Feb. 7, 2022

How Away Is Preparing for the Travel Boom

Where are you going in 2022?


Nora and Scott speak with Away CMO Melissa Weiss about her strategy for the future of the travel brand and how the company is thinking about growth in the new year. 

Hosts: Nora Ali & Scott Rogowsky
Producer: Bella Hutchins
Production, Mixing & Sound Design: Daniel Markus
Music: Daniel Markus & Breakmaster Cylinder
Senior Producer: Katherine Milsop
Director of Audio: Alan Haburchak
VP, Head of Multimedia: Sarah Singer

Full episode transcript below.

Transcript

Nora Ali: Okay, Scott.

Scott Rogowsky: Yes.

Nora Ali: Scott, your relationship with suitcases is not so good right now. Is that correct?

Scott Rogowsky: It's not, I would say, it's basically a factor of, well I grew up just, you have a thing and it works, and you keep it till it breaks, and you fix it if it breaks.

Nora Ali: There's value to that. But let me tell you something, though. Yes, I was kind of the same way with luggage. I used my parents old luggage that they had, from Minnesota, sitting in their storage room, and I'd lug it to and from college, I'd lug it to and from my new apartments in New York City. But I recently, relatively recently upgraded to real suitcases, real luggage, Away. Yes, I own one of their competitors brands as well, Monos. But my life has changed.

Scott Rogowsky: It's that much better.

Nora Ali: It's that much better, because that act of packing, now, is just more fruitful, it's more enjoyable. I can fit more stuff in there, and I don't have to worry about the suitcase opening up, and breaking and exploding, while it's in transit with me. So I feel like this should be the moment where you are convinced that you need to upgrade your luggage, even if it's not the super high-end expensive brands. Are you still-

Scott Rogowsky: And these are pretty expensive. I mean, look at the prices here. I don't know. What does luggage normally cost, $30 for a piece of crappy luggage? $50? But I mean, I haven't bought luggage, so maybe I need to do some comparison shopping.

Nora Ali: Sure, I don't think you should be using $30 luggage.

Scott Rogowsky: $350, so you're saying the zipper's not going to pop off.

Nora Ali: Nope. There's a hard case, it protects the stuff in there.

Scott Rogowsky: Yeah. I definitely had things broken.

Nora Ali: Yeah. And you probably have to travel more and more with your podcasting equipment. You don't want your microphone to get damaged.

Scott Rogowsky: No, I don't.

Nora Ali: So yeah, we had an interesting conversation about luggage today.

Scott Rogowsky: But not just luggage, Nora, lifestyle.

Nora Ali: Travel, travel lifestyle. Yes. Away is now seeking growth after making it through a relatively rough period. Following its $1.4 billion valuation in 2019, Away sales plummeted 90% in 2020. Thanks both to the pandemic of course, and also some allegations of toxic work culture. But after introducing new leadership, revamping its corporate core values, and even outperforming its initial revenue estimates last year, Away is hopeful for a second wind of growth. So today one of the company's newest leaders, CMO Melissa Weiss, is joining us to discuss her strategy for the future of Away. From Morning Brew, this is Business Casual, the podcast that reveals the unexpected business story behind everything. I'm Nora Ali.

Scott Rogowsky: And I'm Scott Rogowsky. Nora and I are here for your ears, bringing you conversations with creators, thinkers, and innovators who can tell us what it all means and why we should care. Now let's get down to business.

Nora Ali: We're so thrilled to have you on this podcast. Away exploded on the scene as basically the first direct-to-consumer suitcase luggage brand that I had ever seen. You joined just recently at probably a tough time. We're still in a pandemic. So before we get into growth plans, for Away, where would you say Away kind of is in the life cycle of it being a brand since it's launched to now?

 

Melissa Weiss: I guess I would sort of start with just level-setting on how I think about Away, which is a pretty extraordinary company. This isn't a luggage brand and it never has been, right. It really, truly is this travel lifestyle brand. And the idea that the bag is the beginning is really what's extraordinary. And the company right now is at this stage where we're still entrepreneurial and we're still agile and still just as creative as the day that, of the inception of the idea. And now really it's about how do we scale that magic, right? Because this is really what it's about. It's about for any company that's at this stage of growth, right, how do you scale that business so that it doesn't lose what was so special about it to begin with? And so that's really what we're thinking about right now is that, how do we maintain what it was that people fell in love with in the beginning?

Nora Ali: And what is that? What is the travel lifestyle that you're trying to project with Away?

Melissa Weiss: At our core, one of the things that we think about, and we really do ground ourselves in what our belief is and our purpose and our mission etcetera, is that the more everyone travels, the better we become. And a lot of what we think about is, how do we inspire people to travel more? And how do we make travel easier, just the end to end, travel experience. And so when we think about what our place is, it's actually that Away exists to make a more open world by making travel easier. And when we're developing a marketing purpose doc, it's very much not like we're going to get the bags in front of this many people because I don't think that that's really what's important to people anymore. It's really about how are we going to utilize our platform to create something that's more important to people.

Scott Rogowsky: We're going to take a quick break. But when we return more from Melissa Weiss, CMO of Away. Melissa, your hire back in November was just one in a number of big moves made at the C-suite level. There's a new COO, Charles Liu, poached from Casper. There's a CDO, Luke Chatelain, a former J. Crew and previous VP of innovation at West Elm. And there's a new growth strategy behind all this, right? And you're looking at 2022 and beyond coming out of this very difficult year for travel industry, the pandemic, as we're slowly making our way out of it, what factors put Away in a good place to return to growth this year after the past couple of tough ones?

Melissa Weiss: I mean, first of all, we have a customer base that stuck with us, right? So really, while there were broader headwinds in the world, whether you're talking about obviously the pandemic and we're all living in the supply chain issues that are just a reality right now. Number one, I mean, we're seeing it. The broader world is excited to return to travel. Number two, our specific customer base, which is the millennial customer. There is a recent survey that we just saw in this base that that customer in particular is the one that is most excited to get back to travel. And that has expressed an interest actually to travel more frequently post pandemic. The conversation actually that we've heard in that group is that there'll be more diversity in the types of trips. So we're thinking of about that in our business and how do we cater to that? So we're actually really bullish on the road ahead because we're not chasing a new customer. We're not chasing a new business, but the community that we cultivated from the beginning is the one that remains inspired by travel.

Nora Ali: Well, I'm just a sample size of N equals 1, but I'm a millennial who's very excited to travel with more frequency over the next few years. But as you do try to encourage travel more and more, how does that manifest itself in marketing materials, whether it's things like aspirational travel videos or partnering with creators and influencers, what are some of those tactics to inspire customers to travel?

Melissa Weiss: The first is, it starts with a product which is the way we design the product itself. The thoughtful design, the modularity in the product that onto itself is meant to inspire travel just to make it easier. The second is the creative. So if you go on our site, you'll see this shoot where the team went to Iceland, and then we have this behind-the-scenes imagery, and then we'll have a dining guide and a city guide, and we make every effort to take you with us. And what we intend to do this year is the idea of becoming a platform for conversations around travel. Hey, this is cool. I had dinner this place in Jaipur. And then someone says, oh, that's great. I had dinner at this place. And the idea of creating those conversations and us being that platform, that's when it gets really exciting.

Scott Rogowsky: Tell us about the brand affinity aspect of this, because when you're talking about selling a lifestyle, because you were at Barry's Bootcamp during what seems to be a pivotal time, I remember all of a sudden, I'm seeing Barry's Bootcamp everywhere and I'm seeing videos about it and I'm hearing friends doing it. And it just kind of exploded out of seemingly nowhere. That was a success story in terms of Barry's Bootcamp. Now you're trying to take that experience and bring it to Away. Tell us about that process of building brand affinity, maybe in your past roles and how you plan to apply those lessons to a way.

Melissa Weiss: Yeah. I mean, I can speak to exactly what happened at Barry's because it was a really interesting use case. So I actually came into Barry's as a member of the board of directors and I became the CMO when we were, I mean the company was, it had grown organically. There was tremendous growth in the business, but it was entirely driven by these loyalists in the business. And the company was clustered really in New York, San Francisco, LA. And I went in and the company that everyone was comparing themselves in the fitness space was SoulCycle. And so we were all looking to SoulCycle and said, okay, well this is how they did it. You know, they expanded into the suburbs and you looked at SoulCycle and they had a very certain brand. If anyone ever did SoulCycle, you went into the room, there was a candle, it had that vibe. Now, I don't know if anyone has ever taken Barry's Bootcamp. There is a red light. You get on a treadmill, you essentially run uphill and then you do weights and it is one of the more intimidating experiences one has ever faced until you actually get into it. And then you realize that it is perhaps not as intimidating. However, it is not for everyone. And SoulCycle really is a more accessible workout. So when we were faced with this idea of, what should the brand be, when we thought about the expansion of the company, it really means, okay, well then what is the strategy going to be from a real estate perspective? Are we going to move into the suburbs? What does all of that look like? We just looked at the business and we ultimately leaned in on like Barry's Bootcamp is the red light. It is the workout. It is the people in the room who just like eat up that kind of workout. And it didn't make any sense for us to water down who we are. It made all the sense in the world for us to just own it. And so what that brand is that we projected the red light, the edge, that elevated almost luxury experience. And it was a luxury experience. I mean, those are custom made treadmills. You know, if you buy the leggings, the fabric is sourced from Italy. In the showers, it's Oribe shampoo. I mean, you're in a full end-to-end luxury experience. And so that means, like, you're not going to find a Barry's Bootcamp in every suburb all over the US, but you know where you will find one? Milan, Paris, New York. And so we built an extraordinary brand with the highest quality workout out available to you. And we only cared about our customer. That's all we cared about. And we always served them even when it was hard, by the way, because some of it was, we talk about values driven earlier. Barry's was founded by a guy named Barry, super nice guy, by the way, and he was one of the first openly gay entrepreneurs. We did major Pride initiatives with all deference before everyone was doing Pride initiatives. And we got feedback from some of our studios in certain states that that was uncomfortable for them. And I would get phone calls. And my feedback was if those customers don't want to come to you, that's okay. That's okay. Because our core customers really appreciated that we stood for what we stood for and that's it.

Nora Ali: You know who the demo is, that relentless focus on your own customers.

Melissa Weiss: Yeah.

Nora Ali: That's a good lesson.

Scott Rogowsky:

They will not stand for Herbal Essences. They want deluxe.

Melissa Weiss: We got deluxe.

Nora Ali: No Head & Shoulders.

Melissa Weiss: And my job as a marketer is to really key off the vision of a CEO, because I'm not a CEO, I'm a CMO. It's easier by the way. And so that's my job. And I came into Away. I'm like, my job is to take Jen Rubio's vision and say, how do I take this fairy dust and make it go further?

Nora Ali: We'd love to hear more about that, Melissa, but let's take a quick break. First more with Melissa Weiss. When we come back. Melissa, we've been talking about this relentless focus on the customer. And I think when Away had first launched, as we talked about, it was really the first direct-to-consumer luggage brand that made travel and suitcases feel cool and sexy. But now there's a lot of competitors that have popped up since then. For example, I recently Googled Away luggage, to prep for this conversation. I do myself own an Away suitcase, but I also own a Monos or Moh-nos, I don't know how to say it, but it's because when I Google Away, I get ads for its competitors like Monos. So with more competition popping up, how do you continue to make sure that Away is differentiated? Yes, it was largely first to market, but how do you remain distinct in face of all these other players?

Melissa Weiss: That's a great question. And I think one of the ways that we are thinking about that is to just remain focused on our original mission, which is to be a travel brand and not a luggage brand. So if there are other luggage brands popping up out there, then I think that it's great for the market. That's great. It's just more people paying attention to our category. But for us to get distracted by looking right and looking left, as I always say, the competition is not really what we are thinking about, really what we are thinking about is, what can we offer more broadly from a travel services perspective? What can we offer more broadly from a channel perspective? I mean, first of all, we were online, now we're moving into retail and we're in stores. And the other thing is just about stores. Just to say that out loud, there's so much room for innovation there. Because really today when people look at stores, it's just like, okay, here's four walls now, what can we do? Right. Because it's so much more than just a selling channel. They're so much room for experience there.

Scott Rogowsky: Your stores have four wheels, so you can easily roll them along the street. That's a nice touch that Away puts on there. So, and a collapsible hand bar on top of the roof.

 

Melissa Weiss: Yeah. There's going to be a carousel soon.

Scott Rogowsky: Yeah. I'm in Venice. I'm living in LA, Melissa. So I've seen the Abbot Kinney shop. Very nice. And they opened one in West Hollywood recently too. So the brick-and-mortar strategy, the expansion, is underway. Tell us about that strategy and how does it complement the online sales?

Melissa Weiss: So we currently have 13 retail stores across the US, Canada, and in London. We have an aggressive retail expansion plan. Why is this interesting to us? A few reasons. The first is in this particular product category, it is interesting to be able to see firsthand how big something is, how lightweight it is. Right. How does this roll, what exactly does it look like? So just being able to physically experience the product is interesting. That's the first piece. The second piece is our ability to create experiences in the stores. I mean, I can just tell you, like right off the bat, one of the things that's so amazing about the Away suitcases is I don't know if you've ever experienced this, but the capacity of those bags, like you could pack for a year in one of these bags. It's amazing.

Scott Rogowsky: The last piece of luggage I've got, Melissa, is a Kipling bag from my bar mitzvah, 1997. So I'm not exactly the best consumer here.

Nora Ali: No, Scott.

Melissa Weiss: No, Scott. Okay. So this we need to address, but one of the things that people love to see from us is, how do you pack the bag? Because we have all these like tips and tricks. So we love the idea of having packing events in the store. And so there's so many things that you can do in four walls and obviously a lot more to come on that.

Nora Ali: That's some of my favorite content on TikTok, is watching people pack their suitcases. It's so soothing and you're getting pointers at the same time. I love it.

Melissa Weiss: It's so great. I mean, and obviously we have a monogramming service online that we actually had to deprecate in our retail stores for the pandemic, but that's also something that people really like. And so a lot of the things that we had to deprecate during the pandemic we're bringing back. So just a lot of really exciting programming to come in the retail stores.

Scott Rogowsky: We had a conversation on this podcast about the business of airports. And in that conversation, I had asked the reporter who covers airports, what's with the luggage stores at airports? You already you're at the airport, assuming you've already packed your stuff in luggage. Who's buying luggage at airports? Does Away have brick-and-mortar stores at airports?

Melissa Weiss: We don't.

Scott Rogowsky: Do you agree with me? What's the point, Melissa, what do we, what's going on there?

Melissa Weiss: Maybe your bag breaks. I have to say, I am, I shouldn't admit this, I a terrible packer. I over-pack all the time. So I can imagine my getting to an airport and saying, you know what, I needed another bag though. I now have the right baggage. So I don't need that as much anymore.

Nora Ali: Looking back, you've had partnerships with some high profile people like Serena Williams, Sandy Liang, Keith Marriott, and then, in Away's early days as well, you just had regular people who were posting reviews and unboxings on YouTube. Like this one here.

[AUDIO CLIP BEGINS]

YouTube reviewer: Okay. Moment of truth. I ended up getting the blue Carry-On. Who would've thought, what other color would she have gotten? Oh my gosh, it's so pretty. I love it. Oh my gosh. I'm so excited.

[AUDIO CLIP ENDS]

Nora Ali: So how do you parse through the influencers, creators, celebrities, brands that Away does want to work with and how does that help you cater to different demographics over time?

Melissa Weiss: So we have spent a lot of time thinking about what the right partnerships are for us and who the right people are for us to work with. And there are a couple buckets that we're thinking about this year. The first is from a partnership perspective. First of all, we hear about the Flour Shop partnership, like all the time. And a lot of that was, people love seeing color from us. So we have a lot of conversations coming up about product partnership in particular of who we can partner with that just highlight the best of what our product has to offer. The second piece in terms of businesses that we can work with in terms of content creation, which we talked about earlier, that's a huge piece of what we're thinking about this year. Not just in terms of businesses, but how can we work with content creators in terms of whether it's high-level influencers, whether it's businesses that are creating content? I think we're really interested in doing this year is working with local content creators. So whether that's someone who's a photographer or someone who's just like a local artisan or someone who is, and just having them create content for us. So rather than us coming into some location and creating content through our eyes, having someone who already lives in some quote unquote destination, which is actually their home and they create content for us and they tell the story of where they live and they present that to us as something that's really exciting and on the horizon for us. So we love the idea of content creators being a major piece of what we do.

Scott Rogowsky: Right now, Melissa, it's time to move on to the final segment of the show, which is the part that I love to do. It's time for Quizness Casual, the Business Casual quiz. Our contestants today are CMO of Away, Melissa Weiss, and my co-host, Nora Ali, but you're not going head to head. This is not really a competition, mano e mano. It is a team event, a collaborative event. So I'm going to ask three questions, all about travel. Today's questions all about travel. Are you ready, Melissa?

Melissa Weiss: As ready as I'll ever be.

Scott Rogowsky: No Googling, but you know, you have Nora here.

Nora Ali: I'm totally Googling.

Scott Rogowsky: You have Nora here. Nora's a human Google. So your first question, Qumero Numero Uno: What is the second-smallest country by area in the world, Tuvalu, Vatican City, Monaco, or the Maldives?

Nora Ali: Honestly, Melissa, I have no clue. I want to go with Maldives, but only because I see such great travel content about it on all my social platforms and I just have an affinity towards it. What do you think, Melissa? That's just what my gut's telling me.

Melissa Weiss: If we win a free ticket there, I would vote for the Maldives, but I would vote for Vatican city.

Nora Ali: Oh, oh. Wow. Let's go with Melissa's answer because she's our guest. So let's go with Vatican city. Let's lock it in.

Melissa Weiss: The pressure.

Scott Rogowsky: Lock it in. Well Vatican City is the smallest country in the world, but I'm asking for second smallest. Monaco, with 2.1 square kilometers is the second smallest, but a population of 38,400 makes it the most densely populated country in the world. So it's really most densely populated.

Nora Ali: That's a great fun fact.

Scott Rogowsky: Way more people than just the pope and his Cardinals hanging out. Okay. So you're O for one, but that's okay. We got two more to redeem yourself here. Question two, which city has the most expensive airport-to-city taxi ride? All right, so airport-to-downtown taxi ride. Is it Copenhagen, Geneva, Hong Kong, or Tokyo?

Nora Ali: Oh, I feel like maybe Tokyo, because I remember I've been there and it was very difficult to get to the airport. I took multiple trains and other forms of transportation. I just remember the taxi wasn't even an option. So I'm going to go with Tokyo. What do you think, Melissa?

Melissa Weiss: I'm like playing the Jeopardy! song in my head. I don't know. I mean, I've never been to Geneva, but I feel like that would be long, but I don't know. I don't know. So let's just go with your answer, the answers I don't know.

Scott Rogowsky: Going with Nora's Tokyo answer. Well, you know what, Melissa, sometimes it's good to delegate and get collaboration because Nora is correct here.

Nora Ali: Yay.

Scott Rogowsky: The ride from Tokyo's Narita Airport into the city cost an average of $207. Yeah.

Melissa Weiss: Wow. Note to self.

Nora Ali: I took public transport. Yeah.

Scott Rogowsky: Take the monorail. All right. Final question here. One for one here. Can you come out on top? What is the longest nonstop available commercial flight? Okay. By distance and time in the air. Longest available commercial flight: New York City to Singapore, Auckland to Doha, Perth to London, or Houston to Sydney?

Nora Ali: I feel like it's one of the Australia or New Zealand ones. And I only say that because I have sat on very long flights to both countries.

Scott Rogowsky: Back to the napkin, back of the napkin math, math equations here.

Nora Ali: Exactly.

Melissa Weiss: I feel like Houston to Sydney has to be like horrendous.

Nora Ali: Like 20 hours or something. Let's just do that.

Scott Rogowsky: Okay. Well the nonstop longest commercial flight is New York City to Singapore at a whopping 9,537 miles in the flight time of 18 hours and 40 minutes.

Nora Ali: My gosh.

Scott Rogowsky: But you can make the trip nonstop. You guys got one out of three, which is actually one of the better scores we've seen here.

Melissa Weiss: I really, I have to say this was the real I'm really just spent from them.

Scott Rogowsky: Yes, no I don't blame you.

Melissa Weiss: Here goes the rest of the work day.

Scott Rogowsky: That's it take a nap, relax. But thanks for playing Quizness Casual with us, Melissa Weiss. And thanks for talking with us on Business Casual.

Nora Ali: Thanks, Melissa.

Melissa Weiss: It was a pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Scott Rogowsky: We love hearing from you, BC listeners. So please hit our line. Hit us up. We're working on an upcoming episode about the regulation of the cannabis industry. And we'd love to hear your thoughts, if you can remember any of them. Do you work in the cannabis industry? How has regulation impacted the unregulated market, or are you just like going to chill man and not DM us on Twitter @bizcasualpod? No, you should send us an email at businesscasual@morningbrew.com or DM us on Twitter @bizcasualpod, that's B-I-Z casual pod, with your thoughts.

Nora Ali: You can also leave us a voice memo on our website, businesscasual.fm, or give us a ring and leave us an old-fashioned voicemail. Our number is 8 6 2 2 9 5 1 1 3 5. As Business Casual grows, we are excited to get to know our listeners old and new drop us a line. And don't forget to leave your name and where you're calling or writing from. So we can hear from you in a future episode.

Scott Rogowsky: Business Casual is per reduced from Away, by Katherine Milsop and Bella Hutchins, additional production sound design and mixing by Daniel Markus. Alan Haburchak is the director of audio Morning Brew. Sarah Singer's our VP of multimedia. Music in this episode from Daniel Markus and The Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. If you like what you heard, please follow Business Casual on Spotify, Apple podcasts, wherever you go for your podcasts. And we'd love it if you would give us a great rating and a review. Come on, it doesn't cost anything. Just do it.

Nora Ali: Thanks for listening to Business Casual. I'm Nora Ali.

Scott Rogowsky: And I'm Scott Rogowsky.

Nora Ali: Keep it business.

Scott Rogowsky: And keep it casual.