One on One: Tour de force

Travel titan Barry Liben attributes all his good fortune to Betar.

jp.services1 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
"I can tell you where the name Tzell comes from," quips Barry Liben, on the ride from his Manhattan-based travel agency to his home in Livingston, New Jersey. "Because at least your readers will understand." Contrary to the stories Liben says he has told "legions of people over the years" about the name of his company - among them that Tzell is Yiddish for "profit" - it is actually short for "Etzel," the Hebrew acronym for Irgun Zva'i Leumi (IZL), the armed Jewish underground that fought to oust the British Mandatory authorities from pre-state Palestine. Established in the 1970s by veterans of the IZL, Tzell was a tiny New York agency handling travel to and from Israel - one which happened to share office space with the headquarters of the Jabotinskyite youth movement, Betar. In 1977, as Israeli politics was undergoing what has come to be known as the "mahapach" (upheaval) - when Herut leader and former IZL commander Menachem Begin became prime minister - Liben, who headed the Betar bureau next to Tzell, was embarking on a major upheaval of his own. He was about to marry Sindy Bachner, whom he'd met during summers spent at Camp Betar; he was about to be offered a partnership in Tzell; and he was about to inherit $35,000 - a sum that would enable him to make a down payment on a house, and accept Tzell's tempting offer. A year later, Liben was on his own at the agency, with both of his partners in Israel. (One remained his associate from across the ocean.) It was then that Liben began to set his sights on horizons beyond the Holy Land. Tourism to Israel being what it is - "One big explosion there, and you can't believe how many calls you get, either for cancellations or inquiries about cancellations" - Liben decided that continuing to put all his commercial eggs in such a volatile basket would be unwise. He was well rewarded for this reasoning. Over the next 25 years, Liben turned Tzell into a multimillion-dollar corporation with hundreds of employees and a host of celebrity clients. In 2003, he sold out to an Irish Internet company "with grand plans and a whole lot of money," all of which dwindled during the following four-year period. Last month, Liben bought back his company - 30 years after entering it as a newlywed without a clue as to what a travel agency actually does. Today, the 55-year-old father-of-three, who funded the elevator at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem and who sponsors several American Football in Israel teams, says he's got a lot to be thankful for. As for fulfilling the Zionist dream that was at the root of his early activism, Liben shrugs and sighs: "That's a question I'll probably ask myself till I die." How did you get started in the travel business? One day, while I was running Camp Betar, I was approached by the guys who ran Tzell - Natan Amir and Eli Blau - and asked whether I wanted to become a partner in their agency. Since I had been looking for a real job - Betar didn't pay anything to speak of - I said, "There are only two problems with that fabulous offer: I don't know what a travel company does, and I have no money. Other than that, we're a match made in heaven." They said, "We could overcome the fact that you don't know about the business, but the lack of money is a problem. We need $20,000." At that time, my net worth was about $50. About a month later, fate stepped in. My father's brother died and left me $35,000. I took $20,000 of it and bought a house in New Jersey. With the remaining $15,000, I went back to Tzell and told them I could give them $10,000 to begin with, and another 10 later. They said, "Deal." To make a very long story short, when I joined Tzell in 1977, it had four people, and our total sales were about $500,000. Today, we have about 800 people, and our sales this year will be about $800 million. We're the fourth largest corporate agency in America as rated by Business Travel News of July 2007. Here I want to say something about Blau - a great Zionist, who lost his leg in the Six Day War. We were partners for 26 years; he was based in Israel and I in New York. We had a contract that was handwritten on half a sheet of paper that we never referred to again. When the business became worth tens of millions, we still had the same contract, and we never had a single disagreement. It was a blessed partnership, which only ended when I sold the company in 2003. When you joined Tzell, its focus was travel to Israel. Is this still a priority? In the beginning, it was all Israel directed. When I took over - about a year after joining (Natan Amir left the company and returned to Israel; Eli Blau was running his own company in Israel) - I decided that this was a mistake, and started to branch out, developing clientele in the sports and entertainment worlds. Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan and Pearl Jam are among our clients. I also developed a system of commissioned agents, which was mutually beneficial. Agents who work on commission have unlimited earning power on the one hand, and work significantly harder and longer than salaried employees on the other. Today, I have more commissioned agents than any travel company in America. We also handle clients such as Louis Vuitton, the number one maker of luxury goods in the world; we now handle the New York Stock Exchange; and probably four of the biggest hedge funds in the world. What kind of business do you do in the sports world? We have a division for professional sports. We are the regular travel agency for the New York Giants. But we also deal with fan-based travel for them and other teams, such as the New York Yankees, the New York Jets and the New York Mets. This means that let's say the Giants are playing their opening game in Dallas this year and you want to go see them. We'll fly you there, put you up in a hotel, have a party with several players and all sorts of benefits that you only get if you travel with us. I started this division 15 years ago as a hobby and it turned into a real business. So much so that when I sold Tzell, I didn't sell that division. I figured if I never returned to Tzell, I would handle professional sports travel for the rest of my life. How much Israel travel do you handle today? It represents less than 1 percent of my business. So, you're not affected by drops in tourism to Israel caused by terrorism and warfare? Only emotionally, as a Jew, not as a businessman. If you build a company that is mostly Israel-focused, such as Tzell once was, when the inevitable happens in Israel - every X amount of years - and the tourism spigot closes, you suffer. But are you nevertheless aware in the trends of travel to Israel? Of course. First of all, for personal reasons. But we are pretty much aware of all the trends to all areas. It's very interesting. Where travel to Israel is concerned, you can feel the change literally overnight. One big explosion there, and you can't believe how many calls you get, either for cancellations or inquiries about cancellations. In other places in the world, the trends of change evolve slowly - you know, due to fluctuations in the dollar rate and so forth. But Israel's like a guillotine - except when it comes to certain sectors, such as Christians and hassidim, who remain constant visitors. The rest go down to a trickle. What do you do when clients ask you about State Department warnings? We list every State Department warning about all countries on our Web site. I think there's a permanent warning about traveling in the West Bank and Gaza. Those who do go there generally know where they're going and what they're doing. But there are two things I won't tell people what to do with - their money and their safety. I have to tell you, though, in all my 30 years in the business, I've hardly heard anyone refer to those warnings. What about the recent scandal, exposed by the New York Post, of insurance companies refusing to insure people who have visited Israel in the last few years? I know [Sen. Charles] Schumer [D-N.Y.] introduced legislation last week to prevent this. But you know, insurance companies don't get rich by paying claims, and they try anything to avoid doing so. Whether this case involves prejudice against Israel or not I can't say. But it's totally absurd. There were more bombings in London than there were in Israel this year. But I don't see any State Department warning or any insurance policy telling you not to go to London. Though Israel has been relatively quiet lately, we all know it has its incidents. But I've been in Israel through many of those incidents and I never felt unsafe. I guarantee you that the death rate from violence is greater in Newark, New Jersey than it is in Israel. You became a successful businessman without an academic degree. That's unusual for an American-Jewish boy, isn't it? We were definitely not a conventional American-Jewish family. I didn't even finish high school. I dropped out after my sophomore year. I was living with a friend in an apartment at the age of 16, because my family had all left New York. So, I worked for Betar and I drove a cab and I delivered meat. For a couple of years, I had three jobs simultaneously. My wife, Sindy, is a different story. She grew up in a more Zionist family. Her parents were very active in Friends of Betar, and that's how I met her - in camp. Her cousin, Winky (Yisrael Medad), is now a senior staff member of the Begin Center. What has become of the Betar movement? Sadly, Camp Betar doesn't exist any more. There still are fragments of the movement; there's a vibrant chapter in Cleveland, for example. But very little to speak of in New York, just about the largest Jewish city in the world. And Betar was never a mass movement. It always had a very small, very dedicated, core of people. Now, unfortunately, that "small core" is really, really small. It's a shame. I think it's a problem of leadership in Israel as a whole. Neither Israel Betar nor the movement worldwide has great leadership. Ergo, American Betar has no great leadership. How did you first get involved in it? Purely by coincidence. My brothers and I used to go to a real dump of a sleep-away camp in Connecticut, since my parents didn't have much money, but they wanted to get rid of us during the summers. When the owner died, the camp was closed. By this time, my older brother was too old for camp already, but my mother didn't quite know what to do with my younger brother and me. My aunt was friends with a woman whose sons went to Camp Betar. So we followed them. One of these boys, Chuck Hornstein, eventually made aliya and got killed on the first day of the Yom Kippur War. He was one of two Camp Betar people who fought and died in that war. Anyway, attending that camp changed my life almost like a lightning bolt. I had been completely assimilated; nothing to do with Israel; nothing to do with Judaism; and within two months, I was a fanatical, right-wing, Jabotinsky-Begin follower. By 1973, I was running Betar, and on the first day of the war, I organized a group of 30 of us to go to Moshav Nordia in Israel for a couple of months to replace the men who were in the army. We picked fruit and the like. I will always remember the time we spent on that moshav, just as I will always remember that we all went to the funeral of Chuck and the other few hundred boys who died from his area. Did you ever consider aliya? Sindy and I always considered it, but never actually did it. Why? That's a question I'll probably ask myself till I die. I think it was more the small things than the big ones. I was always nervous about never speaking the language perfectly, never being able to pick up a newspaper and read it perfectly. But I will say that Israel is the one place in the world I'd allow my kids to move to without protest. Luckily, I can afford to bring them back and forth as often as I want.