"Always do your homework. Don’t take shortcuts, ever. Never lie to your clients; tell them the truth, good or bad. Enjoy this job. Life is not a dress rehearsal. Make the most of it!”
Those are the tips for travel advisors that Barry Liben, chairman of Tzell Travel Group and Protravel International, shared with us for this profile. We asked him because we figured he would know; Liben has been running Tzell since he invested in the New York City-based agency in 1977. It’s this precision of thought and sentiment that has helped him lead Tzell from a $200,000 agency employing four people to one that today has 60 branches and 1,000 advisors who garner a total of $3 billion annually in sales. It’s also now part of Travel Leaders Group, a mega-ship of agency networks that earns $21 billion in sales a year. Tzell is thriving within the group, but has very much retained its own identity as an entrepreneurial powerhouse — one that has strong airline relationships and a healthy mix of corporate, leisure and entertainment clientele.
In fact, this year the agency, which was founded in 1966 by Eli Blau, turns 50 amid great fanfare. Liben, known for celebrating the successes of his advisors, is taking over Ellis Island on October 27 for a black-tie gala that’s likely to top any party the travel industry has seen.
We dropped by the agency’s West 40th Street headquarters to catch up with Liben, who, at age 64, is now the chairman of Tzell. Joining him for our interview was Gail Grimmett. She joined Travel Leaders Group in May as president of the newly created Elite Travel Division that includes Tzell and another major Manhattan agency, Protravel. Grimmett came to Travel Leaders Group after serving for 19 years at Delta Air Lines in a variety of executive roles, and reports directly to Travel Leaders Group CEO Ninan Chacko.
Liben and Grimmett laid out Tzell’s current landscape and even eyed a future that will enable the agency to utilize the synergies available within Travel Leaders Group.
“We’re predominantly made up of independent contractors, commissioned agents. I’d say we’re the gold standard for that sort of agent,” Liben tells us. “We believe that’s the best model in our world to be in. I’ve been a believer of that since I founded the first one of them back in 1977. It’s something we built on from the very beginning and we think we’ve perfected the model. The reason that we think we’ve perfected it is by all the people that copied it.” He gives a nod to Protravel as also representing the “best in the business in that world of independent contractors.” The two agencies merged in 2012 when Tzell bought Protravel from its founder, Priscilla Alexander.
Tzell has a strong mix of business and leisure clients, with the who’s who of the entertainment world being an integral part of the business (think Bruce Springsteen, Meat Loaf, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd and Pearl Jam). “It gives you a lot of credibility when you have those kind of names,” says Liben.
And while many of its advisors span the U.S., all the way from New York to California, and even London, it’s got a strong hub right here in New York on 119 West 40th Street.
“If you walk these four floors, you’ll find agents that do everything in the world of travel,” says Liben. “That’s part of our strength, that there’s really nothing in the world of travel we don’t do. Our breakdown, which I think people are surprised about, is probably 70 percent corporate and 30 percent leisure and everything else.”
Tzell is one of those agencies that didn’t miss a beat when the airlines cut travel agent commissions in 1995, severing a major source of income for many. It was a shock, Liben admits, but it spurred him to encourage his agents to rethink how they view themselves.
“It actually turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to Tzell,” he tells us. “It drove many, many small agencies to look for a better place — a safe haven. While it was emotionally shocking and terrifying to people, it was a year where we gained a lot of strength from smaller agencies that couldn’t survive. I also think that the agency community was looking for leadership and we were glad to step into that role. We weren’t terrified, and I assured my agents that day that we would be fine.”
And in true Liben style, Tzell had a party the day following the initial cuts to “celebrate our strength.” He admits now that he had to put on a bit of a strong front to face his agents, but “it did turn out to be a very good thing for us in the end.”
Liben even keeps in his top right-hand drawer the commission statements of those agents who were at Tzell back then. “If I compare them to what they make now, they’re all doing better,” he says.
“We just strengthened what we did and made sure our agents found every revenue stream that was possible; we strengthened our service offerings to our clients. Of course, there were some minor changes to service fees and things that we had not charged for in the past, and were doing gratis, that we started to charge for.”
Bottom line? Liben made sure Tzell’s agents understood their worth and their value. “Lawyers don’t do favors, and engineers don’t do favors, and architects don’t do favors. Travel agents had to understand that they couldn’t do favors, and that what they did was valuable and they had to charge for it. We just made sure that they understood they’re professionals, and they had to make sure that their clients knew they were professionals. We tightened up the ship in a lot of different ways and the clients understood it.”
Today, Tzell retains the phrase “safe haven” on its website to describe itself as a good place not just for its clients to be in, but also for its advisors.
“We think we’re a safe haven for any travel agent who wants to work in the business, and no matter how they want to work, there’s a place for them at Tzell,” says Liben, who believes that the agent’s job is to sell travel and that Tzell’s job is to give them all of the tools and support they need to flourish.
What’s changed is that Tzell’s agents can work wherever they want to now, thanks to technology. “There are some agents I don’t think I have seen in literally years,” says Liben. “They don’t come to the office. With modern technology, you can work on a beach in Ibiza and be a good agent.”
Tzell continues to take on new agencies as they agree to either be purchased outright or to surrender their ARC number and become independent contractors.
Either way, when an agency joins Tzell, it’s a partnership, says Grimmett, who has an easy rapport with Liben; the two seem to be very much on the same wavelength while describing Tzell’s acquisition strategy. “Whether it’s a full acquisition or it’s the traditional branch model that we’ve always done, it’s more than just the Tzell name that comes along with it,” says Grimmett.
A plus in joining Tzell is the new relationship they’ll have with suppliers, thanks to the amount of business Tzell delivers. “It’s very easy for an agency to understand that what they’re doing now can be a lot more valuable when the time is right to be a branch of ours or to come to us through full acquisition,” says Grimmett.
When asked if Tzell will continue to expand in this manner, Liben and Grimmett both respond immediately.
“Of course,” says Grimmett.
“It never stops,” states Liben. He says that parent company Travel Leaders Group has a full-time acquisition department. “They might buy an agency and place them within Tzell or Protravel or Nexion. It depends on the nature of the business. As an umbrella organization, Travel Leaders is the only company that has a place literally for any kind of travel company.”
Liben’s DNA is very much intertwined with the parent company. In 2008, Travel Acquisitions Group bought Tzell and made Liben the CEO of the entire operation, before changing its name to Travel Leaders Group in 2009. Liben oversaw the company through a rapid growth spurt, including the purchase of Nexion, Vacation.com and Protravel. He stepped down as CEO of Travel Leaders Group last year and is now back to overseeing his original business.
How has Tzell changed since becoming part of Travel Leaders Group?
“We’re part of a mega-company now,” he says. “Travel Leaders is a $21 billion company. It gives us vast resources, especially, financially. There’s nothing we can’t do. We’re aligned with financially strong people. We’re one of the biggest travel companies in the world and that’s a good thing because in this environment, when you’re dealing with the partners and the airlines especially, anyone who says ‘Bigger is not better’ is wrong.”
Grimmett, who has been overseeing Tzell as president for a few months, brings a fresh perspective. “What’s made Tzell so successful over the years is the freedom to react quickly and to have an entrepreneurial creative spirit,” she says. Being a part of Travel Leaders Group brings the ability to leverage new technology, capital to grow and the ability to provide new tools for its agents. “To be able to leverage those resources and that knowledge can only make us better and smarter as well,” Grimmett says.
Liben adds that Tzell does a huge business with the airlines, but it benefits from the fact that, for example, Travel Leaders Group overall generates a tremendous volume of cruise business. “Travel Leaders gives $2 billion to the cruise industry. It’s a great balance that way,” he says.
How Tzell and Protravel will synergize remains to be seen; that’s a major task ahead for Grimmett. Meanwhile, Travel Leaders Group just announced that it’s combining three of its other agency brands to form a new entity called Travel Leaders Network. Under the new organization, Vacation.com, Travel Leaders Associates and Results! Travel, as of January 1, 2017, will function as one, under the single Travel Leaders Network moniker.
This makes for a great future, says Liben. “It’s going to make it simpler for the travel world to understand. It’s simpler for the public to understand. It’s simpler for negotiation. It was a great move and long overdue.”
Grimmett, meanwhile, says joining Tzell and Protravel under the Elite Travel Division was necessary. “If you look at who our customers are, who our clients are, and whom our agents service, it’s a different mix from the rest of the Travel Leaders organization; we have different needs. To be able to carve ourselves out and say, at times, we want to be part of that full umbrella but, at times we want to be treated separately, allows us to have that division. It allows us to go to the marketplace to talk about our differences, and even internally, it allows us to share a little bit more across the board so that we can get those things done that are very specific to the needs of our agents that may not be nearly as important to other parts of the corporation.”
Says Liben: “A Protravel and a Tzell agent are very different from a Vacation.com agent. Not that one is better than the other, but they’re different. They serve different markets. They serve different demographics. They have different needs. The suppliers are sometimes very different. By establishing the Elite Travel Division and having Gail here, we can focus on those needs, and I think that was also a very good idea.”
We asked if there is a great difference between a Tzell travel advisor and a Protravel advisor. After all, Protravel is also a mega-Manhattan-based agency comprising independent contractors nationwide, with strong corporate, leisure and entertainment clientele, located at Madison Avenue and 53rd Street.
“For years, they’ve been competitors and now that they’re together, we’re all realizing there are far more similarities, in terms of who their customers are and how they service their customers,” says Grimmett. “They’re very similar in relation to the business that they’re bringing in across the board.”
Liben agrees. “I think the biggest difference is the Tzell culture was one that I brewed for 40 years. Protravel’s was brewed by Priscilla Alexander and we’re very different. When I took over Protravel for a year I’d come back and say, ‘Yep, it’s like looking in the mirror.’ The problems were the same. The clients have different names, but were the same. The agent issues were the same. It was remarkable.”
Tzell and Protravel advisors work under the independent contractor model, which Grimmett says is key to their prosperity.
“You’ll never find a group of agents on either side that are more passionate, dedicated and committed to their clients. That’s what makes this model so great. It’s their business and they own it, and they take personal ownership and pride in it. They’re very clear about that, and very proud of who they are and whom they represent, and of being part of the company. That passion and commitment [remains the same] whether it’s at Tzell or at Protravel. You see it across the board,” she says.
“That’s the key to their success,” echoes Liben.
When Tzell’s gala is held October 27, it won’t be Liben or Tzell that’s being celebrated. “[The gala] is dedicated to the agencies of Tzell that have made this company go from $200,000 to $3 billion in sales,” says Liben. Note: The anniversary events will actually begin with a meeting on October 26 for branch presidents from Tzell’s 50-plus locations and will include an industry executive panel discussion. A trade show with cocktails will follow, attended by Tzell’s supplier partners and hundreds of Tzell agents from throughout the country.
This, and the gala the next day at Ellis Island, which will include dinner and dancing and fireworks over the Statue of Liberty, speaks to the value that’s put on the network.
“These people will do anything for their clients. They live and breathe for their clients,” says Liben. “These are all little mini-entrepreneurs. They’ve built incredibly successful businesses. We have some agents whose own business is bigger than the average travel agency in America by far.”
Grimmett says it’s vital that management supports the strong, individual businesses that fall under the Tzell and the Protravel umbrellas.
“People often ask what’s changing now that I’m here. While over time we might find different tools or new technology for them, what won’t change is our overall philosophy. And that is, if we’re doing something that isn’t helping the agent grow their business, to maintain their business, or to make more money, we shouldn’t be doing it,” she says.
We asked about the fact that Tzell is a member of the Signature Travel Network and Protravel is a member of Virtuoso, two luxury travel advisor networks with different personalities. At the same time, parent company Travel Leaders Group itself is comprised of extremely strong networks. So how does all that play together?
“What I would say is, ‘They are very strong and those relationships run deep, right?’” says Grimmett.“We have great respect for both organizations, Signature and Virtuoso. They play different roles within both organizations. For now, we’ll continue to have those relationships...they’re important to the agents. They’re very comfortable in those relationships. The most important thing as we continue to grow is to say, ‘What’s right for our brand?’ The first and foremost thing that we need to do is protect our brand. You never want your brand to be commoditized in the marketplace. These agents work too hard to be a commodity. For us, that’s always our strategy looking forward. At this point, those relationships have worked really well to allow those agents to be able to build their business.”
We asked Liben and Grimmett if they are surprised that luxury travel advisors are in such a strong position these days, considering the ups and downs of the travel agency community over the years.
“I’m disappointed that it’s not actually bigger than it is,” says Grimmett. “You talk about the Millennials being the true entrepreneurs. It’s these [advisors] right here who were the original entrepreneurs. They started their own business from scratch.” Online tools have not replaced the travel advisor, she said. “The benefit of having that live person, who can maneuver [you through issues] and who has the right connections with the right people, will never go away,” she says.
Liben concurred with Grimmett, saying, “I think the future is very strong for our kind of agent, stronger than maybe it’s ever been. I’m very bullish. We talked about how we survived the 1995 commission caps. More importantly, what about the Internet? Do you know how many times I meet new people who say, ‘What do you do?’ I say, ‘I’m in the travel business.’ They say, ‘What do you do?’ I say, ‘Travel agency.’ They say, ‘Wow! You guys are in business? I thought the Internet wiped you all out.’ I say, ‘Yeah, it did. We were at $200,000 30 years ago. Now, we’re at $3 billion.’’
Fueling the momentum of that growth is the fact that there are more rich people today than there have ever been, says Liben. “That’s not going to get less. The financial divide in this country will increase. That’s just the reality. Those people will never ever depend on the Internet for anything more than routine one-way fares through Atlanta. They want an advisor. Now, that advisor will have to be tech savvy, but more importantly, they’ll have to have tremendous expertise,” says Liben.
Case in point: He says once upon a time, a $20,000 trip would have caught the attention of management. No more. “Today, it’s got to be a $250,000 vacation to catch our attention. Now, somebody’s got to buy out an island. He’s going to have to take over a hotel. These are routine things now. There’s so much money being spent. People need expertise more than ever,” he says.
He notes that wealthy people can only buy so many cars, so many boats and so many houses, so what do they do with that money? “They travel,” he asserts.
The nature of that travel has evolved as well, notes Grimmett.
“Think about how global the world has gotten. Two or three decades ago, you weren’t talking about people taking vacations to Uganda to track gorillas, right?” she says.
“The world is just so big,” says Liben. “I’m very bullish for the luxury travel market. I think it’s bigger than ever. I think you’ll see that for the good advisors, it’s unlimited.”
Both he and Grimmett are hoping to see more new advisors join the business; that desire is supported by NEXT, a joint initiative by Protravel and Tzell to attract young professionals to the travel advisor arena, as well as the Travel Leaders of Tomorrow program, a joint initiative between the Travel Leaders Group and select industry suppliers.
But still, Liben would like to see the mindset of college graduates change so they consider being a travel advisor as a viable career from the get-go. “When I sit down and tell them how much money they can make and what kind of life they could have if they’re successful, they start thinking about it. We’re disappointed more young people are not coming in and we’re doing everything in our power to change that,” he says.
Grimmett says the mentoring aspect of what these two initiatives can provide is probably the most attractive part of the programs. “To learn from somebody who’s been in the business for 40 years means we can offer experience and schooling at the same time.”
“Getting young blood into the business is a top priority for us, top priority,” emphasizes Liben.
Back at the Helm
Education and mentoring are great, but as we noted, Liben is also big on celebrating his advisors. “We do a lot of things here. We play bingo. Our last Halloween party was amazing. Our annual holiday, Tzellabration, we call it, is the talk of the industry,” Liben says.
He also hosts an annual anniversary dinner for those celebrating 5-, 10-, 15-, 20-, 25-, 30-, 35-, 40-year anniversaries with Tzell. Last year’s dinner had 200 people.
“We try to let the agents have fun. When you consider where we all spend most of our time, it’s at the office,” he says.
Tzell’s culture attracted Grimmett to her new job, she says. “When you look at how many businesses survive 50 years, there are not a lot out there, especially in this industry. When you look at the tenure of the people that have been here, it’s remarkable. It’s not just that the business is turning 50, many of those who will be at Ellis Island started right here and they don’t want to leave.”
Treating suppliers with respect is another tenet of the Tzell culture, even as the agency’s business volume expanded dramatically.
“It’s a lot easier to deal with suppliers when you’re the big guy on the block,” says Liben. “It’s a little harder when you’re a small guy. I think dealing with suppliers is like anything else. Treat them honestly and deliver. Most important, what does the supplier want? Business. You can only give them a story so long, but if you don’t deliver eventually, that story won’t hold. I’ve always treated suppliers fairly tough. That’s my reputation on the street,” Liben says.
He relays this philosophy to his team. “I always caution people who work for me when we negotiate. I say, ‘Never lose track of the fact that at the end of the day, Delta or American, they’re still big companies. Don’t get to a point where you think you’re more important. I’ve always kept that in my mind even when I was angry because they’re big companies and you have to respect that. They have thousands of employees and they have a bottom line, too. They have to report to shareholders.”
The overall credo for dealing with suppliers? “‘Let’s not swing the hammer so hard that you break that relationship.’ That always worked for me,” says Liben.
Being chairman of Tzell is a role that Liben is enjoying. He says day-to-day life is now easier than it used to be.
“I’m getting used to my new role. Look, I’m 64 years old. I’ve done it for 40 years,” Liben tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “Everything needs to be freshened up once in a while. I think it’s time for new ideas and new energy. There’s a role for keeping the history involved, but I think it’s a good thing for Tzell to have a younger dynamic view of things and that’s what Gail brings.”
Liben is also spending time with family these days; his oldest child and his grandchildren live in Los Angeles (his son-in-law is Adam Pally, an actor on “The Mindy Project” and “Happy Endings”) so he travels back and forth regularly to see them. He visits Israel once a year, and loves going to his house in the Hamptons.
Grimmett’s day-to-day is a bit different as she familiarizes herself with advisors across the country. Having Liben on hand as an advisor has been great, she says. “My last three roles at Delta were all turnaround roles. When you walk into a situation like that there’s always so much to do. Here, you’re walking into a great business that is running on all cylinders.”
Grimmett says she is conscious of what Barry Liben and Priscilla Alexander have built. “I have a responsibility to make sure that all this continues to run in a successful way,” she says. “The legacy that Barry has built, the legacy that Priscilla has built should resonate for many decades to come, regardless of the fact that we change.”
The existence of the strong Tzell and Protravel cultures provides much opportunity, she says, “but you want to make sure you bring everybody along for the change. And you want to make sure that there’s a good understanding of those cultures before you start the change process. The bottom line is about making sure that we have the right structure in place to support our independent contractors and that we have the right organization in place so we can bring in new business and retain current business along the way. And frankly, I want the younger generation to say, ‘I want to be a travel consultant and I want to work for Protravel or Tzell.’”
So what do the days ahead spell for the Elite Travel Division?
“The future for Protravel and Tzell is really about looking at what we want this business to look like in the next two years and in the next five years, and how we evolve to that extent,” says Grimmett. “And yes, we would like to get some new, younger agents so that we can continue to evolve. We have a lot of experienced agents here, but we want to keep that pipeline open and the pipeline of business coming in, and that takes recruitment efforts. Then, quite frankly, there’s a lot that we can do on the tools and technology front to help our agents to be more productive and to be able to connect with their clients.” She also wants clients to remember the name of the actual travel agency they dealt with for their last vacation, and more specifically, the name of their specific advisor.
Liben says that being part of Travel Leaders Group will make all of that happen. He sits on the company’s board. “I can tell you that with all the things they’re planning and that they’re going to bring over from the other divisions to the Tzell and Protavel world, I believe they will build the best combination of things for our consumers. When they finally bring in what they’re planning to do, our agents will be cutting edge. Add that to their wealth of talent and expertise that no other agents have, and our agents will be in a position to offer what nobody else has.”
All of this leaves Liben in a mighty good place when he imagines the future of the company he took to such great heights over the past few decades.
“I feel great,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “I’ve watched these people grow their businesses for more than 40 years.I love watching them grow to greater heights. I’ve grown up with these people. I think
the future looks great for them. And I think with Gail at the helm, it will be a great world for them.”
Barry Liben’s Top Tips for Travel Advisors
1. Always do your homework.
2. Don’t take shortcuts, ever.
3. Never lie to your clients. Tell
them the truth, good or bad.
4. Enjoy this job.
5. Life is not a dress rehearsal,
make the most of it!
Half a Century of Tzell
1966 — Tzell established by Eli Blau at 55 West 42nd Street, New York, NY.
1977 — Barry Liben first invests in and assumes the helm of Tzell, which employed four people with total sales of about $200,000. At age 25, Liben marries Sindy Bachner, whom he had met at camp as a young girl and describes as “the love of my life.”
1986 — Tzell becomes a Sabre agency.
1992 — Tzell opens its first branch, Tzell West.
1995 — Delta implements commission caps — “best thing” to happen to Tzell, according to Liben.
1998 — Liben’s first magazine cover: Travel Agent magazine.
Pictured: Barry Liben, is shown here with long-time colleague, Jerry Behrens. “When Continental Airlines was preparing their inaugural flight to Tel Aviv, they came to us at Tzell because of our expertise in Israel,” Liben tells us. “They had us plan and organize everything from the invitations to all the arrangements on the ground. Jerry Behrens, who came to Tzell from Continental, joined me in formally inaugurating the airline’s first flight there.”
1999 — Inaugural flight from Newark to Tel Aviv on Continental — escorted by Barry Liben and
2003 — Liben sells to CNG Travel Group PLC (headquartered in Kenmare, Ireland)
2003 — Liben is invited to fly the last British Airways Concorde flight.
2007 — Liben buys back the company.
2008 — Tzell merges with Travel Acquisitions Group to form Travel Leaders Group with Barry Liben as CEO.
2008 — Tzell goes international with Tzell UK.
2009 — Business Travel News ranks Tzell No. 1.
2012 — Liben starts the non-profit, Tzell Foundation.
2012 — Liben appears on BTN’s Top 25 Most Influential list.
2012 — Tzell merges with Protravel.
2016 — Tzell acquires its 60th branch.
2016 — Gail Grimmett named president of Tzell, Liben named chairman.
Gail Grimmett’s World
Gail Grimmett, president of the Elite Travel Services Division of Travel Leaders Group, grew up in Deerfield, IL. She attended Indiana University and went to George Washington University for an MBA with a concentration in Business Economics and Public Policy.
Grimmett started her career as a senior regulatory economist for the Department of Labor (OSHA). “When I was ready to leave the government, I found an ad in The Wall Street Journal for a revenue management strategy analyst at Delta. I answered the ad and got the job!” she tells us. Thus began a 19-year career with the airline; early gigs included helping to start Delta Express and serving as the director of corporate forecasting and as the director of financial planning and analysis. Her last three roles were all turnaround roles: “I took over investor relations right after 9/11 to get investors back to the market. I was then moved to run revenue management [a full 360!], just before the bankruptcy and through the merger [with Northwest Airlines].”
Grimmett moved from Atlanta to create Delta’s New York business unit. “New York was losing hundreds of millions of dollars a year for Delta and they needed a new JFK terminal. By the time I left, we had an exceptional commercial team, delivered Delta’s first profit in New York in 85 years and had the new terminal built,” says Grimmett.
During that time, she enjoyed working with travel agencies, she says. “I love the pride, commitment and passion they have for their clients. Now, being on this side and getting to be a part of helping them grow is a truly amazing opportunity.”
Her early travel memories include flying with her father, a private pilot, around the Midwest, but these days, she loves either adventure travel or travel for nonprofit reasons. “Last April, I flew to Guatemala with the Covenant House to support them in their efforts to protect young girls who have been sex trafficked. It was the most life-changing experience I have ever had. I saw a region in a way that normally would not be on most people’s travel paths,” says Grimmett.
A resident of Manhattan, Grimmett admits she is “incredibly high energy,” rising at 5 a.m. every morning, when she actually knits for an hour (“I find it so soothing before I start my day,” she says), and then heading out for a run. She is also an avid sports fan, she says.
“There isn’t a sport I don’t like. I run, ski, golf, play tennis; and the list can go on. I am a true New York team sports fan as well,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor.