After one twentysomething Austrian expat was asked by prospective expats for advice on settling in Phnom Penh, she decided to found a business to help. Emily Wight reports.
It took Sophie Mensdorff-Pouilly two years in Phnom Penh before she finally found her feet. As with many newly arrived expats, the 29-year-old Austrian toured much of the city before deciding which shops, market stalls and cafes would become a part of her new life.
It soon became clear to her that she would have settled in far more comfortably had she received guidance upon her arrival. With so many expats living in and moving to Phnom Penh, her concerns weren’t unique.
With her friend, French 30-year-old Sophie Chabanon-Pouget – “yes, she has the same name, it’s confusing” – she founded expat2cambodia two months ago. The relocation service helps foreigners move to Phnom Penh, and has already attracted a handful of clients.
Speaking in a BKK1 coffee spot earlier this week, Mensdorff-Pouilly, who has lived in the city for three years, said the idea came to her after a string of acquaintances decided to move to the city for work and contacted her for advice.
“We’ve been there, we had the same problems, we know how people feel when they move here. We think we know now what we wish we’d known when we arrived – and we want to share that knowledge with other people.”
For private clients with a full package, Mensdorff-Pouilly and Chabanon-Pouget begin their relationship on a long-distance level with what they call a “pre-arrival service”: emails and Skype calls that profile the client, assessing his or her needs based on job, family situation, lifestyle and hobbies.
Mensdorff-Pouilly said: “We find out what they will need when they come here: are they moving here with a family or are they single? Are they looking for a house or a gated community or an apartment, on Riverside or in Boeung Keng Kang? Do they do sports, do they have pets, what are their interests?”
Once the groundwork is covered, Mensdorff-Pouilly and Chabanon-Pouget organise airport pick-up, reservation of temporary accommodation and meetings with their real estate partner. When clients arrive, expat2cambodia offers a day of orientation, showing them around potential areas to live, and where the shops, markets and supermarkets are.
“We go to all the shops, so where to buy fish, where to buy meat, silk, furniture, tailors, where to go to the market,” Mensdorff-Pouilly said. “We also have a little brochure where we write down all the emergency numbers and all the best addresses – health insurance, hospitals, that kind of thing.”
The women are determined to speak in the native language of their client – and they certainly have the skills to facilitate it. Mensdorff-Pouilly speaks German, French, Italian and English fluently, while Chabanon-Pouget speaks French and English. They also both speak Khmer.
It doesn’t stop at the private package; expat2cambodia also offers a corporate package, which targets companies, and the women are considering offering what Chabanon-Pouget calls “non-touristic tours” for expats, taking them around Russian Market and even teaming up with a White Building resident to give them a historical tour of the building.
Expat2cambodia may be the only paid-for service of its kind out there, but what of all the blogs, Facebook groups and websites that provide a network for expats to share advice? Why would someone pay for a service they can access for free online?
Mensdorff-Pouilly acknowledged that there will always be those who prefer to find out for themselves. She said: “There are always people who prefer to find out on their own, even if it takes them a year, and other people who are happy to not know much at all and be in their own little world. But for our clients, by spending money for a day or two they’ll save money and hassle in the future.”
Expat2cambodia’s main competition is the Yahoo Group Cambodia Parent Network, but Mensdorff-Pouilly prides herself on the more personalised service they have to offer.
“It’s great because people are online a lot and can reply to questions quickly, but you don’t ever see a face or know who is recommending information.”
She’s right to be confident. Halfway through the interview, a woman at a nearby table approached and told us she’d lived in Phnom Penh for years – how useful it would have been to have an orientation of the city on arrival, she said. Her curiosity suggested that there’s a market for this kind of service – the only surprising thing is that it hasn’t come about sooner.