New Opening: Sheraton Oman

The hotel, Muscat's tallest tower block, is prepared to put to bed all the mystery shrouding its delay as it readies itself to offer the Sultanate an experience that surpasses the ordinary

From L-R standing: Thomas Van Opstal, Marcus Ptok and director of marketing Jeremie Lannoy. Sitting (from L-R) Mai Nassar and Neeraj Pyaneeandee.
From L-R standing: Thomas Van Opstal, Marcus Ptok and director of marketing Jeremie Lannoy. Sitting (from L-R) Mai Nassar and Neeraj Pyaneeandee.

The Sheraton Oman Hotel shut down for renovation for a decade, and re-opened in late 2016. At the outset the hotel management made it clear it was unwilling to get into the nitty gritty details of the delays surrounding the refurbishment. Its general manager, Thomas Van Opstal, a Sheraton veteran with over three decades of experience, describes the pre-opening stage as anything but routine.

Making our way to the executive lounge, which is located on the sub-ground floor level, Opstal says: “This was a particularly different opening. In fact it was a re-opening because the hotel existed; it was closed for many years and then we had to reopen it. There were obviously some issues that you wouldn’t find in a normal opening of a hotel. We had some OS&E and FF&E at the hotel, for example.”

The Sheraton Oman is a landmark of sorts in Muscat, a city that does not pride itself on high rises like its neighbouring Gulf cities. This makes the 14-storey hotel the tallest tower in the capital city of the Sultanate, which put it firmly in public sight and begged questions as to why the hotel was closed for so long. Opstal is unwilling to dwell on the past and instead wants to look to the future.

He does, however, give an insight into the owner and operator relationship during the last decade. “There was of course a very good relationship, otherwise the owners or Starwood would have walked away. There was never any question of whether it would not be done. Starwood could have had other hotels here if they wanted to, but the Sheraton Oman has a lot of history and heritage. We kept the dialogue going with the owners and, definitely, it was always going to happen,” he says.

The Sheraton Oman Hotel is described by a few members of its staff as a new hotel within an old one.

Opstal explains: “The fundamentals of the hotel were existing, we did not change the tower or anything. We made some alterations to the podium level, where we built another ballroom and other restaurants. The difficulty here, more than anywhere else, was some of the equipment in the hotel existed partially and the rest had to be replaced. There was a bit of back and forth; some mixing and matching of the old with the new.

“Everything you see is new — but the tower block is old, and the size and makeup of the guest rooms have not been changed. Then the basement, the heart of the house [remained the same]. We did not relocate the kitchens either. However, everything inside the rooms has changed, the fit-out, lobby, public areas and F&B outlets. Essentially everything apart from the outer shell has changed.”

Opstal arrived at the property one-and-half-years before it opened and felt there was a positive energy surrounding the property in the market. “Everyone was eager for the property to re-open. Over the years we were lucky that Muscat did not have a massive supply of hotels, and the Sheraton Oman had always maintained its presence being the tallest building in Muscat.

“The hotel is still very much in the heart of the local population. Expatriates come and go but for the local population the Sheraton Oman always remained,” he comments.

Opstal ended up facing all the questions, such as: ‘When are you going to re-open? Are you going to bring the seafood nights back?’

“People have memories and it’s always a bit of fun [to play on the history and memories],” he teases.

Director of sales Mai Nassar shares similar sentiments. She says: “Many of the stakeholders (travel agents, partners and DMCs), did not even believe we were opening this time.

“People were excited because they either had a strong connection with the property and they started asking if we still had a few specifics in mind for the hotel — like the seafood night.”

Following the refurb, the hotel has 230 rooms, including 27 suites. It also offers 14 junior suites, nine studio suites, two executive suites, one diplomatic suite and one royal suite. Opstal comments: “We are not yet 100% complete, we still have a bit of construction going on; three of our meeting rooms are not ready, because we are building this fancy staircase, so the entire convention place has yet to come together.”

The management is confident of the hotel’s MICE potential, a direction in which the Oman Tourism Authority has steered its efforts in as well.

Nassar says: “We lead with MICE as our strategy because we have the biggest ballroom in Muscat, and 11 breakout/board rooms. We have all the infrastructure in place for large conferences, product and car launches, and we are the most suitable even for private functions. More so, we are based in the heart of the city.”

In the few months that the hotel has been open, Opstal says the inquiries and uptake of the hotel’s convention facilities has been heartening.

He reveals to Hotelier Middle East: “We are getting enquiries from Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain. And we are pleased because in just a few months people have noticed not just in Oman but across the GCC as well.”

Nassar ranks corporate guests and leisure, in that order, as the hotel’s priority segments. “After corporate the local market is the next most important sector for us. We have spa facilities and the biggest indoor swimming pool, where we have launched women-only swimming classes exclusively for Omani ladies, three days a week. We are probably the only hotel to do it in the city.

“Leisure is also on our cards, and we are aware that our location is not beach -centric, and so we provide a shuttle service from the hotel to the beach, and the tour operators are well informed about this,” says Nassar, who adds that the beach is a private enclosure with branded Sheraton standards, sun beds, towels and water provided to the guests.

Germany is one of the biggest feeder markets in terms of leisure tourists in Oman, and “it will continue to be so for our property”, Nassar says. “The UK is the next biggest source market and we are in talks to finalise one or two big deals. Then the Indian market has a lot of opportunity as well, along with the Italian and Spanish markets. We will be joining roadshows either by the ministry of tourism or Marriott International [to boost our chances].”

However, Nassar feels the Omani authorities could do a little more to aid visa-free travel for more nationalities. “[Visa-free travel] makes it easier for nationalities that are travelling in large numbers. Something needs to be done about the Chinese tourists for example. The UAE already had a lot of Chinese tourists visiting the country, yet they enabled visa-free travel for Chinese nationals. That only makes it better for the destination,” says Nassar, who spent nearly a decade in Abu Dhabi working for the Sheraton and Le Royal Méridien hotels in the UAE’s capital.

With two operational F&B outlets — Asado and Courtyard — food and beverage is a strong facet of the hotel’s offering, according to Opstal. “We are still in the process of opening three F&B venues and I would like to see at least one of them opening as soon as possible. We are currently at two outlets and we need a bit more, for sure. Guests say they like what we have, not just on Tripadvisor, but also when they meet us face to face in the property.”

The duo of Marcus Ptok and Neeraj Pyaneeandee are at the helm of F&B affairs at the hotel and plan to raise the stakes (and the steaks, no doubt). Between Ptok, the hotel’s director of F&B, and Pyaneeandee, the versatile executive chef, the duo are well travelled and have worked in some of the biggest restaurants, associated with the biggest names, in the culinary industry.

Pyaneeandee spent a couple of years at the L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon and a little over a year at The Ivy in London, following which he spent the next nine years at two of Emaar’s properties in Dubai, three of those as executive chef of the The Address Montgomerie in Dubai.

On a cool winter evening, the duo treated socialites and members of the press to a seven-course paired dinner. Pyaneeandee provided the theatrics with the food as Ptok paired each course with a rare wine (and in one case a champagne) that matched the complexity and flavours of each dish. The evening showcased a “true culinary experience”, one which Pyaneeandee feels Oman is more than ready for.

“I think Muscat deserves to have a sophisticated level of culinary exposure. The onus is upon us to create an experience for the people. Other hotels [in Muscat] are doing their bit as well but we want to be distinct from the market. The reason is that we want to show everybody that we are here to do things differently but at the same time sticking to what the market is demanding,” Pyaneeandee says.

Ptok says the idea is to simply bring to the Omani market what is on offer elsewhere. “I do not think our culinary concept is entirely new to Muscat, but it is just something that people might have not experienced here, and we want to be first to do so. There is a possibility that when people want to experience something out of the ordinary they may go to other places, but it would be nice if they could stay here and try it out.”

Drawing comparisons between Muscat and the trend-savvy F&B scene in Dubai, the Mauritian-born chef says Muscat is lacking on a few fronts. “There is no trend in Oman but it’s up to us to make people follow the trends from elsewhere. Dubai has a tendency to twist the trend, they are not always world trends. So Dubai takes what works in London, for example, and twists it a little to suit the city and its population. But that also translates to a lot of supply in the market, and those who do it well survive for three years and beyond, and those who don’t get it right fail. Oman is not on that tangent yet, but it’s up to us to create a food culture,” he says.

Among the new F&B outlets that will come on board is the Tea Library, scheduled for a Q2 2017 opening. The Turbine Bar will open later in the year. And the hotel’s fifth concept will open in Q4 2017.

Pyaneeandee says: “We want to be the best in the market, no doubt. Chefs will concentrate on bringing the best products and practices and people like Marcus on the beverage side of things, but the business mindset needs to change. We are in a tight business environment, not just here but all over the world. Also people need to have a bit more entertainment, more value for what they spend, because life is getting more expensive.”

Ptok adds: “We would really be appreciated if we stir up the market a little and lift the entire F&B scene, and everybody ups their game in the bargain.”

“There is a lot of talent here that is waiting to do what we are doing but it just needs a bit of convincing of all the stakeholders,” Ptok continues.

The Sheraton Oman Hotel is a well-known property in Muscat, and Marriott International has placed some of its key employees in senior positions.

Opstal, for example, is one of Sheraton’s revered leaders among both senior management and junior staff. He has mentored several of his associates to become general managers across different Starwood (now Marriott International) hotels, and other senior positons.

Opstal says: “When we hired our associates [in Sheraton Oman], we laid emphasis on training them with strong service standards. We wanted to have staff who really cared about our customers and, from the feedback we have received, it seems to be paying off.

“This hotel will never be one of the largest, but it has fantastic potential. It’s beautifully fitted out, the rooms, public areas, restaurants and the quality of F&B.

“But at the end of a business trip, if you have spent time in different cities, may will not remember the hotels you stayed at but you will remember the people who took care of you.”

He concludes: “Almost every comment speaks about the staff, and the service — that’s our claim to fame.”

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