By Adam Pourahmadi and Eoin McSweeney, CNN
Johnny Vegas strolls onto the balcony of a suite at the Five Palm Resort overlooking the glittering Dubai Marina across the bay and surveys the potential he sees in the Emirati city.
“I can find New York in Dubai,” he says. I can find Miami and Los Angeles in Dubai. I can find Ibiza, and Marbella, here in Dubai. It’s a melting pot, and everybody’s here. It’s a hub.”
Chief executive of Kloudout, a luxury concierge service, Vegas is a travel agent for sports celebrities.
He works with the likes of soccer stars Romelu Lukaku, from Belgium, and Weston McKennie of the United States, aiming to alleviate any stress his clients might have by planning their entire vacation, from accommodation to daily itineraries.
Having already established himself in parts of the United States and Spain, Vegas is looking to expand his concierge empire in Dubai.
He sees the most visited-city in the Middle East as an ideal destination; the climate in the United Arab Emirates is perfectly suited to athletes chasing some winter sun, as temperatures rarely dip below 25 degrees Celsius (77 F). American and British paparazzi photographers are thin on the ground, giving his clientele much-needed privacy.
And while the Emirate’s hospitality industry is still recovering from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the city is beginning to come alive again. Occupancy rates touched 90% in October 2021 as Dubai hosted international events like Expo 2020 and cricket’s T20 World Cup.
Certainly, in the five-star hotel Vegas is in, the party has started down at the pool, and the sounds of the latest hits filter up to the balcony.
“[Covid] was a restart button to evaluate who we are as a business, for myself as an individual, and to come back and kind of combat what was happening in front of us,” says Vegas. “Let’s study the market, let’s study the culture, let’s understand how businesses function here.”
And with most of Klodout’s clients being world-class soccer players, the company’s biggest event of 2022 will be in the Middle East. The soccer World Cup in Qatar promises to bring players from 32 nations to the region, and some will want to have luxury time in the sun.
For Vegas, it’s a potential goldmine.
From Addis Ababa to Las Vegas
Vegas — not to be confused with the British comedian also known as Johnny Vegas — was raised far from his new life of glitz and glamour, in the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa. His real name is Yohanes Zewdu, and he lived in a house the “size of a closet” with his two sisters, mother and grandmother.
“You don’t have the luxury to eat every day,” he tells CNN. “I grew up on the street; walking barefoot.”
He always had a love for soccer and would play with a makeshift ball constructed from plastic bags stuffed with newspapers. Although he moved away at the age of 10, his Ethiopian roots remain important to him.
“Ethiopia is my blood, this is who I am,” he says. “I appreciate it. I acknowledge it.”
After moving to the United States — his first experience of air travel — he adopted the name of Johnny because kids in his new hometown, Las Vegas, struggled to pronounce Yohanes.
Later, in an earlier job working as a valet at the Bellagio casino, customers would save his contact in their phones as “Johnny Vegas,” and the name stuck.
With valet parking clients, he says, including boxer Floyd Mayweather, former basketball player Michael Jordan, and actor Leonardo DiCaprio, this job was his first taste with showbiz glamor.
“You see things you can’t imagine,” he recalls with wide-eyed wonder.
Vegas earned the trust of high-profile celebrities while they waited for their cars. He made friends and swapped favors, and before long, had fallen into the concierge business with a valuable rolodex.
Friends of the stars
Kloudout’s clients can be highly specific and exacting in their requests, Vegas says. The company’s 10 employees even take care of any fitness requirements athletes might have while they’re away, paying particular attention to the specialized workouts needed to play each sport.
Vegas takes his clients to a members-only gym just outside Dubai, where former Arsenal and Manchester City player Bacary Sagna lifts weights and stretches.
“This is the best way to stay at the top: train seriously, eat properly,” Sagna tells CNN. “Johnny is my brother, and I go fully with him. Not only here in Dubai, but whenever I go to Marbella, whenever I go to the United States. He’s always there for me.”
Vegas’s life seems as glamourous as some of his clients. He shows CNN videos of himself jet skiing at Dubai’s Jumeirah Beach, and partying on a boat at the Abu Dhabi Formula 1 grand prix with American singer Ne-Yo.
Driving flashy cars like Lamborghinis, Mercedes G Wagons, Ferraris and Bentleys are all a part of the package when it comes to being an upscale concierge in Dubai.
One of the highlight reels he has stored on his phone shows him strolling through mansions and restaurants on the Spanish island of Ibiza with former Manchester United player Adnan Januzaj. In another, he brings soccer striker Ivan Toney, of UK Premiership side Brentford, to a coastline Marbella villa furnished with a pool, fish tank, home cinema and grand piano.
The players he works with seem to genuinely consider him a friend, and in one video Newcastle United’s Jamal Lascelles plays a prank on him at Wet Deck Dubai, an adult pool bar.
It’s not only soccer stars he plans to entertain in the Middle East; Lando Norris, the McLaren Formula One driver, is a client. Vegas prefers using word of mouth rather than Instagram or Google as his promotion tool. He sees social media more as a résumé, a proof of concept for a new client.
“It’s like a tree; a tree has a branch, a branch has a leaf. I want to build that trust with you,” he says.
Vegas says he appreciates he has yet to make it to the top of his industry, and continues to look for new opportunities.
“It’s a cut-throat business,” he says. “You have to be able to put your ego down, and adapt to what’s around you.”
With major global sports events like the World Cup putting the focus on the Middle East, 2022 might well be a successful year for Johnny and the region’s travel and hospitality industry.
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