“Can I bring a tiger to the United States?” It is Yohanes Zewdu’s last request to a demanding footballer.
After a chance phone call from Samir Nasri fifteen years ago, Zewdu embarked on a career providing luxury travel and concierge services to soccer’s biggest stars through the company he founded, Kloudout. The last few months have been the busiest time of the year.
His company deals with private planes, luxury hotels, yachts, nightclubs, luxury restaurants. It is a lifestyle that admits that it is within the reach of very few.
“If you’re a flexible Premier League player who wants to come to Vegas, it would cost you at least $20,000 for entertainment and $20,000 for the hotel,” says the 35-year-old. “You’re looking for $40,000 or $50,000 for four days. If you’re coming from Los Angeles, the private jet will cost you between $6,000 and $9,000, but if they want one from the UK, they’re looking at between $100,000 and $200,000. I recommend flying first class here, and then we can be flexible!”
While based in Dubai, Zewdu spends the summer traveling around the world on private jets and luxury yachts, hopping between clients to plan their summer vacations.
It has become better known as Dubai-based social media personality ‘Johnny Vegas’. His client list includes Inter Milan striker Romelu Lukaku, Juventus, USMNT midfielder Weston McKennie, Formula One. race car driver Lando Norris and former two-time UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones.
When Manchester City striker Jack Grealish enjoys Las Vegas or Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema struts around Los Angeles, they arrive by private jet and stay in the city’s most exclusive hotel suites. Although you won’t see them in their social media videos, luxury travel specialists accompany your favorite footballer on vacation from arrival to departure.
When the athletic I met Zewdu, he was in a hotel suite while his clients slept in another room after a night out in Sin City.
As he began to speak on the Zoom call, he claims that a baby tiger entered the room. “What’s the craziest request you’ve ever received?” the Athletic Question. “How to bring a tiger to America,” she laughs.
“Some of these requests are so crazy that I couldn’t even mention them. This summer, I had one where we went to Ibiza, and the guy looked at the villa that I found and said, ‘Hey, I don’t like this villa,’” says Zewdu.
“’Get me a villa in Mykonos, and we can go to Mykonos right now.’ In thirty minutes, he had to find a villa in Mykonos, order a plane and make it happen. The demand is unreal, but with the experience I have and the network I have, I can provide that service. That is why they are willing to return.
Before being exposed to the glitz and glamor of staying in Europe’s most luxurious hotels and America’s hottest party spots, Zewdu came from humble beginnings. He grew up in a small house with his mother and his grandmother in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, while his father studied in Russia. Although he and his family had little, he fondly remembers his childhood in his home country, especially playing football barefoot outdoors with his friends.
“My father had the opportunity to come to the United States. The US has this thing called ‘DV’ (Diversity Visa Program), which is like a lottery that they dole out to educated people in countries like Ethiopia. My dad filled it out and won, allowing me to come to the States around nine or ten.
“We landed at the Los Angeles airport and headed to our new home in Las Vegas. I remember driving and seeing all the cars on the freeway, which was unreal. A complete culture shock. I didn’t speak any English and it was hard for me to adjust, but one thing I had in common with the other kids was my love of sport.”
Although knee surgery ended his childhood dream of becoming a professional soccer player, he paid for his college education by working as a valet at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas. During this time, he first tried networking with stars, frequently coming into contact with A-Listers, including Floyd Mayweather, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and movie star Leonardo Di Caprio. He credits the hotel’s atmosphere with earning him his first break in the industry.
“Then one day, a French guy walked into the Bellagio. Turns out he’s a movie star now, but at the time, he was just a regular guy. I noticed that he was French, so I thought it would be fun to say ‘bonjour’ to him. Then he started talking to me in French, which was funny because I don’t speak French!
“After laughing, I told him that my favorite player was Franck Ribéry and he was excited because they are good friends. He pulled out his phone, showed me videos of them together, and told me that the next time he was in Vegas, he would bring me a signed jersey. I said thanks, but it’s Vegas, and people are always talking, and nothing happens. I didn’t believe it
“A year later, this guy came to Vegas looking for me and I was in a different place. He found me and handed me a signed shirt. He changed my life because he showed me the courage to say something and follow through.”
A few weeks later, now working at a different hotel in town, he was sitting at home with his mother watching Oprah when his phone started ringing from an unknown number. Usually she would ignore the call.
“I got a call from an unknown number and a guy was like, ‘Hey bro, how are you? This is Nasri. I have your number. Can you help me?
“I took a moment to process it and my face turned pale. She was shaking and sweating. I’ve never had an opportunity like this, and to have it be Samir Nasri, as an Arsenal fan, was a different feeling.”
The problem was that Zewdu had no idea how to get hospitality for players used to living in luxury.
“I hung up the phone and I was in total shock. Fortunately, I went back to the hotel and talked to my managers,” Zewdu recalls. “I didn’t understand that side at the time, so they helped me get in touch with the concierge team and the other people I needed. He came over, I took care of them, and then he passed my number on to another player, which became a domino effect. Since then, I have had the opportunity to travel the world.”
That was 15 years ago. She was a world away from the ‘influencers’ and the people who made a living from social media. Due to its growth on Instagram, Kloudout has 10 employees and connections in Europe, the United States, Africa, and the Middle East. His company has gone from a limited Las Vegas-centric service to securing private jets, yachts and exclusive tables in all the hottest party destinations.
“It was not like what it is today. Looking back is very embarrassing, realizing the service I used to provide, but now it’s different. It was shocking to see and provide a service to Danny Welbeck or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Now I realize that every new client is a new opportunity. Being with them opens up a new portal for other athletes as they naturally want to go where they know their friends and teammates are.”
Clients can be exact and thorough with their requests, from specific diet plans to in-demand barbers with huge social media followings to make sure they look good. Others want to drive supercars, some want to sail luxury yachts, while others focus on attending members-only gyms to stay in shape. Zewdu makes sure to cater to everyone.
“I designed and structured your vacation. Some players want the basic stuff, you know, ‘Can you reserve this, can you order that?’, but they don’t spend a lot of time with me,” says Zewdu. “The most prominent players and those in the entourage want you to be there because their demands are more serious.
“Athletes change their minds every second. Tomorrow I could be in another city or country. They don’t plan; they just go with their emotions. They order a private jet and ask to go to Miami, LA or Las Vegas. In Europe they want Barcelona or Mykonos. In the Middle East, maybe it’s Dubai. You must be well connected everywhere.”
The most considerable evolution has been the growth of social networks. While it gives you a platform to grow your business in the public eye, it comes with privacy challenges. For Zewdu, ensuring that its customers know they are safe under its protection is top priority.
European gamers would rarely use a private jet before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the convenience and enhanced security benefits mean they have become the most common mode of travel.
While his clients relax with their entourage on the plane, Zewdu plans the rest of their trip to the fullest extent, ensuring that all safety precautions are taken and that his clients are satisfied with his service.
“You don’t really have time to enjoy it. It’s great being on a private jet, but while I’m there, I plan what’s next and what’s next. My mind is always on work while they are having fun.
“They want to go to restaurants and they want to have fun. A big thing with soccer players is golf. Many don’t even know how to play, but enjoy it anyway. I have to know where the best golf courses are and if I can get them. When I’m at the restaurant and they’re having fun, I’m like, ‘Okay, what are we going to do now? Where is it safe, where is it private? I’m lucky if I get an hour’s sleep!”
As the players return to their clubs for pre-season, Zewdu’s focus will turn to the World Cup in Qatar between November 21 and December 18.
With his company based in Dubai, plans are underway to make Kloudout the premier luxury travel company in the Middle East for football fans arriving from North and South America.
“I have a couple of projects for the World Cup. We want to be the ambassador for fans in North and South America,” says Zewdu.
“I have been to Qatar four times to do market research. I want to understand the culture and the community to make sure we are in an informed space to be an ambassador for Americans who have never been to this region.
“The culture is different but we want to respect it and have a good time.”
(Cover Image: Getty Images; Design: Kris Sheasby)