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In a world enamored by the mystique and allure of Japan, one platform stands out as a guiding star for travelers — The Navigatio. Today, we have the privilege of diving into the mind and heart of Nele van Hout, the visionary behind this comprehensive guide to Japanese travel. From the neon lights of Tokyo to the serene temples of Kyoto, The Navigatio has become a trusted companion for over a million readers annually, helping them craft their perfect Japanese escapade.
In this interview, Nele opens up about her journey — how a deep-seated passion for Japan transformed into a digital haven for fellow enthusiasts. We’ll explore the genesis of The Navigatio — from its initial steps as a budding idea to its evolution into a go-to resource, complete with itineraries, accommodation guides, and insider tips.
With Nele at the helm, The Navigatio does more than just share travel content; it connects cultures, bridges gaps, and offers a window into the rich tapestry that is Japan. This conversation is not just about a website; it’s about the journey of a passionate traveler who has turned her love for a country into a beacon for others.
As we navigate through Nele’s entrepreneurial voyage, her strategies for success, and her vision for the future of The Navigatio, we invite you to join us on this inspiring journey. Whether you’re a seasoned traveler to Japan or dreaming of your first visit, there’s a wealth of wisdom and inspiration to be found in Nele’s story.
Meet Nele van Hout and The Navigatio
SBS – Hi there! Can you introduce yourself and the venture you embarked on?
Nele – Hi! My name is Nele van Hout (pronounced as Nay-la), and I run an online travel blog called The Navigatio. My website provides free travel guides about Japan, and it’s grown to receive around 200,000 monthly views. Our Facebook community has over 90,000 members whom we help with personalised advice to plan their dream trip to Japan.
The Navigatio started as a hobby and a way to improve my CV during university, and it has undergone many complete overhauls to end up where it is today. It never started out as a business, but it somehow transformed into a full-time gig for me, something I am incredibly grateful for. It started as a lifestyle blog, turned into a city travel blog, turned into a Japan-specific website.
During the pandemic, I lost the majority of traffic and income from the site. I had to take on multiple freelance gigs to pay the bills, hoping that tourism would soon resume. It was also during the pandemic when I decided to shift the focus of the website from a generic travel blog to a website fully dedicated to Japan. It’s the destination I love most, like writing about most, and know most about, so it only made sense.
I put all my efforts into setting my website up for success as soon as Japan reopened its borders. While it took Japan until October 2022, one of the last countries to reopen for tourism, The Navigatio’s traffic skyrocketed, and the growth hasn’t slowed down since. It allowed me to go full-time with my website and hire writers in Japan to increase the number of guides we put out. In 2024, I’m travelling back to Japan for three months to create more content, and I already cannot wait to see where we will be in 12 months’ time.
The Spark of Inspiration: Tracing the Origins of The Navigatio
SBS – Share with us your journey leading up to this idea. What inspired it?
Nele – I was born and raised in the Netherlands, but when I turned 18, I decided to move to Manchester, UK. I had my mind set on getting a Creative Writing and English Literature degree, and Manchester Metropolitan University seemed like the perfect place for me to do this. Studying literature in your second language and moving abroad at such a young age seem a little crazy to me now, 10 years later, but my “How hard could it be?” genes helped me dive into the adventure with nothing but optimism.
When I started The Navigatio in 2017, I was halfway through my university degree. It was never my intent to turn this blog into a full-time business — instead, I thought it’d be a good addition to my CV and portfolio to set myself apart from my university peers. When we’d all be applying for graduate jobs the year after, I’d have something extra to show for.
The Navigatio started as a lifestyle blog. I wrote articles about what it was like to study abroad, the best things to do in Manchester, my favourite coffee shops, personal essays about topics I found interesting (Japanese culture and language!) and travel guides from the trips I’d take. After graduating, I took my first trip to Japan, which exceeded all my expectations. I’d been obsessed with the country and its culture since I was a child, so this really was a dream come true.
In the meantime, my blog started to attract some views through Google. Since I had mainly promoted it on social media to friends and family up until then, this caught my attention. At the time, I didn’t know anything about SEO (Search Engine Optimisation — getting your blog posts to show up on Google’s result pages), but I started learning as much as I could about it. This landed me a graduate job at a start-up company in Manchester, where I ended up working for six months as their digital marketing assistant.
I made the decision to focus solely on travel articles on The Navigatio whilst working at the start-up, as those were the ones I enjoyed writing most and the ones Google seemed to like most too. It was a win-win situation. As the website started to gain more and more traction, I quit my job to focus fully on the website. My reasoning was that I was only 23, so I’d have more than enough time to bounce back if everything went south.
The blog was growing until the pandemic hit, a mere six months after quitting my full-time job. Since nobody knew how long this would last, I held my head above water with the odd freelance job here and there. Writing travel guides on The Navigatio was still my number one priority. Money was tight, but I ended up investing in a blogging course called “Blogging FastLane,” which helped me realise that niching down onto one destination would be the way forward. It helped me to finally see my blog as a business rather than a hobby.
As Japan is my favourite destination, the one I have been obsessed with since I was a child, and the one I had written most articles about up until that point, it seemed like the perfect destination to focus on. My freelance gigs allowed me to keep working on my blog rather than getting a full-time job. However, I came very close to giving up multiple times during the pandemic — it seemed to never end.
But luckily, Japan finally opened its borders in October 2022. My fiance and I travelled back to Japan in October, and my website’s traffic skyrocketed. Even 12 months later, the site is still growing!
Crafting The Navigatio’s First Steps
SBS – Walk us through the journey of conceptualizing, creating a prototype, and bringing your website to life.
Nele – When I started the website, it was never meant to turn into the business it is today. It all unfolded and evolved many times over the last seven years, and I have no doubt that it will keep evolving as I have to keep up with the digital landscape.
I chose the name because it means “the voyage” in Latin. As I planned the website to be a mix of lifestyle and travel, I thought this was a fitting name. If I had known it would end up turning into a Japan travel website, I might have picked a different name — but I do like that The Navigatio fits me well, and I keep my options open with a name like mine.
The first view versions of the site were made in a pre-built WordPress theme. I built the current version myself with the help of GeneratePress. It took a good few months to get it right, as I’m not a website designer, but learning how to build it from scratch allowed me to make it exactly the way I want it. On top of that, if anything goes wrong with it in the future, I’ll be able to fix it.
Niching down into solely focussing on Japan was quite a journey. Going from a lifestyle blog to a generic travel blog, to a city travel blog, to a Japan travel blog took me years. However, it’s taught me so much about running a website and what parts to focus on to make it profitable. Writing about one destination allows me to deep dive into it — I can experience and learn as much as possible about it and give people better advice. There is so much to learn about a country, especially looking at it from the perspective of the travel industry, and positioning myself as the expert has gained me the trust of both my readers and Google. I spend every day learning more about it.
Since growing the number, I’ve been able to work with tourism boards, hotel chains, and tour operators in Japan. Being able to try a lot of these experiences myself puts me in a great position to recommend what’s worth it and what’s not.
The Launch Strategy of The Navigatio
SBS – The Launch: What was your strategy for putting your business on the map?
Nele – The majority of my website traffic comes from Google. SEO is my bread and butter (it’s where I used to focus most of my freelancing gigs, too), so that’s why I started building a steady stream of visitors from search engines. Especially now Google sees me as an authority on Japanese travel content, it’s becoming easier to rank higher for the topic.
However, I don’t want to rely solely on Google. There are constant updates that could wipe out the traffic I’ve built. That’s why I’ve been growing my email list and Facebook community (now with over 90,000 members) to diversify it. I’m planning to expand it even further in 2024, but there are a lot of channels to manage on my own.
Luckily, running a website doesn’t have a lot of upfront costs (apart from travelling to Japan). However, you mainly pay in time. I spent over five years creating guides, learning about SEO, optimizing the website, and building my authority before I started earning good money from it. It’s definitely a marathon, not a sprint — but when the ball starts rolling, it’s pretty sweet!
Growing the Audience
SBS – After your initial launch, which tactics stood out in attracting and retaining your readers?
Nele – Since my website was never intended to turn into a full-time business, I didn’t have a blueprint or strategy in place. I had to adjust so many times and create new plans from scratch — but I think that’s what’s helped me come to this point.
The biggest change happened when I decided to shift from generic city travel to Japan. I was already known for my Japan-related content on social media, my mailing list already focussed heavily on Japan, and my Facebook community was about Japan only, too. But, once I rebuilt the website to focus only on Japan, the number of visitors and my community started to grow much quicker.
It also puts me in a much better position when working with tourism boards and brands. Because my audience is focused on one destination, brands have a much better chance of getting in front of the right people and selling their products, destination or hotels.
Putting a bigger focus on the Facebook community has also been one of the best moves I’ve made. It’s grown to over 90,000 members — and I’m sure a big majority of it won’t be using Google to find their answers. It helps me diversify the traffic, interact with our readers, and give them personalised advice for their trips.
Current Successes and Future Horizons
SBS – Give us a snapshot of your business today, and share a glimpse of your future plans.
Nele – The Navigatio is in the best position it’s ever been in, and I’m incredibly grateful and proud of that! Luckily, running a website like mine doesn’t have a lot of overheads — apart from the costs of travelling to Japan to create new content. I have also hired a couple of writers who are based in Japan and can help me create new content about places they are most familiar with. They know way more about certain places than I do, so having their expertise as part of the site is invaluable for our readers.
In the last 12 months, we’ve undergone enormous growth. This is partly due to Japan finally reopening to tourists after being closed for over two years during the pandemic, but I had to make sure the site was ready for this. During the pandemic, I made the decision to niche down and put my focus on Japan — I spent most of my time (when I wasn’t freelancing to pay the bills) writing new guides and updating old articles to make sure they’d be the best they could be.
The website earns money through affiliate marketing (50%), display advertisements (45%), and sponsorships (5%). As we can easily recommend hotels, tours, travel passes, and more for people who are planning to visit Japan, affiliate marketing works rather well. I don’t tend to work with brands on sponsorships often as I want to make sure we give people our true experience, and that isn’t always possible when you work with brands as they want you to put them in a positive light. I only tend to do this when I am already using the product/service or have tried the tour/hotel with my own money beforehand (and I liked what they offer).
In 2024, I’ll be spending three months in Japan to create new content and kick-start our YouTube channel. I’m all for diversifying in 2024 to ensure The Navigatio can survive any heavy Google algorithm updates.
Lessons Learned: Key Insights from Building The Navigatio
SBS – What key takeaways or beneficial lessons have emerged as you’ve built your business?
Nele – Not everything is in your control, and you need to be ready for that. My website was growing steadily before the pandemic hit. Then, nobody was interested in travel anymore. This was devastating, as I had recently quit my full-time job to focus on my website, and I had no other income to fall back on. I was very lucky to have found some amazing freelance clients, but there were months when I struggled to pay the bills.
I’m aware this can happen again. If not a pandemic, a Google update or something similar — that’s why I’m putting a lot of focus on diversifying the business as much as possible in 2024.
Setting boundaries for yourself is also very important. When I struggled financially, it was very easy to force myself to work longer days and longer weeks. However, this backfired quite quickly. If you work for yourself, you know that there is always something else to do — but you need time to switch off and relax. Your best ideas and best work can only happen when you give yourself the space to think about something else. I now no longer work in the evenings or weekends — it’s been much healthier!
Of course, I got very lucky that interest in Japan is at an all-time high after the pandemic. Since Japan had been closed for so long, the surge of tourists who’d been waiting to visit has been amazing for my site. People who search for free guides online are very likely to find my website, and I hope that they’ll share it with friends and family who are also planning a trip.
Essential Tools/Platforms for Running The Navigatio
SBS – Which tools or platforms have been of great value for running your business?
Nele – The website itself is built on WordPress. I ended up building the theme myself with the help of GeneratePress. It’s a very lightweight theme that’s incredibly customizable. It ended up taking me a few weeks to get it the way I wanted, but I’m very happy with how it looks now!
On top of that, I use Trello to organise my writers and articles. I add my article briefs for them, and they can easily submit them there too. Plus, it’s a place for me to add any notes for future updates for articles (in case I find anything in the news or in the Facebook community that I’d like to add to certain guides in the future).
SBS – Are there books, podcasts, or other mediums that greatly influenced or motivated you?
Nele – The Blogging FastLane has been an incredible resource for me. It’s really helped me get serious with the business and creating a blueprint for growth. I don’t think I would’ve been where I am today without it.
“You are a badass at making money” by Jen Sincero is one of my favourite books to read. I read it at least once a year to get my mindset right about things. It’s truly made me believe I am able to do whatever I set my mind to and to keep working at it.
Nele’s Advice for Aspiring Bloggers
SBS – What advice can you offer people gearing up to launch their first blog?
Nele – Building a business is a marathon, not a sprint. My website relies so heavily on SEO and a community it has taken me years to build it up to where it is today. I always try to remind myself that I can’t fail unless I quit — mindset is everything. There have been many times, especially over the pandemic, that I was close to giving up and started updating my CV to apply for an office job. But I’m so glad I kept it up, I am truly living my dream of being able to do this full-time!
You also have to be prepared to keep up with current trends and changes in the industry. SEO and Google change constantly, and you have to make sure you know what’s happening. Following specialists on LinkedIn and Twitter can help a lot with this, but joining Facebook groups has been a huge help to me too.
And on top of that, surround yourself with people who support you. Having people in your life who cheer you on and celebrate your successes can be hard to find, so make sure to keep them close.
How to Connect with The Navigatio
SBS – If our readers are eager to delve deeper into your business, where should they head?
Nele – You can find all our Japan guides at www.thenavigatio.com or join our free Japan travel community on Facebook through this link. In 2024, I’ll be spending three months in Japan to gather new and exciting content, and I’ll be posting daily updates on my Instagram and TikTok — so feel free to check them out and follow the journey along!
How Nele van Hout Guides 90K+ Travelers to Japan
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