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COVID-19 and the Travel Goods Business, Part II

An Industry Wellness Check, Best Practices and Strategies

For now, the new normal is an ever-shifting landscape dictated by economic and biological conditions, the tricky balancing act between the impulse to reopen and the imperative to protect.

Agile and adaptive are universal keywords in this space of constant flux, as we discovered last week in Part I of this story.

For this week’s installment we checked in with retailers in the midwest, upper midwest/Great Lakes and New York regions; plus manufacturers in the accessories and bag space for the ground-level view of what’s happening and how they’re coping.

Read on to see how others are adapting to the current situation – and discover some best practices and strategies you can apply to your own situation.

AAA Minneapolis

Minneapolis, MN

AAA Minneapolis Kim Ehrick “We were closed the third week in March because of governor’s orders, but we did curbside pickup,” recounts Kim Ehrick, manager of the AAA Minneapolis Travel Store, a 2,800-square-foot store inside the main office for AAA Minneapolis. “We reopened the Tuesday after Memorial Day, we’ve been open a couple of weeks. It’s still not exactly business as usual because people are still waiting for travel bans to lift.”

“It’s not every day that’s a step forward; some days you’ll have a really strong day, other days just medium. But each week it picks up, that’s the trend.”

That trend is helped by being an auto club destination. “Our AAA magazine, Live Play, AAA, prints six times per year, we just had a magazine drop, we feature items in a regular article entitled ‘Travel Store Essentials.’ At this time of year we’d usually have something affiliated with road trips, and that has worked for us.”

The store is running a leaner staff, and also taking precautions. “We’re limiting the amount of people that come in, we’re requiring masks for anyone entering the building as well as employees.”

Ehrick says they turned up the car travel a little. “We kind of shifted the focus, working hand in hand with our marketing department, who’re really great about getting the word out on the store. We have lots of things tied to road trips for the summer, and camping, putting together a shop within a shop, with an outdoor feel to it. We’re going to get in some hammocks, trying to utilize some vendors we have, hammocks from Sea to Summit – one of our employees in our marketing department is a ’mocker, someone who enjoys the activity, she’s a resident expert and writing an article. It’s something you maybe wouldn’t ordinarily buy at a travel store, but we’re embracing all kinds of new changes, relying on our really great people who are really savvy and in touch with trends.”

The store is also leveraging its AAA ties, piggybacking on top of weekly blasts from the travel department to include a tie-in item. “For example our travel department is promoting Clearwater Beach as a destination, so we include beach-related things we sell in the store, one is a travel blanket by Matador and a compact Bluetooth speaker by DM Merchandising.”

“We’re continuing with curbside. We are getting a handful of requests – we’re making sure people feel comfortable. And we’re trying a personal shopper program, that’s new to us. We are using a software package called Setmore, where customers can set an appointment online, list what they’re interested in, and get time with us one on one. We’ve seen some interest and it’s something to try. Ideally, come fall, people will be thinking about 2021 at some point and we’ll have really strong business.”

Andy’s Luggage

Wantagh, NY
Andy's Luggage
Andy’s Luggage puts its re-opening info front center on its home page, to appeal to neighborhood customers of the 70-year-old Long Island establishment. Gregg Markin has worked at Andy’s Luggage since he was a teenager, and bought the store outright in 1982.

Andy’s Luggage celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, during COVID-19, read the email from Gregg Markin, owner of Andy’s Luggage in Long Island’s Nassau County, who provided a retailer update from one of the country’s hardest-hit counties.

Markin is a lifelong industry veteran. “My family worked for Andy’s in the 1960s. I started working for him when I was 15, doing repairs. I went out on my own at 18, but I was basically a repair shop for him and other places. I’d come pick up all his repair work and bring it to my shop, it was a very big part of my business. So in a way I never really left there.”

“We’re in Phase 2 of reopening this week, with limited hours,” Markin relates. “We started with Phase 1, curbside pickup and drop-off, but it hadn’t really developed. No one’s traveling. We’re still opening for limited hours, just to remind people we’re not going anywhere, but travel here in New York is completely off.”

The shop, which has been in the same location since 1950 and fronts on a main road, is open 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. Tuesday–Thursday, plus Saturday, with no more than three customers in the store at a time. “We actually closed three months; right now it’s half the hours we normally do.”

Look to the store website, and there’s a welcoming community message to go with a photo of Markin’s granddaughter Madison seated atop a pile of luggage, with aggressive sales prices up front to bring people in. “Our plan is, as the phases move up, to increase our hours. [Now,] with the lack of travel and lack of confidence in people we’d pay more for labor and the air conditioning than we could possibly generate with the business. We’re monitoring on a weekly basis.”

It’s slow, but Markin sees signs for optimism. “I’m right across the street from a McDonald’s, I see the lines getting longer outside. We notice there’s more traffic out front. Every day the traffic becomes more and more.”

Bag & Baggage

Prairie Village, KS

Bag and Baggage Prairie Village KS
Top photos: In-store displays at Bag and Baggage hope to appeal to pent-up consumers eager for escape and summer adventure. Bottom photo: Some of the personal protective gear being sold by Bag and Baggage – a smart retail pivot for travel goods purveyors.

“On March 23 everything shut down,” says Erin Leonard, manager/buyer at Bag & Baggage. “We’re in the Kansas City area. Four counties are right here, banded together. First it was Kansas City, locally, than our county. Kansas was one of the first to shut down all the schools.”

“We opened May 11, when we could reopen. We do have shorter hours right now, 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 12 p.m. – 5 p.m. Sunday. We’re opening an hour later and closing two hours earlier; one week we did stay open until 7 p.m. but there wasn’t much traffic.” Despite the reduced hours, Bag & Baggage was fortunate not to have to cut people, although some older employees elected not to return just yet.

“We’ve been sending out blasts about the masks, ways to travel safe,” says Leonard of the store’s outreach efforts. “We have a really large customer base for emails, and we‘ve been doing email blasts.”

The store is changing things up a little on the product side. “We did get in some masks from Zorbitz, and sold 240 of them in the last two weeks, that’s one thing that’s been selling,” Leonard notes. “We also have the Careful Key from Zootility,” a metal hook-like tool for opening doors, pressing elevator buttons and interacting with keypads in a non-contact way. “We will be getting in more UV wands, seat covers, stuff like that. And I’ve been posting cool stuff on Instagram – not luggage, but we have these neat gifts.”

“We’re more focused on road trips, National Geographic and state park books. Road travel is personally what I’m doing, going to Rocky Mountain National Park with my family.”

Elios

Sandy, UT

Elios

“Things are normal here in Utah,” reports CEO Josh Cross of Elios, which makes smart power banks and location-tracking products. “We never officially closed. About 40% [of our team] stayed home, the rest came in and maintained social distancing.”

Like most manufacturers who rely on an outside supply chain, and specifically Chinese manufacturing, Elios has experienced delays. “Right after Chinese New Year manufacturing stopped, our supply chains stopped. Our lead times grew from two months to six months,” Cross says.

The company has shifted focus from what it can’t control – manufacturing – to something it does solely in house. “We’re strengthening our software platform, which is not a tangible product. We’re really just focusing on what we can,” says Cross.

“Our company’s different than others in the travel space, we have partnerships with the Department of Defense and U.S. Government, and that has increased. Our business has grown to where we’re hiring engineers and technical people, we’re unique. Some of our partners, their demand just dropped overnight 95%.”

“October and April are the [normal] demand areas for our bag partners. We’re not going to be making a good launch in October, with the disruption across the industry, but it’s not going to impact us, it’s already in our plan.”

SpectraSpray

Towaco, NJ

SpectraSpray Be Well Kit
SpectraSpray swung into action immediately after The Travel Goods Show, rolling out a new spray hand sanitizer with essential oils, aloe, vitamin E and other wellness ingredients; and sells it at near cost. The new sanitizer is also paired with its immunity-boosting supplements.

First-time Travel Goods Show exhibitor SpectraSpray operates in the personal health and wellness space, and was perhaps ideally positioned for the pandemic. “March and April were great,” says founder Janet Ryan, “now it’s quite slow.”

The company brought its spray products to The Show, vitamins and spray supplements designed for oral delivery. Post-Show, it sourced a new hand sanitizer product from one of its existing vendors. “My manufacturer created a hand sanitizer that’s far above, with essential oils, aloe, vitamin E and lavender. You just spray it,” says Ryan, “you don’t need to open a bottle and make a mess.” Travel resorts and boutique hotels have expressed interest, and SpectraSpray is selling its product to health care personnel at a discount.

“One of the nice things about our manufacturer is they didn’t want us to price gouge,” Ryan relates. “I had to lower the price so they’d sell it to me; it was done as a public service.”

Interestingly, while SpectraSpray’s products are made here in the U.S., they still experienced some supply challenges. “We still get raw ingredients from Asia – we were short a week or two and then we were okay.”

New products for SpectraSpray, in response to COVID-19, include its Be Well Spray Kit, which pairs its sanitizer spray with immunity boosting oral supplements that include Vitamins C and D, zinc and lysine, formulated for rapid absorption.

Travelon

Franklin Park, IL

Travelon Portable UV Sanitizer Box, Antimicrobial On-the-Go Cloth and Pouches
New items from Travelon include the soon-to-be-released Portable UV Sanitizer Box that uses UV-C light to sterilize phones, eyewear, masks and more; plus an antimicrobial On-the-Go Cloth that can be used for sanitizing surfaces, or used like a glove; and pouches using the same silver ion antimicrobial technology as the On-the-Go Cloths to sanitize items stored within.

“Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than smart,” says Travelon CEO Don Godshaw, who recounted a story about being at a global meeting in the Philippines. “Our partner there is a Fortune 100 player, and at an annual party everybody was getting temperature checks, masks and hand sanitizer,” he recalls, saying the seriousness of these precautions gave him insight into what was happening, and spurred him to act.

Around mid-March, the company reached out to its landlords, negotiating for a 30% rent reduction, stipulating they’d pay it back in 2021. “They all took it. I told them we’re in an industry that’s going to get decimated and we need you to participate, and they did.”

“We stayed on our collections, to get AR [accounts receivable] in. And we reached out to the bank to get loan modifications.” Godshaw stressed the importance of preserving capital and diversifying product lines. “It’s happening all around the world, we can’t transfer merchandise from the U.S. to Asia, etc.”

Internally, Travelon made the decision to cut three full-time positions, all temps, and furlough some employees. “I cut my salary to $20 an hour,” says Godshaw, “and we’re on a 30-hour week, to stretch our money as much as we can, no overtime.” The priority for him: “Protect your people. They’re your number one asset.”

“We looked at six months of work we’d done on 2021 and pushed it off to the side,” says the take-charge CEO. “We’ll look at it a year from now. Right now the design team’s working on building things in demand for the era of COVID-19. We say we make travel safer and easier, we have to make things that qualify in that category. We have to diversify our product line and build products that will help dealers reopen.”

Travelon is introducing new items to help retailers and customers navigate the pandemic, including a portable UV sanitizer box that uses UV-C lights to kill 99.9% of germs and viruses, and is large enough to hold smartphones, wristwatches, eyeglasses, face masks and other high-touch items. Also on the way (to be released in July) are antimicrobial pouches and a cloth that can be used for sanitizing, or used like a mitt for protection while using high-touch surfaces like keypads and doorknobs.

When asked about the future, Godshaw is characteristically cagey. “It’s not like there’s a road map. And the map changes. I think you have to be a little bit pessimistic; be conservative rather than overly optimistic. Plan on it being a 12-month recovery, at minimum, to get back to 75% or 80% of where we were.”

Walter + Ray

San Rafael, CA

Walter + Ray Tania Rodrigues
Walter + Ray Founder Tania Rodrigues is pivoting her company, with greater emphasis on being an online travel gear resource for consumers. She’s partnering with other travel goods companies like Matador, while continuing to develop her own signature items.

“I’m pivoting,” says Tania Rodrigues, founder of bag and travel accessories company Walter + Ray. “I’m not as airplane-centric as before, and embracing day-tripping.” She’s also blurring the lines between being a wholesale vendor for retailers, and an online consumer store.

“We’re developing new bags right now, but also opened up our website to bring other brands onto my direct-to-consumer site,” says the high-energy, always-positive entrepreneur. “I’ve always had a consumer-facing site, but now I’ve reached out to other small- to medium-size businesses here in the U.S. to position ourselves online with more travel accessories. Matador is going to do it, I’m going to carry accessories from them, not bags. Outdoor stuff like Crabby Gear, I’m carrying their hammock; and a portable barbecue from Nomadiq.”

“Travel is more than getting on a plane,” Rodrigues contends. “That’s been my thinking for quite some time now. I’ve been working on this for a year, but COVID has pushed things on a faster track. I have these things you can throw in your car – you can take my Daytripper bag, grab this over-the-shoulder barbecue and a hammock. I’m carrying some natural skin care products from All Good: SFP 50 sunscreen sticks, hand sanitizer, stuff like that.”

Rodrigues believes cars will be the gateway travel mode for a lot of people. “No one’s going to jump on a plane right this hot second. Most people will dip a toe into going to the wine country, or a day trip at the beach with the kids, or camping for the weekend at a local place; it’s going to be a lotta car travel, for sure. Some cycling, hiking, that type of thing.”

“Interestingly, one of my top-selling products through the first couple months of pandemic was the Trolley Partner,” she says, referring to a mini organizer that attaches to a rolling case’s trolley handle to provide a coffee cup holder and phone holster. “I think this says people have faith, that things are going to turn. It’s an aspirational purchase.”

Like many retailers, Rodrigues is carrying personal protective gear. “I’m creating these consumer-friendly grab-and-go kits, including a really badass mask I just made, with an antimicrobial fabric that’s copper infused. I have a door puller, with a stylus and built-in carabiner that will come with all my bags.”

“My supply chain was halted for months. It was just dry as could be, from every country – Vietnam, China. My big stores went dark. Everybody went dark for a really long time. I’m starting to get orders again, retailers I do have are placing orders. Things are back in full swing, I’m feeling good about it.”

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