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[Herald Interview] Travel will be back in 2022 but in a different form, says luggage maker exec

Samsonite’s Asia head says travel will be shorter, anticipates boom in antimicrobial luggage

Dec. 8, 2021 - 17:37 By Kang Jae-eun
Paul Melkebeke, the president in charge of Samsonite’s Asia-Pacific and Middle East operations, stands next to luggage displayed at the company’s office in Samseong-dong, southern Seoul, Nov. 25. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

Honeymoons were canceled, business trips were pushed back and vacation plans were postponed indefinitely for the past two years as the COVID-19 pandemic forced countries to tighten border control and decimated air travel.

As vaccination rates rise and countries slowly open their borders under travel bubble agreements, travel will bounce back in 2022, but will take a different form, says Paul Melkebeke, Samsonite’s president for the Asia-Pacific and Middle East regions.

“People will be traveling by car, we see more and more train travel, and that requires a different kind of product because people travel in a different way. People may also travel for a shorter period of time,” Melkebeke said in an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul.

Domestic travel is growing, with more people heading to destinations within the country by train and cars, instead of international trips that require a visit to the airport.

Most importantly, people want safety and comfort guaranteed in all aspects of their journey -- in their luggage, accommodations and transportation, he explained.

“It will be a more cautious decision where people want to have comfort in all aspects and they don’t want to have concerns.”

Paul Melkebeke, the president in charge of Samsonite’s Asia-Pacific and Middle East operations, talks with The Korea Herald at the luggage maker’s Korea office in Samseong-dong, southern Seoul, Nov. 25. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

The year 2020 was a challenging one for Samsonite. 

With countries imposing lockdowns to stem the spread of COVID-19, fewer people traveled and the US luggage maker suffered a loss in net sales.

But the pandemic changed people’s perceptions of travel and what they want in travel goods, he added.

“Until early 2020, you just jump on a plane and go somewhere for the weekend or go on a long trip without really thinking too much. Now people will start traveling again, but it will be a cautious decision,” he said.

And to be “ready with the right products” to meet sophisticated consumer demand, Samsonite has doubled down and focused on innovating its materials, technologies and designs.

One example is its antimicrobial technology, which prevents the growth of bacteria. Samsonite began using it on its luggage last year to suit the needs of a growing number of infection-wary customers. 

In April this year, Samsonite launched the Magnum Eco collection -- produced exclusively from recycled yogurt containers -- to appeal to travelers who value sustainability.

When asked why the veteran executive chose South Korea for his first post-pandemic business trip, he said he wanted to “feel the pulse” behind the unique “Koreanness” that created global hit products like the Samsonite RED brand. It has been a steady seller in more than 20 countries since its launch in 2010, he said.

“Korea is a trendsetter. Regionally and globally, the impact of Korea as a trendsetter cannot be underestimated. And it really has that unique Korean DNA,” he said of Samsonite RED. 

Samsonite RED, developed in Korea, is shown in a promotional image. (Samsonite Korea)

Despite looming uncertainties like the omicron variant, the executive emphasized that travel will return to normal at some point because exploring new places, enjoying new food and meeting new people form an essential part of who we are as humans.

“Traveling is, for all of us, so much of who we are, what we love to do. We are convinced that more people will start traveling in Asia. It just takes a little bit longer before all the markets and the countries are willing to open their borders to allow people to travel freely,” he said.

“And I hope that very soon, you will be able to travel.”