As the CEO of Oman’s premier event centre, Eng Said Al Shanfari’s ambition to make the Oman Convention and Exhibition Centre, OCEC, a leading regional venue has never wavered. When the job became his in 2018, Eng Said Al Shanfari never expected to stir through global economic crises and a pandemic as he continued to make the venue attractive on the regional scene. His and his team’s efforts paid off last year as the OCEC experienced a strong rebound post-Covid with a 25 per cent increase in visitors at the centre.

The award-winning venue is positioning itself as a leading destination for regional events. It benefits from state-of-the-art facilities, first-class hospitality options, and a 15-minute location from Muscat International Airport. The centre is owned and developed by Omran Group, a part of the Madinat Al Irfan urban centre.

For 2024, the focus is on capitalising on last year’s success. The venue is starting the year high with business events of significant importance for the region, including the Middle East Space Conference, the International Oman Pharmaceutical Conference and Exhibition, and the General Arab Insurance Federation conference, which will bring together industry leaders across the Middle East and North Africa, MENA, region.

“Our strategic drivers for 2024 are based on the economic context, key industry trends, and the centre’s ambitions. This year, the team is working towards three main goals: sustainability, digitalisation, and inclusivity. Many industry experts have emphasised all three trends, specifically the importance of reducing the sector’s environmental impact while providing events tailored to audiences,” says Eng Said Al Shanfari.

“We want to become a more sustainable venue in the region, in terms of our facilities, limiting our carbon impact, leading in terms of environmentally friendly technologies, and ultimately becoming a global destination for sustainable events. It aligns with the Omani government’s strategy to diversify its economy, focus on green energies, including solar power and reach net zero by 2050.”

If sustainability is a key driver for 2024, digitalisation and inclusivity also go together. Eng Said Al Shanfari wants event organisers choosing the OCEC to access the best technologies worldwide and benefit from new digital marketing options to promote their events in Oman and beyond.

“There are two sides to digitalisation: internal and external. On the one hand, working hand in hand with our marketing, sales and events teams, we are focused on improving our use of technologies to become more efficient when bidding for international events, managing visitors and delegates and communicating about our programme. Externally, we’re looking at creating a new podcast studio for Q3 2024 and other digital marketing options providing a more seamless experience for our delegates and event organisers alike.”

“We want to become a more sustainable venue in the region, ultimately becoming a global destination for sustainable events”

Eng Said Al Shanfari says the ultimate goal will be to continue catering to a wide range of audiences, ensuring that the events attract local, regional, and international visitors of all ages, interests, and professions.

“People will come to the OCEC throughout their lives, whether for professional purposes or personal hobbies. Our strength is making our programme diverse and inclusive while creating a more tailored experience for each visitor so everyone feels welcome.”

Asked if the centre is focusing on the trend of building more personalised events, Eng Said Al Shanfari answers:

“We always ensure that organisers can cater their events to the local community by supporting them through cultural briefing and advising. We have seen a trend towards smaller, more targeted events. However, in the region, large-scale conventions and conferences still dominate.”

With these strategic drivers in mind, the OCEC is set for a pivotal year, positioning itself as a green venue in the region. The centre averages 230 annual events across conventions, exhibitions, conferences, business events and live shows. Although the venue caters for all sectors, it has a track record of hosting Oman’s leading events around sustainability and energy, such as Oman Sustainability Week, Oman Petroleum and Energy Show, Green Hydrogen Summit, and Oman Water Week, among others.

This year, it stands out in this field with the recent announcement of a major solar panel project in collaboration with Total Energies Renewables and Omran Group, its parent company. The project itself is ambitious. Thanks to over 8,000 solar panels on its 16,000 m² rooftop surface, it will power the whole convention and exhibition centre with solar energy, the largest rooftop solar project in Oman. Equivalent to 63 double tennis courts, the surface will provide energy for the OCEC and beyond, avoiding 3,500 tonnes of CO2 annually.

“We are directly driving economic growth by attracting events that generate income and jobs for our country”

“This project has been planned for a long time and follows several initiatives that we have implemented in recent years, including our Gold LEED Building certification, EV charging stations, solar panels used for our cooling systems, and other initiatives to reduce food waste and plastic use in our venue.”

Equivalent to 90,000 trees being planted at the convention and exhibition centre, the project is a turning point for the venue and the country as a testament to the centre’s commitment towards sustainability.

“We are already known in the region for some of our leading environmentally focused events. We hope this will show global event organisers that we are ready to innovate and make our venue greener while still providing excellence in our events services.”

Currently, under construction, the project should become viable in Q2 2024, giving space for more events to benefit from this added value to the OCEC, including the Oman Sustainability Week in April.

Since its implementation in 2016, the venue has been at the centre of the Sultanate of Oman’s economic diversification and focus on driving the tourism industry. Concentrating on business events, the Oman Convention and Exhibition Centre has gradually increased the country’s economic growth and attracted international investments by winning major regional and international bids over the years.

“We are directly driving economic growth in two distinctive ways by attracting events that generate income and jobs for our country and the hospitality industry. Our research shows that total direct income from the business events industry is estimated at 1.9 billion US dollars. When we win an international event bid, we can secure international companies and delegates who often travel using premium services.”

“It aligns with the Omani government’s strategy to diversify its economy, focus on green energies, including solar power and reach net zero by 2050”

Beyond the direct economic growth generated by the venue, it is its strategic offering which has a broader impact on the country:

“Indirectly, the OCEC is a physical space enabling conversations on sustainability, green energy, education, urban development, or health in Oman. The exchange of knowledge, the meetings between local and international entities, and the advancements made at each event support our country’s overall development. It may have no defined economic value but is symbolically invaluable for Oman.”

The centre won the prestigious Best Venue award at the Middle East Events Awards in 2023, competing against other leading venues in the region. The win assured Oman’s strong visibility and positioning on the regional stage.

“This extremely competitive industry relies on many factors beyond technology and event services: your brand positioning, overall infrastructure, and expertise. Winning this award was a great accomplishment for the team, matched by a new record-breaking number of visitors in 2023. Keeping the momentum going will be our main goal this year, through some strategic drivers discussed above and our team’s dedication.”

As the UFI Middle East and Africa Chairman, Eng Said Al Shanfari’s vision expands beyond the Sultanate of Oman. Although competition is prevalent in the region, he believes in combining each venue’s attributes to grab a global share of regional business events.

“We saw it recently with COP28 happening in the United Arab Emirates. The world was focused on this global event and the region. The OCEC hosted the Oman Green Hydrogen Summit in parallel to COP28. Many delegates, including the European Commissioner for Energy, Kadri Simson, came to Oman following their visit to COP28 to engage with key local partners. If we work smart, we can capitalise on the industry’s success and attract more regional and international visitors to our events.

“Thanks to over 8,000 solar panels on its rooftop surface, it will power the whole convention and exhibition centre with solar energy, the largest rooftop solar project in Oman”

“In parallel, Oman is turning its eyes to tourism, and business events are a source of revenue from which small- and medium-sized enterprises in the country benefit.”

Innovation defines Eng Said Al Shanfari’s vision for the future of the Oman Convention and Exhibition Centre. He sees the venue and Oman as a growing destination: leisure tourism has consistently grown over the past few years as more visitors are attracted to the country.

“Business events are increasing as organisers seek more than venues: they are looking to offer their delegates an extraordinary cultural and professional experience in a relaxed setting.”

The centre does not work in silos with other organisations. Every year, it empowers over 90 small- and medium-sized enterprises and supports overall sector growth through graduate job opportunities for local populations, training workshops and outreach programmes. The aim is to inspire more companies and employees to join the sector and see its economic value and benefits in the long term.

“I like to be involved in many sectors of growth in my country, and I cannot help but think that our professional goal should always be focused on legacy. What are we leaving for the next generations? How can we empower them? How can we learn from them? These questions drive us to be more innovative and flexible in our approach, keeping up with trends and ensuring that the OCEC continues to belong to Oman and its future generations.”

Where the World Meets, the venue’s motto, has never been so relevant when the region is growing to become one of the leading global business events destinations.