Who knew scrap fabric, magazines and playing shop would lead to a lifetime love of exploring the world, meeting new people and sharing that love of travel with people dreaming of their own adventures? But that’s what happened with three travel goods industry professionals who got bit by the travel bug early in life and brought their passion into their workplace.
From Scrap Leather Recycler to Minnesota’s Leading Travel Goods Retailer
A garbage container heaped with scrap leather launched Willy van Dooijeweert into his travel goods career.
Thirteen years old and growing up in a small village in the Netherlands, van Dooijeweert spotted the discarded leather at a furniture factory and had an idea.
He recalls asking his mom, “Can you talk to the owner and ask if we can take those leather pieces? We can make wallets out of them.”
They got permission, took the scraps home and van Dooijeweert set to work making wallets, using the sewing skills his mom had taught him.
“I made my first wallet sale in my first year of high school,” he said.
The experience ignited an unflagging spirit of entrepreneurialism that helped support van Dooijeweert during his university years. While attending the Netherlands School of Business, he studiously took notes during his classes, had his professor review them for accuracy and then sold them to classmates who skipped.
It also sparked a lifetime love of travel and luggage.
“I love being in other places and seeing other people,” said van Dooijeweert. “My mom spoke six or seven different languages and was always interested in other people. So am I.”
“And I love bags,” he added. “I always have.”
As a young executive at the Dayton-Hudson Corp. (now Target), van Dooijeweert worked his way through various departments before landing the position of senior buyer for luggage. This led to travels to South Korea, Taiwan and other faraway places, further deepening his interest in luggage and the industry.
In 1986 van Dooijeweert co-founded URBAN Traveler Stores with his wife, Linda. The stores have transitioned over the decades with the changing retail environment, moving from multiple locations in shopping centers to consolidating to one flagship store in St. Paul — Minnesota’s leading travel goods retailer — and an internet store.
“I enjoy the joy of people coming in and getting ready for their trips, getting their suitcase, doing their research, packing,” he said. “I love living vicariously through customers, traveling to all the different countries they’re going to — the Netherlands, China, Australia, wherever they’re going.”
URBAN Traveler also manufactures products for other luggage stores — “our friendly competitors,” as van Dooijeweert calls them — and van Dooijeweert himself stays busy not only with the stores but with hosting seminars for travel groups, churches, schools and other organizations.
“We’ve had a real nice run over the years,” he said. “And have had the best success ever after the worst disaster ever.”
van Dooijeweert is, of course, referring to the pandemic and the destruction it wrought on the travel goods industry.
“In March of 2020, right after The Travel Goods Show, I realized no one was coming into my store. My business dropped practically to zero, but then people started calling and asking for masks.”
URBAN Traveler had always stocked and sold masks on a minimal basis. Immediately, van Dooijeweert transformed it into the local mask store, stocking his shelves with 6,000 different styles of masks, including N95 masks. Then he added sanitizers. Almost overnight, URBAN Traveler was in the PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) business.
“I went after it with a vengeance,” he recalled. “It became 60-70% of our business.”
And van Dooijeweert himself filled mask and sanitizer orders in the company’s delivery truck.
Media attention quickly followed, with four news stories airing beginning in July of 2020 — including one that went viral — featuring URBAN Traveler and its line of PPE.
“I’m a little guy, a small company, and to get this kind of exposure is unbelievable,” said van Dooijeweert.
Then people started traveling again and business began steadily picking up.
“Since August of 2021, it’s been absolutely beyond anything,” he said.
Today, masks represent about 3% of URBAN Traveler’s business mix. Luggage is once again the lion’s share of the business, along with travel accessories.
And van Dooijeweert’s entrepreneurial spirit? It’s still alive and kicking.
“When I was hired by Dayton-Hudson, my boss called me a tiger,” he said. “I’m a little stiffer these days, but I’m still a tiger.”
Former Flight Attendant Builds Business with World-Conscious Approach
As the world ground to a halt in 2020 due to the lockdowns and other restrictions of the pandemic, so too did Leesa Beeson’s job as a flight attendant.
Beeson had been flying the skies for 12 years and as the pandemic dragged on, she found herself missing travel and everything it represented.
“While I was a flight attendant, I was continually inspired by the feeling that overcomes you when you arrive at a destination and start exploring,” said Beeson, who is based in British Columbia. “Cities, oceans, parks, museums, architecture, cafés, languages — all of it sparked in me a profound gratitude for our planet and cultures.”
In the summer of 2021, Beeson founded WanderlustStuff, a curated ecommerce boutique that serves travel lovers with a world-conscious approach. It opened originally to a small audience of friends and family but has grown steadily in its first year of business, with the online store garnering 10,000-plus visits from 11 different countries and customers from 27 different cities in Canada, the U.S. and Europe.
Beeson purposefully seeks out travel products by independent makers that are either sustainably made, use ethically sourced materials, provide wages to artisans in developing countries or donate back to earth or charity.
“As a young girl, one of my hobbies was drawing tropical islands, dreaming of the places I would go. My dad collected National Geographic magazines, which was how I ‘traveled the world,’” she said. “I collect their magazines now as well.”
The sustainably produced reusable bags are designed by LOQI for National Geographic to celebrate diversity and raise awareness about endangered species. Proceeds from the sale of every product in the collection supports scientists, explorers and researchers worldwide.
Describing the process of going from an employee with a set of specific responsibilities to an owner in charge of all decision making as “quite the journey,” Beeson noted she has had help along the way. She applied to and was accepted into a Venture Acceleration Program that mentors entrepreneurs and has sought out other programs to learn about business technology.
“I’ve been very fortunate to be able to build this idea on the shoulders of other experts,” she said.
Throughout her journey, Beeson has tapped into her love of finding new, undiscovered and purposeful items that help make the travel experience not just easier, but meaningful as well.
“That’s why building the connection between the traveler and the maker is so important to me,” she said. “Creating that connection will help spark a better appreciation for our world.”
In February of this year, Beeson was recalled back to flying and had to quickly decide to either return or submit her retirement notice.
“I loved my flight career, but it’s very hard on you mentally and physically to do the job the older you get. I felt in my heart that I had found my final destination with WanderlustStuff,” she said.
“I love hearing stories from customers about their travels and the excitement they have about an upcoming trip,” she added. “Is there anything more fun than talking about your anticipation of your next adventure or telling travel stories of your experiences? It makes us all smile and is one thing we can all agree on!”
Seventy-five years ago, Reneé Silverman’s father, Irv, bought a luggage business from a cousin on the GI Bill. Throughout his career, he had a reputation as a hardworking, energetic businessman and inspiring mentor.
Silverman knew this from firsthand experience. As a child, she would shadow her dad, waiting on customers from her perch atop a stepstool. Later, Silverman worked for her brothers who had assumed the leadership of Irv’s Luggage in the early 1990s. When her brothers closed Irv’s in 2018 and retired, Silverman bought the business with her husband, bringing her father’s and brothers’ level of diligence and energy with her.
“This is when the fun began for me,” said Silverman, who turned Irv’s Luggage it into a woman-owned travel goods business and located it in the Vernon Hills suburb north of Chicago. “I set out to create a uniquely positioned travel business with a variety of offerings that were not previously part of the concept.
“I was free to explore new avenues for the company that had not previously been tested, such as the bridal market.”
Silverman wanted the environment itself to “speak” to travelers — particularly to women, who make 80% of all travel decisions, according to Mary Bond, author of The Gutsy Traveler.
“It’s important for the store to have a woman’s touch,” Silverman said.
On that note, Silverman set out to create a warm, inviting atmosphere, one that would connect with people. She had custom murals featuring iconic travel destinations hand-painted on the walls of the store’s entryway and hung travel photo montages of her family on the walls.
“The travel photos are wonderful conversation starters,” she said. “I love to travel and love hearing about where our customers are headed.”
“As a traveler, I am able to authentically connect with our customers about what I personally find useful and important when traveling.”
Silverman purchased an antique steamer trunk, placed it inside the shop’s front door to collect used but usable luggage, sheets and towels and toiletries. These items are then donated to different women’s shelters as a way to connect to the local community on behalf of women.
She also added numerous new categories to the inventory, including women’s hats, locally made candles, games, beautiful books and notecards, a variety of summer/beach items like waterproof backpacks and phone pouches, beach bags and coolers and more.
“I love that we can be ‘so much more than luggage,’” said Silverman, quoting the tagline Irv’s Luggage adopted during the pandemic to give customers a reason to shop at the store. “Not only did I start looking much more seriously at quality gifts, but I also upgraded our gift packaging.”
“Someone purchasing a gift can now leave with a beautifully wrapped gift and they’re done.”
The tagline is also backed up with what Silverman calls “full-hearted” service. For example, for an elderly couple with mobility issues traveling to see their grandchildren, Silverman arranged to have their selected luggage monogrammed and then delivered to them.
“Our superpower is our service,” she said. “Personalized service is what sets us apart.”
While Irv’s Luggage carries everything to help customers prepare for their travels, Silverman wants the business to communicate more than that. Her goals are for Irv’s to show its authenticity so customers know the people working at the store care about their business, to be helped by a sales team that is warm and knowledgeable and for the experience to be so pleasant and memorable customers can’t help but spread the word.
For Silverman, the best outcome for a customer leaving Irv’s is that they do so with what they came in looking for and that they have had a positive and fun experience.
“Travel is everyone’s dream,” she said. “It’s not about the piece of luggage but about how we are going to get you to Europe or wherever in an organized, stress-free, comfortable way.”
A member of SATW (Society of American Travel Writers) and Authors Guild, Kathy Witt also writes a monthly syndicated travel column for Tribune News Service, is a regular contributor to Kentucky Living, Georgia and Southern Living magazines and the blog RealFoodTraveler.com, among other publications, and has written six books, including Cincinnati Scavenger: The Ultimate Search for Cincinnati’s Hidden Treasures.
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