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Arana Hankin-Biggers Leads Union Square Travel Agency in Prioritizing Social Equity and Community Empowerment | Conference Season Recap | Azuca News
Arana Hankin-Biggers, a long-time advocate of cannabis legalization and a seasoned expert in economic development policy, urban planning, and real estate development, now leads New York City’s third licensed adult-use dispensary, Union Square Travel Agency: A Cannabis Store. Arana’s impressive track record includes pivotal roles such as NYS Assistant Commissioner for Economic Development, where she oversaw groundbreaking initiatives like the $100 million NYSTEM program and the disbursement of $35 billion in federal stimulus funding. Passionate about inclusive initiatives and economic empowerment, Arana is committed to hiring formerly incarcerated individuals and legacy operators through strategic partnerships with organizations like The Doe Fund. She is also a strong supporter of BIPOC and women-owned cannabis brands.
In this month’s newsletter, we discover the ways Arana adapts in the ever-evolving cannabis industry, recap our time at MJUnpacked, Benzinga Cannabis Capital Conference, and Luxury Meets Cannabis Conference, and provide partnership updates.
A Talk with Union Square Travel Agency’s President Arana Hankin-Biggers
You’ve worked across many industries including real estate development and government affairs. How did you eventually end up in cannabis?
The transition into the cannabis industry made a lot of sense for me as someone who worked in NYS politics, economic development policy, creative placemaking, and real estate development. The progressive mandate of the MRTA legislation specifically attracted me to participate in the New York industry. I immediately realized the unique moment in time that we are witnessing, the beginning of a new billion dollar industry that was carving out opportunities for people of color and individuals who were targeted by the War on Drugs.
Shortly after the MRTA bill passed in March 2021, I partnered with a couple of colleagues from the real estate industry – one who had recently connected with someone who was working in the cannabis industry in Massachusetts. We quickly realized that we had complimentary skills and shared values, and worked diligently in pursuit of a license.
What’s the meaning behind the name “Union Square Travel Agency”? How did it come to be?
We retained an incredibly talented branding firm, Fortnight Collective, to develop the brand name and brand voice. We loved how the name had a double meaning – connoting a business that helps transport people to new and exciting destinations, but also helping people get away and be transported without going anywhere, as a purveyor of cannabis.
Our partner is the The Doe Fund, a more than 30-year old nonprofit that helps to transform lives by enabling the reintegration of Black and Brown men who were formerly incarcerated and formerly homeless back into society. We didn’t want to harp on the heavier side of The Doe Fund’s mission, but focus on the aspirational work that they do, and how people’s lives have been transformed by The Doe Fund.
What is something that has surprised you about the NY cannabis ecosystem in 2023? Or about opening one of the first licensed adult-use dispensaries in NY?
I was pleasantly surprised with how diverse and value aligned the cannabis industry is in New York State. Overall, the people I have come in contact with value diversity and celebrate giving back to their communities. The cannabis industry in New York in my experience is incredibly thoughtful, kind and generous.
The thing that surprised me the most about opening one of the first licensed adult-use dispensaries in NYS was how many people frequent the illicit shops and how the average educated and well informed consumer does not know the difference between an illicit shop and a legal licensed dispensary. I was also shocked to see how flagrant these illegal shops operate and how bold they are with marauding as legal entities.
What was the first legal 420 in NYC like?
The first legal 420 in NYC was pretty momentous for us. It definitely had the feeling of a coming out party. We cannot underestimate the significance of people being able to smoke in public without the fear of retribution. But legal cannabis is still so new and there is still such a stigma attached to consumption, that the holiday still felt relatively underground and in protest to the mainstream attitudes about the plant.
What is the biggest obstacle women and BIPOC owned cannabis companies have to overcome? What are your hopes for the future of cannabis?
The biggest obstacles that women and BIPOC owned cannabis companies face are the same things women and BIPOC founders face in every industry – access to capital, partners you can trust, and an experienced team of advisors that can help you realize your vision.
But the cannabis industry does come with additional baggage. Founders and investors often mistakenly think that a license is a golden ticket and that all you have to do is open a subpar operation and the money will flow.
Additionally I think it also just really hard to attract best in class talent who are new to the industry, and rigorous newbie investors because so many people still don’t take the industry seriously. They assume that there is inefficient rigor, lack of thoughtful data driven SOPs, poor market data, and insufficient statistical analysis behind everything we do. This is obviously not the case for the players who are thriving in the industry.
Are there any trends you are seeing within the first few months of operating? What are the most popular products?
Edibles were initially our best seller because I think a lot of folks assumed at first that New York flower is inferior. But the flower sales have been going strong recently, especially since we introduced our $200 ounce. The ounce is one of our most popular products right now.
Edibles are our next most popular category after flower, closely followed by vape pens. It is clear there is a large customer base that prefers easy consumption. And given we are in NYC and most folks travel via public transportation, they want to be able to light up easily on their way to dinner or a concert. As a result, prerolls have also been going strong.
It is also really interesting to see that the majority of our customers skew older and are in their 30s and 40s, and we also have a large number of customers 50 and over. The diversity of the customer base has also been surprising. In my opinion, our dispensary is one of the most diverse places you will find in New York City.
What’s one lesson your career has taught you that you think everyone should learn at some point in their life?
How important it is to follow your instinct not just in your personal life, but also in your professional life. Cannabis is an ever evolving industry and you really have to read the signs, use your best judgment, and best guess to get ahead of the changes. I also have come to realize how important it is to work with people who share your values so that you are able to seamlessly work toward the same goal.
What are the biggest goals for you and Union Square Travel Agency this year?
Obviously we have pretty solid revenue goals that we are on our way to meeting, but we are also looking to forge meaningful partnerships with community groups so that we can support legacy operators transitioning into the legal market. We are also hoping to be able to support the growth of BIPOC and women-owned cannabis brands. Lastly we want to expand our reach in New York and become a recognizable brand statewide, known for having a premier customer experience, the most diverse array of products, and the best educated budtenders.
We are also looking forward to moving from our pop up space to our permanent space next door this coming July.
Let’s get to the fun stuff… If you had to eat one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Fresh beach grilled fish that has just been pulled from the ocean, a curry stew with lots of veggies, rice and peas with baked plantain.
Who would be your top three ideal dinner guests, dead or alive? And why?
I lost my favorite uncle prematurely last year and he would definitely be at the top of my list. James Baldwin because he is one of the most eloquent writers and great thinkers of our time. And finally Prince because he was known to perform for hours via impromptu concerts in small intimate settings and I never got to see him perform a full concert while he was alive, which is one of my greatest regrets.
What are your favorite ways to consume cannabis?
It really depends on the occasion. I am a mother to two young children, so my go to method these days is via a vape pen because it is just the easiest, it’s typically a milder high, and does not leave me smelling like cannabis smoke. When I am out with friends, there is nothing better than sharing a freshly rolled joint. And when I attend a music concert or go to an art show sans kids, edibles are typically my go to.
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Conference Season Recap
We had so much fun at this year’s MJ Unpacked sharing the latest innovation from Azuca, seeing old friends and meeting new ones, and continuously being inspired by our cannabis community. Our favorite part had to be when our CEO and Co-Founder Kim Sanchez Rael hosted a panel about licensing deals. We’re so lucky to have her fearlessly leading our team. Thank you to all those who stopped by our booth! We can’t wait to be back next year.
While the weather in Miami was anything but sunny, the crowds at Benzinga Cannabis Capital Conference were a blast! In case you missed it, watch our CEO Kim’s full panel discussion on the evolution of cannabis beverages and why betting on federal legalization is a bad business model.
Last week at LMCC, our CEO Kim joined Food & Wine Senior Editor Oset Babür-Winter, PAMOS CEO and Co-Founder David Mukpo, MXXN Founder Darnell Smith, and Artet Co-Founder Xander Shepherd to explore the ways cannabis is rapidly replacing alcohol consumption, and how Azuca is getting involved. We had a great time sharing stories with these impressive beverage visionaries, and enjoyed learning more about the wellness space too!
Remember our last newsletter guest, the amazing and talented ButACake CEO Matha Figaro? Well… we’ve got some exciting news. A special partnership is brewing between Azuca and ButACake. Stay tuned for more info!
Corinne Butler and Charlie Villanueva are both commemorating advancements at Azuca. Explore further details about Corinne’s promotion to Senior Vice President of Growth here and Charlie’s rise to Vice President of Commercialization here on our news page!
In the News
The advanced formulations team at Azuca recently released the Whole-Plant ACTiVATOR®, which creates an entirely new category for consumers: edibles and beverages without extraction that contain the whole cannabinoid and terpene profile of the cannabis flower. Read the full release in Cannabis Equipment News.