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Skift Q&A: How to sell physical products to today’s digital travelers

@SamShankman

Jun 27, 2013 8:11 am

Skift Take

User design has quickly become an integral part of the travel experience with tech-savvy travelers looking to efficiently bypass fees in style. Flight 001’s colorful clean designs match the minimalism enforced by mobile passes and digital guidebooks.

— Samantha Shankman

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In the past 15 years, travel has changed in pretty much every way imaginable. Travelers have ditched wheeled bags for light carry-ons, guidebooks for iPads, and toiletry cases for 3-1-1 cases.

Flight 001, whose flagship store sits in a small building in New York City’s West Village, has tracked the changes and adapted with colorful products that break boundaries in terms of colors, weight, and design since its launch in 1999. The brand’s first property, however, looks more like an 1970′s airport lounge than a modern-day design-haven.

Flight 001 hasn’t just tracked the evolution of the flight experience throughout time, but across cultures. There are 18 locations around the world with another ten planned to open in Asia over the next two years.

Skift sat down earlier this month with Flight 001 co-founder John Sencion in the company’s New York store to talk about design, the flight experience, and growing a global travel gear and accessories company.

Skift: Flight 001 started with a collection of travel products and evolved into a brand with its own products. What need did you see that led to the branded products?

John Sencion: I think our first product was really the store and that’s sort of what created the brand. That’s an usual way to create a brand and it wasn’t intentional, but it just sort of happened that way.

We put a lot of thought into the make up of the space. As a matter of fact, we just renewed our trade dress on the actual design of the store. The fuselage with a ticket counter and backage claim area and stuff like that. So that was our first product (the fuselage) there was evolutions of this that give you a better sense of it. It took a few generations to finalize it or really map it out and get a clear sense of what it was going to look like. This was our first store so it was just the beginning of it.

In 1999 there are very few travel products that really existed so you could walk in and out of the door in five minutes and touch every single item in the store, because there wasn’t very much. People thought we were either selling fixtures or we were a travel agency. It was pretty sparse, but over the course of time we saw needs in certain areas and we started making our own [products] as well as asking people to make products for us.

When we started — just to give you an idea of how long ago it was — colored passport [covers] of any kind did not exist. You could get black or brown and red was the fashion color, and that’s all that existed. We were all about color and anti-black; that’s sort of like our kryptonite in a way, but it’s something we have to live with because it’s like buying tires – they’re all black and they’re all round and they get thrown around and beat up and everything – so it is a necessary color, but we try to avoid it at all costs. The passport case that was most popular one available so we started doing them in color and after that, there’s products after products that just came up as we saw need for it.

Skift:  You said something interesting about how in 1999 there weren’t many travel products and since that time travel has grown so much.

John Sencion: It’s not just grown, it’s shifted and changed into and morphed into various many things. Our store had many departments and one of them was music and entertainment and there were no iPods or iPads or anything. We used to carry books.

We consider ourselves the world’s first travel store, because prior to that there were just luggage stores that sold bags, luggage, and some accessories. We carried the entire gamut – bags, luggage and accessories as well as hair items, maps, books, anything and everything you could possibly need.

Right, and over the years we survived 9/11 and this recession and everything. I think this recession is probably a result of this little device here [points to iPhone with which I’m recording our talk] that kind of launched in 2007 and suddenly just shifted everything around. And so as a result, businesses changed somewhat and retailing has changed, period. Travel is very different as well. So it’s kind of cool because every time it changes there are new solutions to provide. So it works for us.

Skift: You’re able to build a new product within the store every time there is a new shift.

John Sencion: Exactly. One good example is the quart bag, the 3-1-1 quart bag that you put all your liquids in, that didn’t exist 14 years ago. That’s replaced a lot of toiletry bags. A lot of people travel a ton, too, so they know to pack less and they’re shoving everything into this tiny quart bag, and so suddenly that becomes more important.

Skift: How has people packing less, due to airline fees, had an impact on the way customers shop or pack?

John Sencion: There’s this one luggage brand called Zero Halliburton that at the time when we opened was probably at the very top of the food chain. It was an aluminum case and it was very expensive and also very heavy. Over time they didn’t adopt and now lightweight is what’s in and airlines are charging for extra weight. So there’s other luggage companies that have taken those cues and made things lighter and all these other kinds of things.

Skift:  What’s your goal with the luggage that Flight 001 designs? What were you thinking when you went to design it?

John Sencion: Maximize space and minimize weight.

Skift: How do you do that when travelers only have X amount of space to fit a weekend’s worth of clothes?

John Sencion: Sometimes companies are afraid to push the limits to where those boundaries lie and so they end up just making something smaller as a result of that and one time, and maybe still, for a lot of luggage companies, they’re all about compartments and these bags and zippers. Ours are pretty simple. Ours are basically a case.

They are set up that way because one of the things that our products are all centered around is this great packing system called Spacepak. Our goal is to make all our bags, all our luggage, Spacepak ready. You can fit these bags into these cases or bags or whatnot. Just like the trunk of your car, we give you an empty case and then we provide bags instead of pockets to organize what’s going on in there.

We’ve created the organization so that it’s easy for you to pack, basically.

Skift: How does the design of products differ between the different locations?

John Sencion: There’s some variation but I think, it’s not like apparel where Japan sizing is smaller than U.S. A big is a one-size-fits-all kind of thing and anywhere you have seasoned passengers, you’re going to have a similar needs.

We have small differentiations here in the U.S. We sell more bags in New York and San Francisco than in Los Angeles where everyone drives a car. Little things like that, but otherwise for the most part, I think design is design.  A lot of our new stores are in Asia. Normally all of Asia follows the West. I feel like we don’t have to worry about it so much, because it starts here.

Skift: What about the products that aren’t Flight 001 products? Are those the same throughout the world?

John Sencion: We try, but sometimes there’s difficutlies with distributors. There are some conflicts with trying to carry one item everywhere, because sometimes it’s represented by someone else and they don’t want to sell it to us. We try to maintain products as close as possible, but it is a big world.

Skift: How many lcocations do you have now?

John Sencion: At this minute, at this hour, 18. By the end of this year, there will probably be at least 4 more. There’s Japan, will open at least one maybe two, but by the end of next year it could be ten total. In South East Asia, we have additional ones opening any time soon like Bangkok and another one in the Philippines. These are all free-standing stores with the same fuselage. They’re not in department stores or another store with a stand or kiosk.

Skift: The store is as much a product as the bags; what do you look for when opening a new location?

John Sencion: One time we were here in the U.S. and we were really looking at what we call entertainment districts. We were looking for secondary streets, not prime locations, that had bars, food, galleries, other kinds of boutiques, glasswares, sculptures, a variety or ecletic mix of retailers and food, because people tend to hang out more if there’s food.

Now we’re really focusing on airports. In the U.S. we’re looking at airport stores, because we feel like that’s the most obvious place for us. And there hasn’t been one person who hasn’t asked us, “Are you in airports?” because that’s our natural environment.

But there is a big shift happening in the U.S., less in Asia, and the shift is from brick-and-mortar to online. And it’s happening to every retailer and we’re seeing it ourselves with our online business.

Skift:  Are all of the products available online?

John Sencion: Yes.

Skift: How do online sales compare to in-store sales?

John Sencion: Our online business is somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of overall business, but it’s the fastest growing.

Skift:  Are all stores this size?

John Sencion: They vary from 800 to 1200 square feet.

Skift: Where do you see design moving towards, for products and the way we travel?

John Sencion: I think it’s technology. Products, per say, have less of shelf-life these days because they are immediately replaced by a new upgrade. I’m thinking it’s really gravitating towards apps. Instead of buying an book, you’re downloading an app whether it’s for a map or a language or a guide. And I kind of feel like that’s the direction that things are moving towards — at least for us. There are certain little niche areas like food that have become very important so we have a very small food section with water bottlers, containers, forks.

Skift: Does Flight 001 create any fashion products?

John Sencion: Not at the moment, but that’s our background. We used to design men’s clothes, my business partner and I. I think at some point it would be fun to do that. Unfortunately, it’s not the design that’s difficult for us, I imagine this is the maybe the case for everyone, you can’t make just five items and so you have to have the cash flow to pay for inventory, everything you make.

But at some point we will do some kind of travel apparel. Everything that we do we make it specific to travel. It’s not travel-related, it’s travel-specifc. Aparel is going to be something stretch that’s easy to iron, some pockets or place for your passport or boarding ticket.

Skift: Why are you focusing on expanding the store in Asia? What are other locations are you looking at?

John Sencion: Asia is where it’s at. I never thought that 14 years ago that that’s where the bulk of our business would be going. I thought Europe would be first, but Euorpe’s just not in the best of shape, financially. Asia is just hungry for anything, everything western. And we found great partners to do that in all of Asia. The only thing that’s left is China that we don’t have a partner with.

Skift: Who do you partner with?

John Sencion: People with experience. Companies with vision and the finances to roll it out. It’s sort of like a licensing idea where they license the brand and they follow the brand design and whatnot. In some cases, we’re more hands on than in others, but that’s essentially what it is.

Skift: Would you ever consider expanding into hotels?

John Sencion: Ian Schrager asked us to come in when the Hudson Hotel first opened, there are two spaces where you get into the escalator where he had planned on opening shops. They are still empty.

Hotel would be ideal. I mean hotels and airports are where our passengers live.

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