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Backpack maker to open doors for tours

Backpack maker to open doors for tours

Tough Traveler keeps going despite stiff competition from cheaper foreign-made bags
Backpack maker to open doors for tours
Nancy Gold helps customer Phil Kennicott at Tough Traveler on State Street Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

SCHENECTADY — Tough Traveler has lived up to its name in a couple of ways.

The company's adventure travel gear is known for its tough construction. And as a small manufacturer making more-expensive versions of backpacks mass-produced cheaply overseas, it has traveled a tough road.

Production levels, staffing and sales are down at the Schenectady luggage manufacturer, but it stays in business because of the workmanship of its products and because there's a segment of the shopping public that will pay more to buy American-made products, President Nancy Gold said.

Low import tariffs on cheap foreign products have undercut the market for the premium backpacks and dog carriers Tough Traveler produces. Gold said the America-first message Donald Trump spread as a candidate and now as president hasn’t helped her company, yet, but she’s glad he at least brought the issue to fore.

“I see a value in that someone mentioned it.”

Gold will be opening her 1012 State St. showroom and factory for tours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, the day after National Manufacturing Day, as will scores of manufacturers across the state and nation.

Visitors to Tough Traveler will get to see its production area, which rambles far beyond the storefront showroom — almost 300 feet, all the way through to Albany Street.

Along with the bolts of Cordura in a rainbow of colors, rolls of striped webbing, piles of aluminum tubing and bins full of plastic buckles, there are of course rows and rows of sewing machines. This is where pieces of nylon become backpacks.

The workers’ skills are important to the finished product, as are the patterns from which they work. Dozens and dozens of patterns are on hand.

“We hang them, and we save them forever, and we mark them so we can find them,” Gold said. “If your pattern’s not right, your product’s not going to be right, so they’re very important to us.”

Most of the sewing machines were idle as she showed off the plant last week. The size of the workforce depends heavily on the number of orders coming in. 

“It could change tomorrow,” Gold said. But on this day, it was light.

“A lot of things have to do with that,” she added. “You can’t compete at the base level selling to retailers. Most retailers have dropped us.”

Tough Traveler sells to consumers through its website, through Amazon and at its storefront. It also produces bags for companies to place their products in, creates prototypes for inventors and entrepreneurs, and manufactures goods for promotional giveaways.

“How do we compete? There’s a lot of people who still value us,” Gold said. “They value the designs and the quality of manufacturing.”

Tough Traveler bags retail for substantially more than mass-market bags made abroad.

Gold says she doesn’t object to all the labor and environmental regulations in place in the United States, but it’s impossible to compete on price with products made without such rules overseas.

“It’s very hard to be a U.S. manufacturer,” she said. 

Tough Traveler has been in business since 1970.

In one way, being small has been good: Tough Traveler is able to adopt new designs, adjust production and adapt its designs as the need arises.

Take fanny packs, which the company first produced 40 years ago: They were big for a while, faded in popularity, and now are making a comeback.

“I think of fanny packs as an example of the ins and outs of popularity,” Gold said.

More recently, Tough Traveler has found some success with its dog carrier backpacks, which let pet owners carry along dogs that are too small or too weak to keep up during hikes. 

Those were an adaptation of the company's kid carrier backpacks. Now, Tough Traveler is testing carriers for mid-sized dogs, not just little canines.

“I think we stay in business because we are flexible,” Gold said.

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