Selling Travel During Quarantine
Urban Undercover’s TowelTopper will soon be featured on QVC. Russell Heeter

Selling Travel During Quarantine

Minneapolis-based Urban Undercover stays true to its “everyday travel” mission, while taking advantage of being grounded.

With travel as the driver for Urban Undercover, opening a store to showcase the brand’s apparel and accessories at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport seemed like a smart move.

In 2019.

After testing the waters with a couple of pop-ups, founder Sairey Gernes built out a permanent space in a prime spot on the G concourse and opened in July of 2019, only to be shut down in March by Covid-19. The store remains closed.

The pandemic felt like a double whammy to Gernes, who sells travel totes and easy-to-pack wraps: no one going to stores; no one going online to buy for that next trip. But Gernes decided to stay true to her brand persona, and spend the grounded time redesigning her website. Still committed to brick and mortar retail, she’s also part of a store at Rosedale Center called Six for Good that has reopened, and the group of local brands will open a second location this month in Edina at new 50th & France development Nolan Mains.

We talked to Gernes about selling travel during quarantine, some national exposure for one of her most popular products, the TowelTopper, and her ongoing optimism about retail.

You must have felt the impact of Covid-19 quickly, given your presence at the airport. What were those early days of the crisis like for you and your brand?

It’s interesting—in the early days I was thinking, “We got this!” and had pretty minimal worries. Because, well, I am an entrepreneur. And I don’t know the statistic, but I would guess that a high percentage of entrepreneurs are optimists. So in the early days I thought, buckle up, hang on, adjust a little, and ride it out. We altered the staffing, I worked the store more to save on labor, and although we saw the slowdown immediately, traffic didn’t stop, so we thought it was a short term do-able situation (hello optimist). However I soon found out the pandemic had other plans to wreak longer term havoc, and we closed the store when traffic halted. But again, I still thought it would be short term. No way did I believe we’d still be closed through the end of the year. I still believe things will improve. We will see a boom in travel when it is safe.

What changes did you make early on to weather the downturn?

As soon as our store at the airport closed, everything slowed down and I had time to think about our business from a broader perspective, something a small business owner very unfortunately doesn’t get to do when you’re in it day-to-day. I didn’t want a Band-Aid plan; I wanted to do something that would benefit us in the long run. But it was also very important for me to continue the relationship with our customers. My thoughts turned to where we could still reach them and experience the journey together. We truly value them so much and I wanted to tell them that we sympathize with the major upset this pandemic is causing in travel plans of all sorts, from family vacations to study abroad. Our touch points with our customers (if we can’t reach them in an airport) are social media and our website (we’re not yet paying for ads). What I already knew, but in the early days of coronavirus became glaringly clear, is that we weren’t telling our full story very well on our website, which should be the centerpiece of the brand. Our social media was okay, and we were able to show ourselves there, connect with our community, and tell the why behind what we do. However, that was completely lacking in our website. So instead of “pivoting” to work-from-home clothes or a similar message that might sell but undermine our entire brand essence, I chose to look at the long game—where we want to be on the other side of this—and redesigned our website to better tell our story, communicate what inspires us, and let people know why we believe in Everyday Travel.

We would hear from people all the time on social or via email, sharing sentiments like, “Can’t wait to buy for my next trip when we can travel!” which is awesome, but doesn’t help us weather this storm.

What percentage of your business was online vs in store pre-pandemic and did you see any jump in online orders when the airport store closed?

We actually saw more web traffic when our store was open because it was advertising. Thousands of people a day passed by it in the MSP Airport. At the time, we didn’t have an aggressive online strategy to drive people to our site. So only about 10 percent of sales were online, and the rest came from our store and events like the Minnesota State Fair. Having a financial dip in both was, and still is, astronomical. I can’t dwell too much on the lost revenue because the number is heartbreaking. We would hear from people all the time on social or via email, sharing sentiments like, “Can’t wait to buy for my next trip when we can travel!” which is awesome, but doesn’t help us weather this storm. So it’s definitely a disadvantage being in the travel industry.

However, since the redesign, our website is absolutely picking up because we are investing the time and effort that was previously dedicated to the store. This will be a benefit when the economy, travel, and the store reopen. I also think people are starting to purchase again because they are itching to venture out. Although they aren’t, yet, traveling as before, getting prepared to take a trip, whenever it might be, is giving them something to look forward to. In addition, our Everyday Travel apparel is designed to be a capsule wardrobe, and it works—home or away. On the new website, we showcase how the collection will perform for them now as well as on their next getaway. Even dreaming about traveling again provides hope in an otherwise blah time.

The pandemic gave you the time to devote to boosting your website, but it also requires money, in the midst of a downturn. Was that a difficult decision?

Urban Undercover founder Sairey Gernes

Yes, a very tough financial decision, especially when our income dropped drastically. I was able to keep my cost down by designing it myself and writing the copy. Both could probably use some tweaking, but my hope is that it is a better long run play, not short term pivot. So far, the response has been fantastic. A redesign doesn’t automatically change traffic to the site, but it has changed the conversion rate and inspired a lot more connection with our community. It has also helped anchor us, as a business and team, because it has become the center that all other things will revolve around—even the store. It’s our living manifesto as a brand and that is helpful to the team as well as our customers.

Your airport store is still closed, but you’ve made the decision to hold on to it. Has the airport given you a break on rent at least?

We are going to hold on to it as long as they will let us, because that is where our heart and soul is. We love and believe in the positive power travel has on the human spirit and we love connecting with our customers in a place that invigorates us, like the airport. We get to hear the amazing stories, connect face to face, listen to customer pain points, and overall build a better company side-by-side with our community. The Metropolitan Airports Commission has been amazing. They want nothing but for their vendors and partners to succeed. Although they are feeling the impact, just like the rest of us, I believe they are making incredibly smart and well executed moves to ensure that we all make it through. They have very much made us feel we are partners in this and that we will succeed together.

Meanwhile, what has traffic been like at Rosedale since Six for Good reopened?

Traffic has been much slower, but the buyer is spending money. So sales are up slightly. I think people are really wanting to see small businesses survive and are very supportive. That has been amazing.

You and your Six for Good partners have another store opening soon at 50th & France. Why take that on now?

We were approached by Nolan Mains to open, and at first, as you can imagine, everyone was hesitant. But during our meeting, I think I can speak for all of us at Six for Good: we were energized by the enthusiasm [Nolan Mains] had for the area, the collaboration they envisioned and the support they were offering small businesses. It feels like a perfect match. Plus, 50th and France, with its already outstanding reputation as a place to shop, is across town from our first Six for Good location in Rosedale, therefore allowing us to reach another customer. We believe that people need things to look forward to always, but especially now, so we hope we’re inspiring a little positivity and hope.

One of your most successful products has become a brand of its own—Towel Topper, the band that holds a towel in place. We hear it’s headed to QVC in the coming days—what attracted their attention now?

It’s a simple solution to a common problem of keeping covered while getting dressed or holding a towel in place on a lounge chair or pontoon seat). TowelTopper has its own site and social media outlets, as well as being sold on UrbanUndercover. It’s the only product we wholesale. It wasn’t immediately a top seller because it’s a bit of a challenge to teach people something new and get them to change a habit. But once they see the value and how it makes their lives easier, they love it and come back. That is why we are excited to be part of QVC; we get to show the benefits visually. It’s an amazing opportunity and I am so grateful. We were put on their radar at a beauty show in Los Angeles in January. We are just making a debut now because the onboarding process is extensive, plus the pandemic didn’t help. But I think it is perfect timing, because not only is the TowelTopper something everyone needs all year long, it’s awesome to be on air during the holiday season because it’s the perfect stocking stuffer and gift.

As devastating as this year has been to small businesses, it seems that shoppers might finally be thinking more about the impact of their dollars, and frankly, the fact that shopping small feels safer and better right now. Do you think we’re experiencing a fundamental shift in shopping habits?

Absolutely. I think people are thinking more about where their money is going. It’s amazing for smaller brands and brands that are really invested in their customers. People want to help businesses survive. Small business has a better opportunity to involve their customers on the journey, show them the important part they play in the brand. I think that message has been made more visible during the pandemic. People want to be connected—it’s more enjoyable both for the consumer and for the brand.