Away was flying high. The modern lifestyle brand was selling millions of travel products, shipping to dozens of countries, and projected to add more than 20 employees per month in 2020. Fast Company, Time, and Forbes all tagged the fast-growing start-up for success. In 2018, Away earned $150 million. The next year, the company raised $100 million at a $1.4 billion valuation. Thousands of influencers were promoting Away’s hard-shell travel bags on social media platforms, and the company planned to open more physical locations and introduce new travel-related products.
When Miguel “Mike” Trinidad joined Away in January 2020, leaders and executives were still celebrating 2019’s record holiday sales. A successful 2020 seemed almost certain. But that all changed just weeks later, as the COVID-19 pandemic came to the United States and brought the travel industry to a grinding halt. “We go as travel goes,” says Trinidad, Away’s director of workplace. “If travel is down 95 percent, we’re down 95 percent.”
Away hired Trinidad to complete a corporate headquarters in lower Manhattan to accommodate its growing workforce. But when the company transitioned to a work-from-home model in March 2020, Trinidad turned his focus to helping navigate a catastrophic downturn in the travel industry that nearly flatlined the company.
COVID-19 has forced most business into unchartered territory, and Trinidad is no stranger to on-the-job learning. He started his career in information technology and transitioned to facilities management out of necessity. When his first employer, a small desktop software provider, sold to a larger business, the company needed office space. Trinidad volunteered to lead the project and soon found himself working with local brokers to find prime real estate in New York’s financial district. He assisted on layout and design matters and eventually moved the company into its new 1,500-square-foot home.
“No one knows exactly what is going to happen, and the most successful companies will use this time wisely and even uncover new opportunities.”
The project represents a defining moment in Trinidad’s career. “It helped me understand the value of operations. I enjoyed seeing the inner workings of building out a physical environment and then managing it on an ongoing basis,” he says. The start-up nature of the company was especially rewarding—Trinidad found his niche helping tech-savvy companies through all-important phases of rapid growth.
It’s a role Trinidad has filled time and time again over the past 15 years as he’s coordinated large projects across North America, Europe, India, and the Asia-Pacific region. In 2018, HR solutions provider Justworks asked Trinidad to manage the design and construction of its new headquarters at 55 Water Street in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood.
The 240,000-square-foot project is the biggest in Trinidad’s career and will be completed in two phases to accommodate rapid employee growth. Although the coronavirus pandemic delayed phase two, returning workers will eventually enjoy an open design and numerous common spaces built to enhance collaboration. A living green wall greets users and anchors a hub where guests and staff can interact. In fact, the entire design places a premium on interaction—the sleek and modern space is filled with creative pods, corner lounges, stand-up workshops, platform group seating areas, a multipurpose cafe, and a large game room.
Trinidad has a similar vision he hopes to execute at Away, but he’s focused first on contributing to the company’s ongoing COVID response. The entire organization has pivoted. “No one knows exactly what is going to happen, and the most successful companies will use this time wisely and even uncover new opportunities,” he says.
Away has done just that. The company rolled out a new product, the Travel Wellness Kit, in record time. The limited-edition travel kit comes with hand sanitizer, anti-bacterial wipes, and a reusable filtered mask.
“We’ve seen that remote work is possible, but people love coming to the office because nothing can ever totally replace the synergy and innovation that face-to-face interactions create.”
The pandemic, Trinidad says, has workplace construction projects “frozen in time.” Away is using the weeks and months to focus on other important matters like employee wellness. The company started offering free therapy and adding wellness days to paid time off plans. Trinidad is also developing robust workplace response plans to address terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and other safety issues.
Partners of Trinidad can attest to his ability for handling such challenges. “Our team at Cushman & Wakefield has appreciated our partnership with Mike on solving complex real estate problems,” says Dirk Hrobsky, executive managing director of Cushman & Wakefield. “Mike can uniquely go head-to-head, in great detail and confidence with general contractors and subs to drive value, and in the next meeting can comfortably review the financial analysis with the C-suite.”
Despite the challenges, Trinidad believes Away’s workforce will eventually return to the office. “We’ve seen that remote work is possible, but people love coming to the office because nothing can ever totally replace the synergy and innovation that face-to-face interactions create,” he says. Away has already reopened its office with 10 percent capacity, hand sanitizing stations, extra cleaning, and quarterly deep cleans. While some of those measures will eventually expire, Trinidad says deep cleanings, hybrid work-from-home models, and design choices that limit density are here to stay.
The Travel Wellness Kit wasn’t the only COVID-era innovation at Away. Instead of merely observing evolving customer behavior, Away accelerated product development and doubled its offerings by introducing a new collection of versatile products Away fans can use during and after the pandemic. The new line includes three backpacks, a tote bag, a laptop bag, and a messenger bag. Features like wraparound zippers and soft shells make the products easy to use during long road trips, yet they attach to Away suitcases and will qualify as carry-on items once air travel resumes.
With more Americans getting vaccinated against COVID-19, Trinidad and his colleagues are excited about the future. “We’ve tried to keep innovation, company culture, and health and wellness at the forefront during this time,” he says. “And when people are ready to travel again, we’ll be ready to take that journey with them.”