Q&A: Booking Start-Up Innovating Africa’s Online Travel Accommodations

By Kimberly Jacobs AFKI Original Published: April 3, 2014, 1:40 am
Mauritius Beach (Thinkstock)

As international and domestic tourism increases in Africa, the use of technology to book travel accommodations has also risen. The needs of tourists have changed. that’s where Sleepout.co.ke — soon to be sleepout.com — comes in.

Co-founded by Johann Jenson and Mikul Shah, the Mauritius-based booking site helps travelers find a wide-range of places to stay throughout Africa and the Middle East for affordable prices. Pinpointing activities and accommodation types, SleepOut allows small businesses and even home owners to connect with travelers. AFKInsider spoke with Jenson who elaborated on why the site is a necessity, logistics of the site’s design and how tapping further into the tourism market has brought SleepOut success and more.

AFKInsider:  Your site is unique because it offers more than just hotel accommodations, how did this idea come about to include all types of sleeping arrangements for travelers?

Johann Jenson: I grew up in my father’s hotels so I understood very well this artificial divide between hotels and other forms of less commercial accommodation. A bed is a bed but it’s how you package the experience that determines the type and quality of the stay. SleepOut was therefore built to simply allow anyone, from an hotelier to your Swahili grandfather, to nicely package and market their accommodation products.

We started on a small island in the Indian Ocean with no cars but 3,000 donkeys. My girlfriend and I built an accommodation portal for the island of Lamu to help hoteliers and holiday home owners rent their empty beds. Because Lamu is a very unique luxury destination with many of the holiday homes owned by foreigners who are abroad most of the year, besides being a cool hobby, it made a lot of business sense to help them manage their place online like a hotel would.

AFKInsider: What do you feel makes tourism in Africa so unique that your site is necessary?

Johann Jenson: Everything about tourism in Africa is unique, but for far too long it has been very expensive to travel to many places on the continent. Africa holds some of the world’s most incredible natural and cultural wonders, yet because of a lack of marketing and online savvy, accommodation owners in destinations just like Lamu Island are unable to communicate their offering to even your most avid world travelers.

SleepOut.com provides a fresh and unique perspective that goes beyond your typical hotel booking site. We do this by working directly with hosts on the ground and via SMS. We provide user-friendly tools for publishing their listings for free and allow them to offer resident discounts and negotiate their pricing directly with potential guests.

AFKInsider: What are the biggest challenges your company faces?

Johann Jenson: Keeping communication and payments flowing between guests and hosts while ensuring a world-class level of customer support to hosts in 45+ countries — and guests worldwide— is an enormous undertaking for everyone on our small team. Our engineering and customer support team are absolutely amazing and if it wasn’t for them SleepOut would not have made it this far.

Making more happen with less seems to be our mantra. We are now a very lean operation with only 10 staff ,but in the past we had twice the staff. It takes time to learn to focus and cut the fat where it isn’t needed.

AFKInsider: Explain how the company magazine Nomad came about and how it has positively contributed to SleepOut’s growth.

Johann Jenson: NOMAD actually started as an experiment to alleviate the overwhelming phone calls our customer support staff were handling asking for travel advice and inspiration. It didn’t work but it did bring in a lot of traffic from Google to SleepOut.com. While our customer support agents are generally quite knowledgeable, there was no way they could share the level of detail that NOMAD could.

Now, NOMAD has morphed into a fully-fledged African travel magazine, which provides the latest African tourism news and contextual advice on the coolest places to stay on the continent.

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