Family Culture: Leslie Tillem of Tzell Travel Group

Leslie Tillem says that just as Tzell Travel Group makes her feel like family she wants her clients to feel like they’re part of her family.

Leslie Tillem of Tzell Travel Group considers herself a “travel baby.” Her parents owned Hillside Travel and Jade Travel, which collectively had branches throughout the greater New York area, including the Bronx, New Jersey and Long Island. Her father, Jack D. Tillem, is actually a labor attorney, who held leadership positions in the national and New York ASTA associations. Tillem’s mom taught her the business and, very early on, she would open new offices for the family company. She also taught adult education travel agency classes. “It was a great way to bring in and train new independent contractors,” she says.

Her intent was to pursue a career in law after college, but Tillem wasn’t keen on remaining a student and surviving on her parents’ dime. She was still working for them when her father had an idea, and it wasn’t to join the family business.

“You won’t always want to work for me and my partner. Go out on your own,” he told his daughter. 

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Tillem says she thanks her father all the time for this push. 

“My dad is a big believer in being your own boss,” she says.

Her parents helped her purchase a storefront travel agency on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where she grew an extremely successful business that today takes in more than $12 million in revenue a year.

These days, for Tillem, any ordinary project could include planning a small group tour of Petra, Jordan; a private safari in Namibia or a dog sled ride in Skagway, Alaska. 

Or, it could involve fixing a major crisis. Case in point: Tillem had booked her clients on a two-week trip to Japan for a family of four. One of the major reasons for the trip was for the son to visit a Samurai swordsmith (there aren’t that many left). Just before the trip’s departure, the swordsmith had a death in the family and was no longer available. Tillem and her team got busy, spending days and nights trying to find another swordsmith in another city — and they did. After getting a major education on Japan, she was able to move some dates around, get the clients on a bullet train to another city and voila — at the end of it all, the son had five handmade swords made by the swordsmith to take home.

Growing Her Business

Getting new clients in those vibrant, early days on Lexington Avenue was a snap for Tillem, who isn’t shy in the slightest. She’d stand outside her storefront, chatting with people as they walked by. She quickly formed a client base of young people in the area who were working on Wall Street.

“We were all in our 20s together. I’d get kids like me coming in all the time asking questions and I was able to answer them. We were all the same,” she recalls.

Dealing with like-minded clients, it was easy to build her business, particularly as they started to trust her. They’d swing by the agency in the evenings, sometimes with a bottle of wine, simply to hang out. As they all got older, Tillem started doing their honeymoons and then their family travel.

After several years of tirelessly growing her agency, Tillem realized she had to totally change up her strategy. She’d gotten married and had a baby. The airlines had stopped paying commissions. 

“I finally said, ‘You know what? I don’t want to be open Saturdays. I don’t want to sit here at night. I don’t want to sit here anymore giving people free information,’” says Tillem.

This move toward taking more control over the dynamics of her business meant moving out of a storefront and into an office building, where she became a “by-referral-only” agency. There was just one thing: She couldn’t hang out in front of her agency anymore chatting up prospective clients.

“So, instead, I rode the elevators,” says Tillem. She rejoiced when she got the wrong piece of mail delivered to her agency so she’d have an excuse to roam the building to deliver it to someone else. 

“And, knock wood, we started getting business,” she says. She also took her show on the road, so to speak, by riding the commuter trains to meet potential clients. “The Long Island Railroad is 40 minutes of uninterrupted time annoying people about travel,” she says.

She admits she’s not shy and says that to be in sales, you need to be a people person. “People also need to trust you,” she notes.

Along the way, she started selling business travel, as well. “I knew I loved leisure but I also knew that, at the time, corporate paid money, too, even without the airline commissions,” says Tillem.

Devora Wissell has been with Tillem since the early days on Lexington Avenue and remains with her to this day.

“Devora helped me build our business for 30-plus years; she really has been my work spouse! She has been my right hand and the person I rant to and bounce things off,” says Tillem.

Executive Moves: Leslie Tillem with Tzell Travel Group’s Karen Magee (vice president, partnerships & leisure services) and Awilda Gonzalez, the company’s senior vice president.

She and Wissell still laugh about how they met; Wissell simply walked into the Lexington Avenue office and asked Tillem to teach her the business. Tillem was nervous; she was still a small business owner trying to figure out how to pay the bills and submit ARC reports, which, in those days, had to be done manually by adding up sales on a calculator and submitted weekly.

Still, Tillem agreed to mentor Wissell and the two clicked, running the agency together. Finally, one day, Wissell had a heart to heart with Tillem: “Leslie, I really love this business and doing it with you, but do you think you can pay me?”

“I guess I had to finally start paying her, and today, more than 30 years later, Devora is the backbone of the business,” says Tillem. Al Medina, who joined the two shortly thereafter, has also remained with Tillem for more than three decades. 

“Devora and Al run my team and they’re amazing. They’re great agents,” says Tillem.

Back to the early days: Tillem’s “by-referral-only” agency was blossoming and her luxury corporate sales were growing. She was selling a high volume of “front-of-the-plane” seats and this caught the eye of Barry Liben, owner of Tzell Travel, one of the largest travel agencies in the country. Tillem hesitated to join him until she finally realized how much more clout she’d have with Tzell than on her own. She joined Tzell 17 years ago as an independent contractor, bringing her entire team with her. She says she hasn’t looked back once. Today, she calls herself a “mini Tzell within Tzell.”

With Liben, there was a culture, a sense of family, that everyone had each other’s backs, she says. It was also fun; there were Friday Bingo games and mobile ice cream carts.

Tillem says that same family feeling continued in 2008 after Tzell Travel Group merged with Travel Acquisitions Group. In 2009, Travel Acquisitions became Travel Leaders Group, bringing Tillem and her team under an even larger corporate umbrella with even more clout.

Liben is now chairman of Tzell and now the company is run by co-presidents Cindy Schlansky and Monty Swaney; both worked with Liben and are preserving the culture he set forth. Tillem says she feels she can still walk into either of their offices and laugh about anything.

“After 17 years, I still feel exactly the same way and I would never dream of being anywhere else,” she says. “If you’re a million-dollar agent or a $20 million agent, we all have each other’s backs. We’re here to help each other,” she says.

“Leslie has a perfect storm of skills that have helped her thrive over the years at Tzell — an entrepreneurial spirit, out-of-the-box thinking and gifted problem-solving abilities,” says Tzell Travel Co-President Monty Swaney. “She and Tzell complement each other, which makes for a rewarding and fruitful working relationship. She is also a hard worker and puts a lot of effort into educating herself on new properties and destinations firsthand. And she has a magnetic personality that helps her to get to know her clients well and uncover the details that will make them happy.”

Moving on Up

There has been one major change: Travel Leaders Group last year moved Tzell from its long-standing midtown headquarters to its new corporate offices at 1633 Broadway. The move, which brought Tzell and its sister agency Protravel, under one roof, was a big switch. During a recent visit, Luxury Travel Advisor found that all the Tzell advisors we saw were quite happily ensconced in their new, ultra-modern work environment, which has views of Manhattan to die for from its 36th-floor perch.

With all the changes, the communication among all Tzell advisors remains extremely fluid and supportive, says Tillem. 

“No leisure advisor can know every destination, although some of my clients will tell you the world is small and that I should create another continent for them, they’ve been to so many places. We laugh about that, but if I have a question or I need a contact, I put it out there to my fellow Tzell advisors and within seconds I get 50 responses,” says Tillem. Those return messages might include specific onsite contacts who could help Tillem, or perhaps insider input from an advisor who has just returned from the destination in question. Tillem, who travels frequently, says she is quick to share with her colleagues, as well. 

“None of us could do what we do without that backbone of Tzell,” says Tillem. “We really couldn’t. To give us the support in every way, it’s just a great company. Barry did something right. He really did.”

Being a part of Tzell gives her clients all of the value-added benefits of Tzell Select hotel program. They also benefit from the amenities in the programs from the Signature Travel Network, which Tzell belongs to.

“Having the benefits of Signature and TLG helps us compete with everybody else out there,” says Tillem. “All of these programs help us to show the consumer that we’re a better choice than what they’re finding themselves.” 

Those who think they can get a better travel deal are Tillem’s biggest competitors, she says. “I really wish I could teach people that we add a value,” she says. She recently had a client book herself a five-night vacation at a Four Seasons. The client asked Tillem to pick up the booking so she would get credit for it. Tillem appreciated the gesture but when she got the booking link she saw that the client had missed out on a “fifth night free” program as well as free breakfast daily by not booking directly with her.

The client ended up rebooking with Tillem, changing her air reservation and taking the $250 penalty because the add-ons that Tillem was able to provide were worth much, much more.

The client’s response in the end? “Oh, I guess I shouldn’t be doing this myself.”

“My biggest issue is people thinking they can do better,” says Tillem. “I just think in this business, you really have to know your details.”

A Family Affair: Leslie’s husband, Shepard Doniger; their son, Sam; Leslie; her parents, Jack and Alice Tillem; and her son and daughter, Zach and Alex.

There for You

While we were chatting with Tillem at Tzell’s headquarters, she got a text from a client, thanking her for getting out of a jam. The client had booked, and paid in full, for a 100 percent, non-refundable luxury cruise, not realizing it was sailing over Passover.

Tillem told us that when she realized the extent of the problem, she went into her “calm” mode and called the cruise line. After some persistence, she was able to get a refund. She thanks the backing of Tzell for that, as well as the legal knowledge she has garnered from her father.

“That’s my job, to say to a client, ‘Take a deep breath, it’s okay, we’ll figure it out.’ That’s what I like to do. My job is to solve the problems,” says Tillem.

She says that a lot of people can sell, but that being a problem-solver is paramount because, when there’s an issue, her client needs to know she is there to take care of it. 

“I say to them all the time, ‘You know what? My job here is to fix it and keep you okay.’ And that’s what I do.”

Top Tips for Success

The secrets to the success of Tillem’s $12 million agency can be found in her strength to make sound decisions early on in her business. After she moved her agency out of a storefront, she worked on a referral-only business, refusing to advertise. “I was always nervous about what kind of business I would get by advertising,” she recalls.

That, and her willingness to physically go out and get business by riding elevators, the railroad and whatever else it took to discover, and win over, potential new clients, built the foundation of her luxury business.

Her advice to those starting out? Find the right people to work with. “Don’t do it on your own,” she says.

Working day and night in the early days also paid off and Tillem admits she still works a lot.

“You know what? You want any client, high-end, or from the bottom to the top, to use you and to trust you,” she says. “They always have to feel of equal importance, whether they’re spending $100 or $100,000 or more. To me, it doesn’t matter.”

Those on restricted budgets now might someday be able to spend more, she says, or their children may become clients; just like those young adults from Wall Street that she hung out with at her first storefront. She did their early travel, then their honeymoons, and now many of them are grandparents and Tillem is planning multigenerational trips for them and their grandchildren.

Their loyalty to her may have grown from the fact that Tillem, who does have a 24/7 emergency service, is always there when her clients need her. If they contact her on a weekend and it can wait for an answer, she’ll promise a response by Monday. If it can’t wait, she’ll deal with it immediately.

It took her children, when they were young, a while to understand why their mother didn’t have nine-to-five business hours. However, they did get to grow up traveling the world, and they had a terrific role model.

“They learned that women can raise a family and work, and that we can be successful,” she says. “I can absolutely do both. They are amazing kids, and they’ve learned to have a sense of humor.” She also credits her husband, Shepard Doniger, for “putting up with my crazy hours. He is such a good guy.” 

There’s tremendous potential for businesses that focus on family travel with young kids, and she has one tip for hoteliers who don’t put boxes of tissues in their guestrooms. If a child wants a tissue and can’t find one, they’ll turn to the roll of toilet paper in the bathroom.

“What do children love to do? They’ll just keep pulling and pulling and pulling and pulling and pulling that roll of toilet paper. We went through rolls and rolls when we traveled,” Tillem says, finally suggesting to some GMs it might just be cheaper to put a box of tissues in the room. “Sometimes it’s just the silliest little things.”

A Team Effort: Devora Wissell, Leslie Tillem, Al Medina and Shepard Doniger.

Her team is strong and communication is easy, which means that Tillem now lives in Delray Beach, FL, where she’s able to live large with her nine dogs and pig, Sizzle. Flying up to New York is a snap, with frequent departures out of Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami into New York’s LaGuardia, JFK and Newark airports. She’s able to be at 1633 Broadway by 11 a.m. if need be. These days, she does stints for up to a week at a time in New York, but she’s keen on developing her business in Florida, where there’s a large market of younger travelers, including families.

“That’s my market and I love the lifestyle,” she says.

How has the luxury consumer changed? They demand dinner and spa appointments and many other facets of their trips to be handled by their travel advisor, which means Tillem is running a full-time concierge service. She has a team in place to make all of that happen once she or one of her other top advisors has consulted with the client on their vision for the trip, as well as the itinerary.

“We do every detail; that’s what travel has become now at the luxury level,” she says.

Today’s clients are sophisticated and educated. They’ve grown up traveling and have disposable income. The same is true for young honeymooners, says Tillem. “Mom and dad might help them with the mileage for their plane tickets, which gives them more money to spend on the land. And they know what they’re looking for.”

She says her job isn’t to change their mind on where to go, but to guide them. “It’s to make sure that their wish list is better by adding things to the trip, whether it’s the amenities or asking if they need the spa.”

Tillem is always sure to recommend a private transfer upon arrival.

“People don’t understand that after flying for eight, 10 or 12 hours, you don’t want to have to get your luggage and get on a taxi line. People don’t think about that. They think air and hotel. The private transfer is a detail I will always recommend to somebody. It’s an added expense but it’s worth adding,” says Tillem.

Her client roster includes some celebrities and she does small groups; for example, Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Club, which makes an annual trek to Bermuda.

She loves working with honeymooners (“They’re always so excited!”). She recently did a high-end trip for two newlyweds who were traveling all over Asia. Tillem felt the itinerary had them running around quite a bit and so she sent them a review of the Four Seasons Tented Camps in Bangkok. “It was an easy flight to get up to the Chiang Rai region and so we changed some things around,” she says. The advice paid off; on the second day of their stay, the husband e-mailed Tillem to say, “Just so you know, we will never be using another travel agent again.”

“Those are the things that I love,” says Tillem. She also gets new business from people who have met her clients on trips who have raved about her. A new client recently sent her a video of her tour of Yellowstone, which is state-funded and not federally funded, so it wasn’t closed during the government shutdown.

“When my clients send me things like that, or they’ll e-mail me to tell me their daughter got engaged, that’s what’s important to me. Just like Tzell makes me feel like family, I want them to feel I’m family.”

There are challenges, of course, but Tillem has her way of dealing with them by implementing her “24-hour rule.”

Say a client checks into a hotel at night. They’re feeling out of place, the air might not feel right and maybe they’re just plain cranky. They might e-mail, or call Tillem at that very moment, telling her to move them out of the hotel because they just aren’t happy. Unless it’s very clearly a serious issue, Tillem tells them she will get to work on making the change and provide them with a new list of options, but that they must wait 24 hours before pushing the button to actually leave.

She says that 99.9 percent of the time, the client will admit the next day that they actually love where they are and don’t want to move. ‘We were jetlagged,’ ‘It was raining,’ are some of the excuses she’s heard.

Tillem says she learned this way of dealing with things from her father, who always told her, “No matter how bad it is, the sun will come out tomorrow.”

She travels frequently to check out new hotels; next stop is Mallorca, which is becoming more and more popular with Americans. She has a short list of hotels to see that will appeal to her clients. 

“I’ll never forget, years ago in Honolulu, we went to 20 hotels in three days. And we didn’t have these little phone cameras, so I was writing notes and when I got back, I couldn’t tell one hotel from another. So, through the years I have learned to do my research. I also really use the network, and I’m an avid reader,” she says.

For Tillem, who started out as a “travel baby,” the future is bright for luxury travel. “As clients become more educated, our job becomes even more important and we need to stay one step ahead,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “Travelers want more specific experiences and, thanks to social media, they are more definitive in their desires.

Statistics show that health and wellness, family-friendly experiences and even classes and workshops (want to learn gladiator skills?) are the future for travel. As an advisor, I am excited to be a part of it all.”  

Leslie Tillem

Status: Independent contractor with Tzell Travel Group

Staff: Five ICs and four full-time employees. Her team includes Devora Wissell, Al Medina, Duff Pacifico, Shelley Seidman, Lynn Goldfine and Elizabeth Muniz

Annual Revenue: $12 million-plus

Business Mix: Leisure: 60 percent; corporate: 40 percent

Affiliations: Tzell, Travel Leaders Group, Signature Travel Network, Belmond Bellini Club, Dorchester Diamond Club, Abercrombie & Kent 100 Club, Four Seasons Preferred Partner, Hyatt Prive, Marriott STARS Celestial Club, Mandarin Oriental FAN Club, Penn Club by Peninsula, Rosewood Elite

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