Onward and Upward for Oman Sail
In the seven years since its inception Oman Sail has established a significant presence on the international sailing scene. From around-the-world and other offshore record attempts and multiple victories in the Extreme Sail Series to hosting major dinghy world championships in Oman, the government-backed operation has made a big splash.
We sat down with CEO, David Graham, to find out more about what Oman Sail had achieved under his leadership and what might lie in store for the future.
SRM: What was the thinking behind creating the Oman Sail organisation in the first place?
David Graham: Ultimately it’s to do with three things: tourism, sports, and the marine industry. I will talk a little bit more about each of those elements but it is important to point out that all three of those things are underpinned by people development.
People development is really the bedrock. We have a staff of 205 people now of which 85 per cent are Omani. Each of them – not just the instructors and our sailors, but the accounts people, the HR division, the design division and the marketing division – each person has an individual development plan. As part of their plans they all have individual objectives that feed into the overall Oman Sail strategic plan.
Taking each of those pillars individually; tourism is a strategic aim for the country of Oman. It’s one of the selected diversification industries. When I say diversification, I mean away from fossil fuels. So, tourism is up and coming in Oman and we’ve selected sailing as the main platform for promoting the Sultanate of Oman as a tourist destination.
Essentially we target selected markets using sailing, sail boat races and any other sailing activity to promote the Sultanate of Oman. That initiative is going very, very well. We measure the return on investment for the government and we report back every year on that.
When we take part in a race or an event – such as the Route du Rhum for example - then we’ll have a big shore side exhibition with a whole bunch of our team there, dressed in national dress, working with the local Oman tourism office to portray Oman as a tourist destination.
We try to do that in areas which are the target markets for Oman. Obviously, we’re not hitting every single country, but if you have a look at which countries Oman Air flies direct into, you’ll see that over the years we’ve been active in those countries.
The second pillar is sport - where we are doing everything from the grassroots up. We’ve got a link with the Ministry of Education right the way up to taking part in international offshore races, the Olympics, the Extreme Sailing Series and so on. That’s a huge element of what we do overall.
Then the third element is starting commercial businesses in the marine sector using sailing and sport as a platform. We’ve got a charter operation. If you want to come and charter a boat in Oman, then we’ve got sail boats or motor boats available. We are running marinas which necessitates us teaching leadership and development as part of operating that kind of business.
SRM: Why do you think the Oman government chose sailing as the sport to base all this activity on?
David Graham: For three reasons: Firstly, and most importantly, the demographics of sailors and people who are interested in sailing matches the principal target market for Oman. Oman is aiming to attract the discerning traveller, people who are adventurous, people with a slightly higher disposable income; the culturally-aware traveller; the inquisitive traveller. All that fits in very well with the socio-demographics of sailors who are often more the As and Bs, the ones and twos, the CEOs, doctors, company directors, all with a slightly higher disposable income than the normal population.
The second reason Oman chose sailing is that it is highly relevant to the country. We’ve got a very interesting maritime past. Just two hours down the coast is Sur, the Arabian maritime capital. They still do dhow-building there and its sailing history goes back thousands of years.
Part of our aim is reinstating the maritime eminence that Oman once held as the eastern-most peninsula of Arabia. There is great history linked to the spice and the silk routes, but it’s not our job to reinvent that. So, you don’t see us as building dhows and trying to recreate what was done in the past.
What we do is more about using the past as a springboard to get us into the future. So we’re racing modern boats and we’re getting our kids up to speed with the new era of sailboat racing. And what we are doing is all about sail boat racing.
The third reason for choosing sailing is that Oman has got a huge beautiful coastline and great winter weather for sailing. In November it’s 28 degrees and typically it’s blowing at force three. Perfect conditions for a winter sailing holiday.
SRM: Thinking back to the very early days, what challenges did you face in setting the Oman Sail operation up absolutely from scratch?
David Graham: I remember how hard it was to convince sponsors and individual backers to come on board. The problem was we had no precedent to refer to. It was all so new. The first sponsorship deal we did with Oman Air was our entry in the Route Du Rhum - a very elite end of the sport to take them into as their first sponsorship in sailing. I remember trying to convince them that it was a fantastic way to promote their brand in France.
But it’s about convincing people and then delivering on that. We spent a lot of time understanding what their objectives were and looking at their strategic plan and saying, “Well, we can help you with elements one, two, six and nine of your plan, and this is how we will do that.”
There was no rocket science behind that. We devised a clear plan that our clients were involved in creating. Then we made sure we did what we said we were going to do.
One smart thing we did was to make some of our sponsorship fee contingent on the value the client received. They didn’t know or understand the sport of sailing, so our approach was to say: “We estimate that the amount of media coverage that we can generate in France, Italy, UK, and Germany is ‘x’. We will get the coverage independently measured and if we don’t achieve that value then don’t pay us 25 per cent of our fee.”
That wasn’t an insignificant amount, so we were all about making sure that we delivered. That’s how we established our credibility from a standing start and how we have built up a base of loyal sponsors and supporters.
SRM: Which achievements with Oman Sail are you most proud of?
David Graham: I got a lovely letter recently from a member of the royal family here in Oman. I think he hit the nail on the head and describes something that I am most proud of about our organisation.
The last paragraph reads: “While striving towards the goals that you set yourselves, you’ve built a team of Omanis and expatriates and infused them with a corporate culture that is exemplary. Wherever I have interacted with your staff, I’ve been impressed with their work ethic and the passion they have for their work. The social impact of Oman Sail’s work is far reaching and must be emulated in other sporting spheres.”
I guess that’s what I’m most proud about; that we’ve got a hard-working team made up of many different nationalities all working for the same goal and working well together.
There are some more tangible elements too. We have created some great events - Sailing Arabia The Tour and Mussanah Race Week - and we’ve hosted world championships, Olympic qualifiers, the Extreme Sailing Series, RC44 regattas, and the America’s Cup World Series. We’ve also won world records on our MOD70. One was for around Britain and Ireland and the other one for Around Ireland – but that one just got beaten. We’ve won the Extreme Sailing Series four times.
Except for the Route du Rhum you’ll never see one of our boats racing without at least one Omani on board. Whenever we can we try to get as many Omani’s as possible on board without compromising the safety aspect.
Last weekend we had 45 Optimist sailors racing against each other here at a national ranking event. The entire race management was done by Omani instructors.
Our youth sailors are now the best in the GCC and are the six best in Asia. [Editor note: The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is a political and economic alliance of six Middle Eastern countries: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman]
We are also making great steps towards getting sailing on the Oman national curriculum for schools in the regions near the ocean.
SRM: Oman Sail crews have competed in so many high-profile events on the word stage but we have never seen you challenge for the America’s Cup or the Volvo Ocean Race. Why is that?
David Graham: Give us time! Those two events are two of the pinnacles of our sport. There's the Volvo Ocean Race, there's the America's Cup and there's the Olympic Games. They are absolutely something that we've considered and are still considering.
We were hoping to be in the America's Cup this time around but we had a few setbacks with our sailing programme and when you couple that with the falling oil price and the fact that getting sponsorship here is a little bit more difficult, it didn’t happen for us.
SRM: As you say, you have some setbacks, including the death of an Omani sailor, Mohammed Al Alawi. That must have been a terrible thing to have to deal with?
David Graham: Yes. It was a devastating time for everyone. Obviously, first and foremost, for Mohammed's family. Mohammed was doing what he loved and he was a very competent sailor. We had an accident and we lost him.
It really hit the team hard. They lost one of their brothers and it was - and still is - a real struggle. There's not a day that goes by where the guys and girls don't think about it.
Also, on the Quebec Saint-Malo race our MOD 70 capsized and the crew was in very, very cold water at night. We were very lucky that everybody ended up okay. Our skipper Sidney Gavignet was down below at the time and he was pretty badly hurt. He's fully recovered now, thankfully. With off-shore races like that, you're competing at the top end of the sport and it absolutely has its dangers.
SRM: Turning to the future, what do you see lying in store for Oman Sail?
David Graham: Well, there's lots going to be happening, for sure. We are operating four sailing schools with 60 Omani sailing instructors. There's a huge focus on the youth and Olympic sailing. Six years ago we said we would qualify Oman for the Olympics at Tokyo 2020. That's right on our doorstep now, so obviously, that's a big aim.
There's also lots of interesting things happening on our commercial side. In our charter business, we've now got sailing boats around the 40-foot mark and a handful of power boats too. We are looking at whether we can partner with someone on this and really expand quicker than we would just by organic expansion.
The charter business really fits in with the Ministry of Tourism's strategic aims. There's lots of lovely sailing waters here in Oman and there's a number of marina's now to. Perfect for a week or ten days chartering a sailing boat on a very pleasant holiday.
We have done very well in the Extreme Sailing Series over the last few years and the next logical step from that is the America's Cup. It's not a small step though; it's a huge step. So, we're looking with interest of what happens. First of all, we need to see who wins in Bermuda and then what's going to happen beyond that. So, for now we're in observing mode with that one.