge of a cliff, and we’ll all tell our grandchildren about this resort.”

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