Cabin Conversations With Neil Varden, Founder of CabinZero Bags & Luggage
It's May 2018, and we meet at the lobby at the serviced residences of the Pan Pacific, Beach Road. Neil is in town for the TFWA Asia Travel Retail Summit. He’s fashioned in a travel blazer, jeans and a tshirt. Neil quickly admits that he’s not currently traveling with only one bag, but as we chat I soon learn how he, many years ago, laid the foundations for what's become known as the 'One Bag Travel' movement today. These days, Neil spends his time navigating a hectic business travel schedule, managing a remote team, and attempting to define the ever-changing goalposts of success.
What’s your favourite country?
That’s a tough one. It’ll have to be the one I’m in at the moment. These days I’m on a travel schedule that means I spend a few days or a few weeks in a place at a time. So I make that place home. But it’s hard because there’s no real favourite. I do prefer warm countries though, where you can travel with flip flops and carry less. Vietnam and Thailand are some of my favourites at the moment, and I’m currently based out of Ho Chi Minh because it’s the most logical place for me to manage things at the moment.
How did the concept of Cabinzero come about?
It’s a long story, or rather it’s been a long time. In the 90s I traveled to India on 3 different occasions. On the first trip I used an outdoor backpack - one of those big heavy ones with a frame - but it broke. On my second, I carried a large travel backpack, but it also gave way at the end. Somewhere along the journey I met an Italian guy in a bar, and he was carrying a small bag, so small I thought it was his day bag. But when we ended up chatting I realized it was all that he was carrying - his entire trip in one, very little bag. I was very inspired. On the 3rd trip I decided to use a smaller backpack, I think it was 34L, and I found it to be the perfect bag because it restricted what I brought, and on the other hand I was not restricted - I could carry it with me everywhere. I realized that when I carry larger bags I tend to fill it up with things that I don’t really need. So when I started the goal was to create a lightweight, cabin sized backpack. Cabin sized, zero hassle, also close to zero weight.
What’s in your Cabinzero?
As little as possible. I have to make time to travel for leisure again. But when I do, generally it’s a laptop, 2 packing cubes (1 big 1 small), and flip flops. These days for work I use a 28L Military, though I travel for work these days so sometimes that means I do have no choice but to carry an extra bag. But I always make sure it’s cabin-sized so I don’t have to check it in.
What’s the goal?
The goal is to retire - get back to where it started. [Laughs] Hard to say, because it keeps changing. If you asked me this question 4 years ago we would have already achieved our goals, so the goalposts keep changing. But at the moment I think we are looking to expand our range, fill in any product gaps we see, and increase our distribution footprint.
You’re distributed in 35 countries now. Would you say that you’ve achieved success?
Probably never. We actually had some people making offers to buy.. It was a very hard decision for us - well the first offer was a very hard decision. After we made that critical decision it became easier. But it meant that we were doing something right.
I think maybe right now the next marker for us is to invest on innovation and build a world class team. That’s not easy, building a world class team.
Tell us about your team
We are a team of 18 people. 8 full time, 7 part time, 3 open positions we are looking to fill. We invest heavily on quality control - it’s an extremely important area for us so we always have one person stationed at the country of production.
It’s about finding the right people, who understand the brand, and understand what comes with working for our brand. We are essentially living the lifestyle - requires us to travel, sometimes months at a time, we are a distributed team. We are also a distributed team, and we’re still learning how to make that work.
The original One Bag Travel..
Yes, although now I am also realizing there are different types of travel and we are looking to fill our product line to cater to the different types of travelers. We have a simple travel series for the casual backpacker in Vietnam, the adventure series which provides more functions and ergonomics, and the urban series for daily carry. And we are looking to fill the gaps, but at the same time we have to be aware of what decisions we end up making.
Right. Many of the One Bag Travel Backpacks today are functionality-driven and marketed to have compartments for everything.
Yes, the team has a lot of product ideas and we are a strongly opinionated bunch, but there is always a tradeoff between being lightweight and compartments or functions. I personally feel that having more compartments make me carry more things I don’t really need, and it weighs me down. I still believe one of the most underrated features of our bags is how light they are.
Your travel schedule is brutal. What have been some of the challenges along the way?
I think I forgot about the fun part for awhile. I found myself day after day just working through my emails, and that's not fun. But recently I’ve rediscovered the joy of connecting with customers and distributors. It’s been very worthwhile. You get feedback, ideas, which then leads to more products. I’d say I’m very much a product person, I get a lot of satisfaction from reading good reviews, because that lets me know we are creating a quality product that makes customers happy. That’s meaningful to me.
What’s next for Cabinzero?
Well for me personally, I go back to Vietnam and prepare for an exhibition next week. For the brand, we are looking at creating more products. Certain markets are getting more sophisticated and want more, so we are taking those into account. For now we are looking forward to the new Adventure line in August or September this year.
The CabinZero Spring & Summer 2018 Collection is exclusively available online here at the-Expedition.com