Last week, Barry Liben, chairman of Tzell Travel Group, passed away. He had a lasting impact on the business, serving as the organization’s president and CEO for nearly 40 years and chairman of Tzell Travel Group since 2016. Industry leaders and Tzell advisors have shared their thoughts and memories of Liben with Luxury Travel Advisor. Here's what they had to say:
Awilda Gonzalez, SVP, operations and engagement at Tzell Travel Group
“What started out as a ‘job’ turned into a career because of BARRY. (Caps automatic). What started out as a job, turned into a second family because of Barry. He believed in me and helped me realize my strengths. Today, as SVP of culture and operations, I use everything that I learned from Barry, plus what he already saw in me. Barry was my boss, my friend, my mentor. He taught me it was OK to have fun at work, let the kid inside out every now and again. He showed me the value of loyalty, honesty. And most of all, good guys can finish first. I will miss him always.”
Leslie Tillem, Eltee Travel Group, a division of Tzell Travel Group
“I met Barry almost 20 years ago when he wanted me to join Tzell. That meeting was all it took to make my decision. While Barry was a highly regarded industry icon and leader to all of us at Tzell, he was my friend and I admired him for so many reasons. He was always honest, fair and a mentor to so many of us. I remember looking forward to our monthly Tzell meetings. His incredible sense of humor and timing was always the highlight. I will forever remember him as the quintessential family man who always made time for the people that mattered most. As busy as we can be in travel, Barry lived for his family and as I witnessed his dedication to them that lesson helped me keep the priorities in my life straight. He was a leader and an inspiration to all of us and loved by so many. To Barry, I’d like to thank him for the memories and the many life lessons. He will be forever dearly missed.”
Cathleen Casey, Tzell Travel Group
“It is hard to overstate the impact a strong mentor can effect on a life. Barry Liben’s presence in mine will last a lifetime. My time with Barry was relatively short compared with some of my colleagues, who worked with him for decades. I had just one. But it was more than enough to realize what an extraordinary man he was. I quickly learned that Barry could always be counted on to simplify the seemingly most intractable problems in an instant by boiling things down in a few questions. His office door was always open to me when I needed his advice or to just to visit and have a few laughs. I told him once that his sense of humor reminded me of Groucho Marx, to which he responded that this was the greatest compliment I could ever have bestowed upon him. His wisdom, generosity, humor, loyalty, spirit and joie de vivre live on through all of us he touched, and we are all better humans for having shared his world.”
Steven Bear, Bear & Bear Travel, Tzell Travel Group
“In September of 2008, Bear & Bear Travel started our first day at Tzell as ICs. The Friday prior, I received a call from Barry Liben wanting me to hear from his mouth that Tzell Travel Group was purchased by Travel Leaders Group and any agreements we made in writing or handshake would always be honored. Our first day, Jody Bear, myself and the entire Bear & Bear team were amazed on how fluid the day, and then month, went. September was exclusively dedicated to Show Time for the fashion world, which was our niche business at the time, this meant a lot of tickets, changes and demands. Our first month turned out to be the best month our business ever produced, our staff was amazing, but Barry made sure every department had a presence in our offices in order to circumvent any problems quickly.
“October 2008, the bubble burst, as many other businesses the fashion world ground went down to a halt. We. for all purposes. were out of business and 12 faces looking at us for guidance. In November of 2008, Barry called me to his office: He said, “Steven, I never saw anyone in business get the s—t kicked out of them like you did.” We only worked under the Tzell umbrella for two-and-a-half months, yet we met a number of times to negotiate but for all practical purposes except for reputation, we were strangers. Barry told me, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered, whatever you need, however you want to run your business I’ve got your back.’ If we were at a different agency, we would have had our possessions in a box and, at the best, seated in a hole in the wall and told to fire our staff. Today, we are exclusively in the concierge/luxury travel business with offices in New York and Seattle. There was no way in the world we would have been able to be in this position if it wasn’t for Barry Liben.”
Marian Lyn, Status, an affiliate of Tzell Travel Group
“Barry is the true story of a self-made man. He was my friend, a role model and a wonderful CEO. He was family to me and the entire Tzell family. I am so incredibly proud of and in love with his wife, children and grandchildren. They were Barry’s life, and anyone could see the pure joy on his face whenever he spoke of them. He loved his family so much and it was inspiring and always showed. Barry was and forever be the nucleus of the Tzell family. He was an incredible leader for us. Barry had that God-given gift of being able to ‘read’ people and act off of intuition. We shared many of the same values: ‘My word is my bond;’ be honest; work hard; and bring a little ‘crazy,’ which I did and yet that door was always open, and he was always reachable.
“The loss of Barry is immeasurable. Barry was the voice in the travel agent community and always fought the fight for us. He led us and laughed with us. Barry knew how hard the agents worked day and night and recognized our dedication. He built a work family and I hope he was so proud of those accomplishments. Barry truly redefined the travel industry. He was loyal to us and always did what was right for everyone. In addition to being one of the best negotiators, Barry was one of the best storytellers and ‘roasters,’ keeping us all in stitches at our annual party to recognize years of services at Tzell. Only he could be that visual storyteller. Barry always sent out yearly happy birthday messages; he wanted to make sure we knew that he cared. Barry gave us a fun work environment, filled with ice cream and bingo. When we would have our ‘fireside’ chats, we would laugh so hard in Barry’s office.
“Barry would always ask, ‘How are you?’ ‘How is your family?’ ‘Are you taking care of yourself?’ And the conversations would always end in ‘Be good, stay out of trouble and I LOVE YOU.’ My friend, Barry, I will miss him dearly! May he rest in peace and hope he knows how much he meant to us. I will miss our fireside chats and the laughter and will love him forever. I have the memories, so I did not lose Barry, but I have 20 years of memories which I forever cherish. I am TZELL!”
Andi Henig, A Team Tours, an affiliate of Tzell Travel Group
“It was the winter of 1992, way before everyone had cell phones and laptops. If you had work to do you stayed at the office and worked into the night. Alan and I were working on a national tour of a group of comedians headed by Dennis Leary. Barry had been wooing us to come over to Tzell to join his curated group of agents. He called at about 7 p.m. and asked one more time for us to join the company; this time, we finally said yes. He saw in us what we hadn’t even dreamed we could become. Barry knew just how to get the most out of everyone on his team. For the A Team, that meant leaving us alone most of the time to grow in our own way. He knew that Alan’s story was very close to his own journey growing up in Brooklyn. Barry knew that my Yale education and tenacity made us a great team. Barry loved the fact that we had both been Broadway actors before becoming travel agents. Barry loved the theatre and always wanted to know what shows we were working on and what the big, new hit of the season might be.
“Just a few weeks ago, he came by the office to make his rounds. Barry looked at all of the show posters lining the walls of our office and felt the pride that came from knowing how much he contributed to making the A Team the success it is today. Though we won’t get any more visits like that, his positive spirit will always be a part of our lives going forward. Barry’s belief in what we could accomplish before we even dared to envision what we have achieved today was his gift to us. How we will miss him. How lucky were we to have been a part of his life for over a quarter of a century?”
Eric Hrubant, CIRE Travel, a division of Tzell Travel Group
“What made Barry stand apart was he really valued relationships and he really always cared for people. He always wanted to make sure that everyone's business was a success, and he didn't care how you did it, he didn't care what you called yourself, what you looked like—he just wanted you to run your business your way. There was no micromanagement involved. He really believed that everyone at Tzell knew what was best for them and he was here to support them to sort of do their best and do good work. And that's my lasting memory of him. After being at his memorial, the recurring theme was how Barry really did take care of people. If you came to him with a problem, whether big or small, he would go to bat for you. He was definitely a good figurehead for Tzell Travel, where he respected every agent that worked here no matter how big or how small. What I liked when I came to Tzell was he let me run my business my way and if I needed support, whether to solve a problem or to find ways to grow, you could go to him and he would personally help or have someone else on the team help, if it was their expertise.
“Do you know what I really liked about Tzell? When you come into Tzell, we are a casual and fun office and I think just the spirit of fun really helps people succeed. I couldn't be CIRE Travel at other agencies. He was very happy to let me be CIRE Travel, a division of Tzell and have my own branding and do what worked well for me but having the power of Tzell behind me. That I could have my own autonomy within Tzell. It's the leverage, the buying power anytime I needed. If you wanted to come through Tzell every day in a three-piece suit, you could, if you want it to come in shorts and t-shirt every day, you could. He just wanted to create a space for people, excelled and he did.”
Alex Sharpe, president and CEO, Signature Travel Network
“Barry was an absolute titan in this business. He was a character in every sense of the word and someone who will be missed greatly in both the Tzell Travel Group and Signature families.”
Matthew D. Upchurch, Chairman and CEO of Virtuoso
“When an industry icon leaves us, we are united in our grief and our appreciation for the contribution they’ve made to a profession we all love and value. Barry Liben was tireless in his support of travel advisors and the entire agency community. It was evident in the loyalty he inspired while growing Tzell as well as in his leadership of Travel Leaders Group’s entire portfolio. We all owe Barry a debt of gratitude for continually raising the bar and making us strive to do better, whether on the agency or partner side of the business. Barry always had my admiration for the humanity he brought to this business, and we both shared as a driving force our passion for life, family and professional purpose. During this difficult time, my thoughts are with Barry’s immediate family as well as his extended Tzell and Travel Leaders family.”