Somewhere between the fog of late 2020 and the tentative steps into 2021, travel and business pundits were proclaiming the previously unthinkable: ‘The End of Business Travel As We Know It’.
With flights grounded, borders closed, and the world continuing to adjust to new ‘Zoom-at-home’ protocols, business, it appeared, would be far from usual for some time to come. “Corporate travel might not get back to normality, perhaps ever,” said Citigroup’s Mark Manduca, to Fortune, as industry CEOs lined up their conservative outlooks, not least of all, Bill Gates’s attestation that the coronavirus might slash business travel in half for good.
While leisure travel got its groove back in some capacity last year, business travel continued to keep its cards close to its chest, reflecting on a world transformed, and what its future role in it might be. For those accustomed to travelling for work as a matter of lifestyle, the forecasts begged questions: What might it mean for the ability to move about and get things done anymore? Was this the death of the face to face meeting: heart, soul, bread and butter of business itself?
But for Émigré co-founder and CEO Ralph Thoma, there loomed an even more pressing query: What would it bode for the roll out of a new business travel luggage and apparel brand?
“The pandemic really disrupted not just the way we travelled for work, but basically our whole lives,” says Thoma. “From education, to relationships, geopolitics, to supply chains and beyond.”
Despite the instability in global supply, the impossibility of travel for the foreseeable future, and the inevitable delays ahead, Thoma embraced the prolonged lockdown as a perfect opportunity to build his new brand. “From the way we work, to what we truly desire and need, our values as business travellers were shifting dramatically. New solutions were required; we came along to address that, through how we feel, how we dress, and how we move.”
Launching in 2022, Thoma’s Émigré leveraged invaluable insights during its pandemic genesis: Ultimately, that business travel – contrary to the headlines – isn’t dying so much as transforming; that the culture around business travel had been transforming well before the pandemic; that the in person meeting is still meaningful – possibly more so now than ever; and business travellers, hungry to expand and experience again, are champing at the bit to get back on the road.
The Pandemic Didn’t End Business Travel (The Change Was Already Here)
The pandemic is often cited as the sole catalyst for the seismic shifts rippling through the global marketplace today, from enhanced digitization, to ramped-up tech, to the emergence of contactless consumer experiences. Yet these changes, Thoma reflects, were already emerging before 2020.
“The pandemic accelerated a lot of trends that were already there – Zoom didn’t exist before, but we had Skype, FaceTime; work from home was already a thing; having a better work-life balance was on the cards.” In short: the business landscape has already moved; Covid simply nudged things ahead.
The other thing that had started to shift was the broader culture around business travel, which Thoma had seen firsthand. Before the pandemic, he and Émigré co-founder/chief designer Thanh Trinh had garnered cult success with Swiss luggage brand Crafted Goods, which leveraged Trinh’s street-minded, military bag-inspired design nous and crossed it over to a business travel mindset. The brand’s ‘18-19 ‘Ultimate’ collection was its deepest lean into the business travel space, and by far the most successful line they developed. This traction revealed a consumer base seeking something different to ‘standard’ business product offerings. Thoma got to work on a new concept that baulked the outdated ‘suit and tie in the transit lounge’ approach, and spoke, in his words, “to the real, lived experience of ‘travel for work’ that we know and love.”
“All the other brands talk about getting from point A to point B,” adds Thoma. “For me (and Émigré), it’s really about ‘I’m here now’ – I’m going to work, to meet these people, to meet my colleagues, to get a new deal through, and on top of that, to experience those moments in between: going out for dinner, visiting a new part of the city, just experiencing something new. It’s really about offering better products that highlight and maximise these important travel moments. We don’t want to lose them.”
To help build the brief, Thoma reached out to his network, to glean creative inspiration for the new endeaour. “It became this sort of once-in-a-lifetime chance to create a brand that totally chimed with the zeitgeist,” adds Thoma, at the same time acknowledging the various iterations the initial concept went through during the pandemic to stay ahead of that shifting zeitgeist.
“Obviously there are certain behavioural things, such as home working, the frequency of travel and the formality of business clothing, for example, that have probably changed forever. But the big opportunity we see is to be part of the cultural conversation that shapes those things post-covid to help to lead where business culture goes, rather than worrying about ‘when it will get back to the way things were’.”
Far from a ‘downgrade’ to traditional business product design, Thoma pushed for something clean, refined, and fashion-forward that found the fine balance between elegance and accessibility. The result: a unified offering of sleek, minimalist items that work well solo, and together as a collection across different environments, occasions, and spaces.
At the heart of it all, a guiding principle that has endured pre-, post- and during the pandemic: the value that authentic, face to face human connection has on both our personal and professional lives.
The In-Person Meeting is As Paramount As Ever
Émigré was founded on the tenet that the ‘meeting is meaningful’. Two years on, it continues to inform the brand’s broader vision and mission.
Since the very first market, the first barter and trade, the first successful haggle, doing business in-person has always been the commercial gold standard: human to human, face to face. It’s really only a curious turn of events – and a super recent anomaly – that we’re able to carry on the way we do with each other through computer screens, and make happen what we can from previously impossible distances.
But Zoom can’t do everything. It can’t test samples, it can’t inspect materials; it can’t shake hands. And, as Thoma knows, it can’t build brands:
“Thankfully, much of the early work (on Émigré) was done pre-Zoom. Thanh and myself met regularly in person: long sessions, deep dives into the ins and outs of the brand and what it would look like.”
Distanced meetings can’t sustain cultures or creativity either – something not lost on some of our most revered modern tech architects. “There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat,” said Apple founder Steve Jobs. “That’s crazy – creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions.”
As Jobs understood, we’re social animals, wired to connect – in business as well as pleasure – and while we might be able to keep things rolling at a distance, we really only make things ‘spark’ and create with depth of meaning and connection when we’re collaborating in the same space.
Rather than replacing the ‘face-to face’ meeting, tech will likely function more and more like a ‘buttress’ to human interactions in the years ahead. Writing for Harvard Business Review, Robert Hooijberg and Michael D. Watkins both see a “blended future” that unites the best of virtual and face-to-face experience. They argue that the sort of shared understanding, trust, creativity and sense of purpose that modern businesses crave in their company cultures will be difficult to replicate virtually without a considerable dose of in-person interaction underscoring it.
So, while we’re blessed to have tech and automation at our disposal – there on hand to get us through challenging times, make things accessible, and in some cases more efficient – it’s hard to see a future where the face-to-face takes any serious backseat to digital goings on.
Latest trends certainly support the notion – zoomed-out, weary of the ‘four walls’, the world finally appears ready to meet each other in the flesh once more.
People are Hungry to Move and Meet
No sooner had the lockdowns kicked in back in 2020 that the majority of folks who previously lived in the skies and on the road for work embraced ‘zoom from home’ culture as a silver lining to the chaos and uncertainty. “We did some consumer research in London to find out a bit more about our potential future customers,” reflects Thoma: “deep and detailed interviews with people who travelled a lot for their work across industries, professions, and age groups. They were happy to be involved with the interviews as they finally had a moment to breathe and reflect within their otherwise busy schedules.”
This was, of course, before the ennui set in yet. Nobody had any idea how long the lockdowns would last. Temporary relief from not travelling has since been replaced with determination to get back out and get work done on the road.
“They’re more eager than ever to do what they were doing before,” says Thoma. “Maybe the guy who was away two to three weeks, now he might be one week on the road – but he really wants to go out that week.”
As Thoma highlights, the old ‘business class’ might be changed forever – that third, or so, of airline passengers, who used to bring in 50-60% of the aviation industry’s revenue: “Perhaps (now) it’s more of a premium economy product. Maybe we travel less, but with better quality across the board.”
Promisingly, those early forecasts have given way to a more positive outlook. Delta Airlines’ CEO Ed Bastian recently envisaged a business travel “renaissance,” arguing that technology would never replicate the in-person experience: that folks were keen to "get back out on the road and reconnect like never before." The World Travel and Tourism Council recently predicted business travel spend in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific would return to pre-pandemic levels by 2024, and reach two-thirds of that in 2022 – a timeframe corroborated by Forbes.
The point here is that even if the old ‘business class’, or even business travel in general, never reaches pre-pandemic levels again, those of us who do continue to move for work will be doing so because we desire it – because we relish in the ride as much as the business end itself, and understand how travel works to inspire and expands our worlds.
When We Move, We Grow
Collaborating with a team of designers, stylists and experts from Hong Kong, Vancouver to London, Thoma’s Émigré has since blossomed into a fully international enterprise that fully embraces travel as a ‘life expansion agent’.
Joining Thoma in 2019, Émigré’s CMO Tim Sedo was initially lured in by the way in which Émigré elevated motion and connection in a time when both were universally discouraged.
“I wasn’t raised in an environment where business travel was really a thing,” says Sedo. “It all changed when I got my first job as a history professor – an association meeting in Atlanta, a conference in Hawaii, a workshop in Paris, a month of research in China. It felt like every week I was on a plane off to somewhere new and exciting and my world was expanded with each trip and encounter [...] I thank business travel for allowing me to see the world, advance my career, and meet some lifelong friends. It’s a big part of who I am and how I got here.”
Thoma, on the other hand, was born into it. “My father was a serial business traveller during his corporate career, spending 200+ days of the year travelling all over the world,“ he says. “Growing up, I often heard, ’go see the world’ from him. I don't travel nearly as much as him; but it’s always been a way of life for me over these past thirty years. It’s always exciting and has basically made me the person that I am today.”
Thoma and Sedo both understand that business travel not only gets things done, but functions as a conduit to enduring work-life happiness, joy and inspiration. Émigré is founded on the premise that ‘when we move, we grow’: largely through new interactions and the connections that travel facilitates like nothing else can.
“When it comes down to it, it’s about sitting down with people,” says Thoma. “My father would say to me ‘you’ve got to go and see people, they really appreciate it when you see them. It’s a sign of respect’.”
More than just a suite of products to help make business travel smoother, Thoma’s Émigré has arrived to champion a new era of business travel that once again values its capacity for professional enhancement, with the human element at its core. It recognises that connection is all there is – with each other, with the moments we find ourselves passing through, and with the irreplaceable experiences that we live and love to encounter along the way.
It’s good for business, and it’s good for us.
About Cam Hassard
Australian-born writer, editor, journalist and musician, Cam Hassard has spent the better part of the past two decades in Émigré-mode living and travelling abroad, and currently calls Berlin home.
About Trinh Thanh-hung - Artist
Trinh Thanh-Hung was born in Hanoi, Vietnam, and at age three left the country as part of the boat person exodus. Thanh settled in Switzerland where he studied fine arts and launched a career in graphic, product and industrial design. He has worked with some of Switzerland's most prestigious design agencies, was a co-founder of the cult classic bag brand, Crafted Goods, and is a co-founder of Émigré where he currently serves as the Head of Design.