Hero Meets: Away’s Steph Korey and Jen Rubio

As part of our series in partnership with Luxury Briefing magazine, we talk with leaders in new retail — from founders, to designers and beyond — to get their insights on the future of the industry.

In this edition from earlier this year, we meet Steph Korey and Jen Rubio, co-founders of Away and two of the earliest hires at Warby Parker. Since founding the business in 2015, they have made it their mission to create ‘first class luggage at a coach price’, raising $81m in the process and pioneering a new wave of D2C brands that are ushering in the future of brick-and-mortar retail.

You both worked together at Warby Parker; how did that experience help frame your approach to Away?

JR: Steph and I were two of Warby Parker’s early hires, so we were able to learn a lot about the direct-to-consumer space as the model was still being defined. My experience there showed me that a meaningful brand experience has the ability to disrupt an entire industry. We used emerging platforms and technology to enable and strengthen our relationships with our customers, from storytelling to data and insights and more. From a brand and creative perspective, I truly believed that we had an opportunity to take a unique stance — to not just talk about the features of our bags, but to talk about what you could do with them.

Being a ‘digital native’ brand, what role do you see the physical store playing in the future of Away?

JR: We see the stores as profitable billboards: yes, they are places to sell our product (and we carry inventory, unlike some DTC brands’ showroom models), but more importantly, they’re a place for people to interact with and experience the brand in real life. So much of what we’re building is about storytelling and the travel experience, and we see the stores as spaces to make that come to life in ways we can’t necessarily do online. For us, it’s another platform to tell our story, and we adapt our story on every channel.

Away’s early concept store

How do you still embody a luxury feel, but at a more attainable price point?

SK: Our direct-to-consumer model allows us to make top-quality products and sell them at a significantly lower price than our competitors. We make and sell everything ourselves, so our customers win. There are the nonnegotiable design elements of our bags that set them apart — like the unbreakable polycarbonate shell and 360-degree Hinomoto wheels — which makes Away a truly premium option for customers. Striking the balance between creating great luggage and offering it at the lowest possible price point is part of our broader mission to make better travel possible for everyone, and our customers appreciate that premium doesn’t have to mean expensive.

JR: We’ve also been deliberate and thoughtful with how we built the brand around the product. For us, it’s table stakes to have a great product that’s built around customer needs, but what sets Away apart is our community and their love for the brand. We don’t just talk about the product, but about what you can do with it and what it empowers and inspires people to do — and that gives it a feeling of luxury that’s still very much accessible.

Have you seen any significant changes in the habits people adopt when travelling since you started Away?

SK: Before Away, we noticed that people just weren’t excited about purchasing luggage and other travel-related items, so we wanted to create a brand that would provide solutions, and that people felt they could connect with. We aim to inspire people to experience the world around them, creating products that will facilitate experiences. A little more than two years and several product launches later, I love that we’re seeing people use our products to make travelling more seamless — people who might not have thought a lot about how to pack before are now using our packing cubes to do it more efficiently. All of this adds up to the fact that people are focusing more on the trip they’re taking, which is the goal!

What’s been the biggest lesson you’ve learnt since founding Away?

JR: If you aren’t connecting emotionally with your customers, you aren’t building a brand. Creating a good product is just the beginning in today’s attention economy, so we know that the relationship is what will set the brand apart. We also understand that, at any point, another company could come out with a product that’s similar to ours, but customer loyalty is something that can’t be replicated.

What’s next for the business?

SK: We’re working to become the top travel brand in the world. Over the next few years, we’re focusing on a few key areas — informed by customer feedback and insights — to create the one perfect version. Something that provides you with everything you need to travel, building our brand presence and awareness, expanding our retail footprint, and extending to new markets globally.

Social media is saturated with #travelinspo images. How do you spark that sense of inspiration with your customers online?

JR: From the very beginning, we’ve made it a point of partnering with people who love and support the brand and have a passion for travel, which results in beautiful content that we’re then able to share with our community. We are always in touch with new and old brand partners, hotels, airline partners, restaurants, and shops all around the world so we’re constantly discovering inspiring places to highlight for our customers. Our own research also gives way to partnerships as we meet lots of incredible people who want to work with us. Fundamentally, it’s all about maintaining and building relationships to bring our followers the best possible content and travel advice.

Away’s magazine entitled “Here”

Could you tell us a little bit about Here magazine? What was the thinking behind launching an extension of the Away brand?

JR: Here is an online destination and a quarterly print magazine that was created to be a voice for travellers by travellers, offering insider tips and insight on travel that would appeal to anyone and not just those interested in a new suitcase. It’s a true lifestyle publication and it’s not focused on sights and hotels, but it creates context around trips and travel through the eyes of the people on those journeys. With that point of view, we’ve profiled interesting creatives from our larger global community, from Rashida Jones to Karlie Kloss, Leon Bridges to Arizona Muse. Many of our talented contributors are on mastheads at traditional publications like Vogue, W, GQ, and Condé Nast Traveller, but are able to express a different type of storytelling through the Here platform. Developing this platform has been an incredible way of connecting with our customers, providing actual value and inspiring them to travel more.

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