Jen Rubio didn't just co-create a luggage brand — she created an online community by understanding the way travel is an aspirational good in the age of social media. Plenty of companies could learn a thing or two.
Travel's most forward-thinking insiders will gather September 18–19 for our annual Skift Global Forum in New York. In just a few years, Skift's Forums — the largest creative business gatherings in the global travel industry — have become what media, speakers, and attendees have called the “TED Talks of travel.”
Skift Global Forum 2019 will take place at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall in New York. This year's Forum speakers include CEOs and top executives from Booking Holdings, Delta Air Lines, Expedia, Air France-KLM, Marriott International, Amtrak, and many more.
It wasn’t that long ago that luggage was something you simply needed — not coveted. Enter Jen Rubio, the co-founder and chief brand officer of Away. After discovering there was a striking gap in the market for a piece of luggage that was as aspirational as it was functional — and not to mention photogenic — she set out to create the Warby Parker of suitcases. It helped that both she and her co-founder, Steph Korey, were alums of the successful direct-to-consumer eyewear brand.
But Rubio and Korey didn’t just create a suitcase with cult status. They created what so many brands, travel and otherwise, want in 2019: a robust online community where your customer base eventually does much of the work of creating content and marketing the product for you. For proof of that, just see the #travelaway hashtag on Instagram. The way Rubio accomplished that feat has a lot to do with her understanding the way travel has changed in the online era.
With a new tranche of funding announced in May — $100 million, bringing the less than four-year-old company’s valuation to $1.4 billion — Away has its sights set on expansion. In addition to multiple iterations of its original suitcase, it already offers weekend bags and duffel bags, but the company is now eyeing areas like skincare, supplements, and clothing.
Rubio knows that replicating success in any of those areas requires one key component: an emotional connection that goes along with the physical product. In other words: Wherever you go, Away wants to go with you.
Rubio will be speaking at Skift Global Forum in New York City on September 18.
Skift: Most travel companies Skift covers offer a service or experience, not a physical product. What do you think those kinds of companies can learn from a travel company like yours?
Jen Rubio: With Away, we’re offering a physical product, but we’re also offering our customers an experience and the chance to be a part of a larger community. Our product is solutions-oriented, with features designed specifically to make trips more seamless first and foremost, but there is also a key component of emotion behind everything we do.
We know that travel can be such a transformative experience, so we always lead with sharing the context around our products, like where a suitcase can take you or what it can allow you to do. The nature of our product also allows us to positively influence travelers’ experiences in each real life moment — no matter how large or small — when they’re on the road or passing through the airport. Ultimately this allows us to build deeper, more meaningful connections with our community — because whether it’s documenting the highlights of a trip and creating memories or waiting for a delayed train or flight somewhere, Away products will be the one thing that’s physically by your side.
Skift: Away is poised to enter other spaces, including skincare and clothing. How important is ethical and sustainable sourcing to you as you develop those new products?
Rubio: Being thoughtful about how we enter these new spaces is critical, especially as
it relates to responsible and sustainable sourcing. We’ve always been mindful of our impact on the environment, and we’re committed to offering responsibly manufactured products that are built to last a lifetime —instead of ending up in a landfill. As we explore new categories, we’ll continue to be guided by that principle and ensure that our products have the longest life span wherever possible.
Skift: Skift Global Forum’s theme is “What is travel’s responsibility to the world?” Beyond your supply chain, how does that theme manifest at Away?
Rubio: Travel is the ultimate vehicle to creating a better self and a better world — it’s a means to spark curiosity, build bridges, and bring people together. Travel encourages us to explore new places and learn from those who live or think differently from us, making it one of the most transformative experiences out there. In return, it’s our responsibility to leave the places we visit in better shape than we found them (the campfire rule on a global scale!), and to incorporate these learnings back into decision-making and interactions in daily life in order to make the world a better place.
Skift: Since you identified this market vacuum for luggage people actually like, many brands have followed. As an entrepreneur, do you feel constant pressure to out-innovate your competitors/imitators?
Rubio: We tend to stay focused on ourselves rather than compare what we’re doing at Away to what other brands might be working on. This mindset helps to block out any distractions or negativity, but it also ensures that we’re staying true to our core vision and allowing our community to drive whatever we do next, instead of our competitors. We also recognize that anything that’s getting people excited about the travel and luggage space is ultimately a good thing!
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Photo credit: Away Travel's luggage collection. Chief Brand Officer Jen Rubio, who speaks at Skift Global Forum in New York on Sept. 18, not only co-created a suitcase with cult status but also a brand-loyal online community. Masha Maltsava / Away Travel