What happens to a fledgling business — whose mission is to turn long-haul flights into a relaxing experience for passengers — when long haul flights cease to operate? That is the question we put to Long Haul Spa Founder (and former flight attendant) Christine Keeling as her business comes to terms with the impact of COVID-19. 

“Living with the effects of COVID-19 will become our new normal,” says Keeling, who stresses the importance of flexibility and reactivity during times of crisis. 

In this interview, Keeling talks about crisis, recovery, and about how she pivoted aspects of her predominantly inflight business to adapt. She also addresses what industry partners can expect to see at the company’s #Virtual Stand (BT-S4) at the inaugural Moodie Davitt Virtual Travel Retail Expo in October.

The Moodie Davitt Report: At Long Haul Spa you say your mission is to “turn soul-sucking, complexion-destroying long-haul flights into an in-seat spa session.” But with long-haul travel temporarily stalled, how has your business been affected and how do you see the recovery taking shape?

Christine Keeling: When we first realised that this pandemic situation was going to have a major effect on our day-to-day business, we turned to communications as a way of staying engaged with our audience. While we do believe in the power of engagement, people’s minds are understandably focused on other things.

Our first green shoot was the creation of the Long Haul Spa Personal Safety Kits. Travellers want to feel safe and taking extra precautions will become the new normal. We wanted to help our customers feel safe when they eventually return to travel. We also saw an opportunity to do some good by sending our Long Haul Spa skincare kits to very worthy frontline workers who had been nominated by their loved ones.

Our second green shoot was created in response to the resurgence of COVID-19 cases here in Australia. People were required to wear masks in public, but there was a lot of resistance. We wanted to help solve this problem by creating masks that were not only good for your skin but also carried a message of solidarity and support. We’ve had amazing feedback for this initiative so far and look forward to building on this.

Our third green shoot was expanding our skincare line to include home-use sizes of our customers’ favourite products. Additional green shoots are everywhere you look – from customers asking us to create new products to crafting special-edition aboriginal art packaging.

What is the major focus for Long Haul Spa at the Virtual Travel Retail Expo? What lines, launches or campaigns will you emphasise and showcase?

Like all of our friends in the industry, we are still navigating our way through what COVID-19 means for our business and for travel in general. However, we have made some changes to our communications and product development in response to the crisis. So, while we’ll still be promoting our gorgeous Long Haul Spa in-flight wellness & skin care kits, we’ll also be launching our Long Haul Spa Personal Safety Kits. These contain a silk & cotton reusable fabric facemask, hand sanitiser and a crème balm enclosed in an elegant black vegan leather pouch. We will also be making our expanded line of home-use sizes available as bundles into custom offerings or as GWP.

Long Haul Spa has diversified its product portfolio to include a Personal Safety Kit and home-use formats

What are your major targets by geography, channel or retailer type as you seek to tap into a recovering market? 

We are happy to entertain any geography, channel or retailer as we have the products that will appeal to all. That said, our Long Haul Spa Personal Safety Kits are already proving to be an important step in our recovery, and I believe that kits like these will be critical for the recovery of the industry. We are also looking at regions that are opening up to travel —  starting with China and the UAE — and will provide our products wherever they are needed.

What have been the biggest milestones and challenges you’ve faced since launching Long Haul Spa in 2018? 

Long Haul Spa milestones

• December 2018 Launch: Long Haul Spa on-line
• September 2019 Launch: Tarmac (men’s kit)
• October 2019 Sponsor :The Trinity Forum, Doha Qatar
• December 2019 Listing: Singapore Airlines/KrisShop
• January 2020 Launch: Aboriginal Artwork packaging
• February 2020 Listing: Temple & Webster
• March 2020 Finalist: 2020 Travel Retail Awards (winner to be announced in October)
• May 2020 Win: DFNI Frontier Awards Best New Beauty Product
• May 2020 Launch: Home use sizes of best-selling skincare
• August 2020 Shortlist: 2020 Frontier Awards Beauty Product of the Year
• August 2020 Launch: Long Haul Spa Personal Safety Kits

It’s interesting to look back on our milestones and achievements at this very surreal moment. Travel retail is full of hope and optimism in spite of everything that we have been through.

It goes without saying that our biggest challenge is that the travel industry has essentially come to a standstill, and global economies are suffering. We’ve worked to pivot and explore alternative ways to connect with our audience, and we’ve been faced with challenges that stem directly from fellow businesses also suffering in the wake of this global pandemic.

“Living with the effects of COVID will become our new normal. Like when smoking was banned on airplanes or when 9/11 changed our airport security processes forever, we adjusted and carried on…We will get used to it because we don’t want to imagine a world without travel!”

In early 2020, Long Haul Spa extended its Asia Pacific distribution by securing listings with Singapore Airlines, Silk Air and Scoot through KrisShop. What are your next steps to expanding in the channel?

Securing the listings with Singapore Airlines, Silk & Scoot through KrisShop was extremely exciting, even though the timing could not have been worse. We believe in our products and in the resilience of the industry. We are in discussions with a number of duty free and travel retailers and expect to be available quite broadly as travel opens up once again.

While Long Haul Spa has global ambitions, it is also deeply rooted in Australian culture and works closely with ethical artisans and suppliers in Brisbane

How do you view the continuing impact of COVID-19 on the wider travel retail industry?

Until the world returns to some semblance of regularity again, the impact will remain dire from both an economic and mental health perspective. We have a diverse team of people in Australia, New Zealand, the US and the UK, and are all struggling as we watch the industry lurch between opened and closed borders.

Living with the effects of COVID will become our new normal. Like when smoking was banned on airplanes or when 9/11 changed our airport security processes forever, we adjusted and carried on. We know that there will be testing stations, random temperature checks, compulsory mask-wearing, increased sanitisation practices and the like. But we will get used to it, because we don’t want to imagine a world without travel!

In Australia we have seen very little change in shopping habits. Whilst online has certainly increased, shoppers are still going into shops to try on clothing, test cosmetics and check out the latest electronics. From a retail perspective, I would expect things to go back to normal once we are allowed to travel again. However, I also hear from other regions that even though foot traffic in airports is up, travellers are not shopping. So, the questions we should be asking there are why not, what will it take to change that, and is this a regional/cultural disparity? If so – we will need to deal with each area separately and with great deference to the wants and needs of the local population.

“There won’t be a sustained recovery without a unified travel market. Governments need to work together to ensure that an open border is an open border.”

Long Haul Spa’s products are made from sustainably-sourced, cruelty-free, paraben free and vegan New Zealand and African botanicals. How integral is sustainability to the ethos of your brand and could you tell us more about your company’s sustainable business practices?

Long Haul Spa recognises the delicate balance of the environment and society. With direct connections to producers of ethically and sustainably-sourced ingredients in New Zealand, we take comfort in knowing that our products are produced with a conscience by people we trust. It’s not just ingredients we care about. Each element in our kit has a sustainability story behind it.

Our recycled PET plastic bottles are made two hours from our office by the only zero-carbon-footprint plastics manufacturer in Australia, and our silk & cotton face masks are sewn in a workshop on the Gold Coast. Local suppliers with similar values are what sets us apart. Working with Aboriginal artists on our packaging design has been a gift of both education and enlightenment and enable us to bring a bit of Australia’s rich aboriginal culture to the rest of the world. Without these elements, Long Haul Spa would not be what it is today.

How do you think the channel can and should engage with travelling consumers to ensure a sustained recovery?

Encouragement and motivation to travel, spend and enjoy, while taking appropriate safety precautions, will be crucial. More creative uses of digital retail should be explored and the ability to buy online for delivery at gate, seat or at home should be enhanced. This includes digital shopping onboard with pickup on arrival or delivery to destination.

There won’t be a sustained recovery without a unified travel market. Governments need to work together to ensure that an open border is an open border. If travellers are concerned that a border is going to suddenly close and keep them away from home or force them to return home mid-trip, people are just not going to risk travelling.

How would you like to see industry partnerships evolve as we enter a new era for travel and travel retail? 

We are pretty new to this space and don’t have a long history or profound understanding of the way that things work. However, from what we have experienced, we believe this may be a great opportunity to reset and rebalance.  When it costs brands money to sell, it looks to me like a broken model. There is no one point of issue here – the problem is systemic and needs to be changed for the industry to recover.

 Virtual becomes reality for Long Haul Spa

Long Haul Spa is a Silver Partner of the Moodie Davitt Virtual Travel Retail Expo.

The unique 5-day ‘live’ event, followed by a 30-day showcase, begins on 12 October, just after the conclusion of the Chinese Golden Week holidays. It features a star-studded series of events across the five days, including a Symposium, category workshops and a new consumer research initiative.

Registration is free for buyers, exhibitors and preferred media partners (Click here to register).