Wednesday,  August 5, 2020  9:29 pm

The side hustle: How this travel advisor launched a business selling travel-inspired face masks

The side hustle: How this travel advisor launched a business selling travel-inspired face masks
Laurie Keith, founder of Boutique Travel Services. (Supplied)
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

When airlines started to announce that they were launching routes to destinations around the world this summer, travel advisor Laurie Keith saw it as an opportunity to kickstart her marketing and get customers travelling again.

After all, her Stoney Creek, ON-based business was at a standstill, and had been for months, as the demand for travel plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Seeing airlines fly again was, really, the first piece of good news Keith had heard in a while.

“I’m optimistic by nature. We started advertising.” says Keith, founder of Boutique Travel Services, which includes a host agency called Romantic Planet Vacations. “But nobody was jumping on board.”

Sensing that the market “wasn’t quite ready” yet to travel (and recognizing that Canadians are still bound to a non-essential travel ban and a mandatory 14-day self-isolation order for when re-entering Canada), Keith began looking at other ways to generate revenue.

She devised a plan to sell travel products, such as luggage tags, online. But then she realized what people really needed these days: face masks.

Masks are now mandatory in most indoor public spaces and travellers certainly must wear one when flying.

“So, we said, let’s sell those,” says Keith.

And with that, Casper Masks was born

Masks that "get people dreaming"

A collection of two, three, and seven-layer face masks that suit all budgets, tastes and personalities, the colourful, custom-made product line has options for adults, youth and kids alike.

The designs are fun and quirky, covering more than 55 categories, with names such as “Peacock Glam,” “Pink Pineapple,” “Fractal Kitty,” “Colour Jazz,” and “Mermaid.”

But the heart of the collection is inspired by travel, with masks depicting stunning landscapes of much-loved destinations, such as “Caribbean Life,” “Majestic Morocco,” “Barcelona Babe,” “Scottish Scene,” “Vallarta Vibes,” “Piton Wonder,” “Taj Mahal,” and “Aussie sunset,” to name just a few.

“The core of it is travel,” says Keith. “I’ve been wearing my Mexico mask while grocery shopping and people have been coming up to me saying how much they love it, asking where I got it.”

Masks that depict destinations “get people dreaming,” says Keith. “It makes people wish they were there.”

Masks that depict destinations “get people dreaming,” says Keith. “It makes people wish they were there.” (caspermasks.com)

There are designs that express travel in a general sense, too, such as “We Have Lift Off” (airplanes), “Swirly Seas” (nautical life) and “Passport Stamps.”

Wearing travel-inspired masks “is great for travel agents because it brings people to them and kick-starts that conversation,” says Keith. “It’s a real ice breaker.”

Launching a side gig

Keith, who has been a travel agency owner for more than 25 years, launched her business after not being able to find a safe and comfortable mask that also looked good.

While the “fun part” has been sourcing designs, learning about how masks work has been a big part of the process.

“Whoever would have thought I’d be selling masks six months ago?” says Keith. “It’s really kept me busy during this down time.”  

She launched her online store using Shopify as her backend program. (“It’s a super, fantastic e-commerce software app that is user friendly,” she says).

Keith's collection of two, three, and seven-layer face masks suit all travel tastes and personalities. (caspermasks.com)

With masks ranging from $7.95 to $19.99, the store offers two and three-layer masks made from spandex cotton, as well as 3D-shaped ones that curve around your face.

The premium seven-layer designs are made from a soft polyester blend come with a set of two PM 2.5 filters.

“It’s top protection for a non-medical grade mask,” says Keith of the seven-layer model. “They’re quite comfortable. I can wear them for long durations.”

There’s also a high-grade sports mask that boasts a one-way breathing valve, which is great for active activities, such as cycling.

Her store also sells customizable masks (such as for company logos), disposal masks, as well as other personal protective equipment, such as infrared thermometers, face shields and packs of 10 PM 2.5 filters.

“It’s a side gig,” says Keith.  “Travel will always be number one passion, but the point here is to help myself, and my team, generate revenue during these down times.”

She says Canada’s Quarantine Act (which rules that travellers re-entering Canada must self-isolate for 14-days) is the “biggest roadblock” right now.

“As soon as that gets lifted, it could potentially be a game changer for some consumers,” she says.

Rapid COVID-19 testing at airports, too, will also help restore people’s confidence in travelling, she says.

“I’m 100 per cent confident will be back in full mode,” she says. “But until these roadblocks start coming down, we just don’t know when.”

There’s an affiliate program for agents

Keith’s business includes an affiliate program for Canadian travel agents.

“Why not share in the profits and expand our reach and protect more people (in style)?” says Keith. “We've all been hit so hard and could all use some extra income.”

Travel pros will receive 15 per cent commission on everything they sell through their affiliate store.

Canadian travel advisors can sell the masks through an affiliate program Keith has set up. (caspermasks.com)

There is no set-up fee and the monthly affiliate program cost (regularly $25/month) has been waived for those in the travel industry.

“I can personally attest to the financial hardships that we're faced with and want to help out in any way that I can,” says Keith.

Advisors can apply at https://caspermasks.refersion.com, and once approved, they can customize their affiliate store and start selling immediately.

“One thing I've learned from the experiences of COVID-19 is that travel agents are not paid enough for their work,” says Keith. “We need to generate other revenue streams than just commission, such as charging professional service fees and upselling products or services that will enhance our clients' holidays.”

Keith hopes that Casper Masks, in the long run, will offer more products or services that will enhance travel income in the future.

She says it’s sad seeing senior travel professions leave the industry altogether amid the pandemic. “[COVID-19] has been the nail in the coffin, for many,” she says.

But she encourages her colleagues to “keep fighting” and stay in the game.

caspermasks.com

“We’re all so passionate about what we do,” says Keith. “It sucks being in the position we’re in, but we’re creative, passionate, and resilient people.”

Setting up an e-commerce store, for one, is easy as there’s many backend options to choose from these days, such as Shopify, Square, Opencart, BigCommerce, and WooCommerce, she says.

Her advice to others?

“There’s opportunities out there,” says Keith. “Play around, see what’s available. Keep yourself in the game until we can get back to doing we love to do.”

See Keith’s collection of face masks at caspermasks.com. Travel pros are invited to use the code “TRAVELPEEPS” for a 15 per cent discount.


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