In September 2011, three young Palestinian entrepreneurs launched Yamsafer, a bilingual online hotel booking site. The website’s reputation traveled in light speed across the Arab world, securing one success after another. Less than a year after its launch, Yamsafer closed a $1 million round of investment deal from Sadara Ventures, and today, it announces the re-launch of its redesigned website to include new Arab destinations such as the UAE, Lebanon, Kuwait, KSA, and Egypt. The company is working on increasing the number of participating hotels to 2,500 properties spanning the MENA region in 22 Arab countries with a focus on competitive hotel pricing.
Faris Zaher, the CEO and Co-Founder of Yamsafer stated: "The number of hotels in our network grew exponentially and Yamsafer now hosts hotels ranging from the world's largest luxury chains to small, family-owned boutiques. What hotels like about the Yamsafer platform is that we provide them with access to Arab travelers. Arabs now represent about 80% of travel activity within the region and are relatively resilient to political shocks, making them a valuable source market for hotels at this time." Zaher further added, "We've also revamped our interface, which now runs on top of a powerful booking engine".
The Start and Growth of Yamsafer during the Arab Spring
The idea of Yamsafer dawned on the founders when they saw the MENA as the world’s fastest growing inbound and outbound travel market. Surprisingly, the founders launched Yamsafer with absolutely no online travel experience. “This meant that we had to go through an extremely sharp learning curve,” says Zaher. “We learned the most important things along the way. The key is to come in with a set of skills that would allow you to absorb information quickly, letting you stay on top of the curve.”
Zaher emphasized the importance of having a technical background and knowing how to use data. “I don’t believe in startups where the ratio of technical to soft skills falls below 2:1.”
It wasn’t particularly hard for Yamsafer to acquire their first $1 million investment, simply because they weren't focused on getting investment! Instead, they were trying to establish their company with what they already have—and that was nothing but a mere $12,000! “We weren't waiting for investors to jump on board before we set sail. We wanted to build a solid foundation to grow on top of it in later stages, rather than chase short-lived achievements. We were building Yamsafer with Yamsafer in mind, not some investor committee,” stated Zaher.
Although the Arab Spring affected business travel patterns in the MENA region, according to Yamsafer’s founders, the impact has been limited almost exclusively to Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon. Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Kuwait City, Aqaba, and the Dead Sea remain popular Middle East alternatives to Arab Spring affected countries, which Yamsafer anticipates to experience big hikes in leisure, business, and religious tourism.
“We’re now focused on the GCC market. Statistically, 1 out of every 4 intraregional travelers is a Saudi national, and that’s without even counting the rest of the GCC. Destinations such as Jordan, Bahrain, and the UAE are extremely popular amongst GCC travelers, so that’s where we’re focusing our efforts in building hotel relationships,” says Zaher.
Contrary to other OTAs who label COD payments as their biggest challenge, Zaher said that Yamsafer’s biggest challenge is to assemble a good team. “The rest of our challenges are solved with time and effort.”
The Edge of Yamsafer
When asked what differentiates Yamsafer from other travel-related websites, Zaher listed two things. First, Yamsafer’s great and relevant content, and second, the company’s unique selection of hotels. “Travel-related content in Arabic either doesn’t exist or makes no sense, because it’s machine-translated,” explains Zaher. “We write our own coverage of hotels in Arabic, which engages people in a more authentic way.
Zaher also mentioned the value Yamsafer brings to hotels. Because the website directly connects people to hotels, clients are able to get typically lower than average hotel rates. Furthermore, Yamsafer brings many original boutique hotels in small cities online for the very first time. “These hotels usually offer great value for money to travelers and often become best sellers.”
A Look at Yamsafer’s “Remodeled” Website
Yamsafers’ new website has overhauled its images to ensure attractive displays and has increased its travel-related content in both the Arabic and English languages. Customers can make payments directly to Yamsafer or pay the hotel once they arrive, using their credit card to guarantee the transaction. The website also provides full compatibility with mobile devices, in a move designed to prepare the company for its upcoming release of a cross-platform mobile application. Zaher further added, "We have revamped our interface, dedicating our attention to content and features our users love the most."
With the launch of the new website, Yamsafer will continue to work on the many features of the site, which includes marketing, further acquisition of hotels, product development, and maintaining its great customer support.