It was wall-to-wall people at the Edison Ballroom in New York City on Monday night, Feb. 10. As they poured in, some expressed concern as to whether the venue would manage to accommodate the more than 400 people who showed up to pay tribute to the late Barry Liben, who was chairman of the Tzell Travel Group until his death on Jan. 2.
As president and CEO of the Tzell Travel Group for more than 40 years before he became chairman in 2016, Liben touched innumerable lives. The hundreds who turned out for the memorial represented the core of that vast network that spread over a very busy lifetime.
The funeral service for Liben was on Jan. 5, but Monday’s occasion was a celebration of his life, and a gathering of the large community of people who considered him a real friend. There was more laughter than tears as his friends shared their memories of him. It was manifestly evident to anyone present that Barry Liben was a man who profoundly touched a great many lives.
Though Liben was legendary as the head of a highly successful business, the stories shared by those who spoke in remembrance were only remotely about the profit-and-loss imperatives of any business. They were more about how big of a heart he had, how passionately and attentively he loved and cared for the people he worked with, and how they were all really a part of his life and they of his.
The lives he touched were many over his nearly half of a century as the head of a dynamic travel company that navigated through decades of the radical twists and turns of a deliriously paced industry, always rising to each challenge and coming out on top.
He made everyone feel important
To the extent that business was discussed on Monday, it was about very basic principles that flowed naturally from Barry Liben’s character. “He understood people and wanted to know what was going on in everybody’s lives,” said Monty Swaney, co-president of Tzell Travel Group. “That love for people helped him run Tzell in a way that made each person feel important. Barry knew it truly took a village to support our advisors in the way they deserved, and he did so by making sure all on Team Tzell were recognized.”
Swaney talked about the many rooftop barbecues, supplier-sponsored lunches, bingo games and birthday bashes in the day-to-day life of Tzell, and said that the great fun those events generated was a reflection of Barry’s business genius.
“The one thing consistent that had to happen with all those events,” said Swaney, “was that everyone was invited. Everyone was included. And everyone could participate. This caused everyone to work together in a way that is mostly unheard of in business today. Everyone belonged and everyone knew they were valued. This inclusivity might seem simplistic, but it was brilliant. And it, most importantly, came from Barry’s heart.”
Awilda Gonzalez, senior vice president, Tzell Travel Group, described “the man, the myth, the legend” as someone who “knew how to make everyone feel special. His motto was: Take care of family and friends. I can personally attest to this, as I was Barry’s right hand for 23 years. He did this on a daily basis.”
Barry, she said, “was the most influential and instrumental person in my life. He changed my life in so many ways. He taught me everything I knew. He taught me to be resourceful, kind, respectful and loyal, to keep your word, be honest, and most importantly, say what you mean and mean what you say. I follow this every single day.”
Liben was almost as well-known for his relentless sense of humor as for his business acumen, and the many stories told that night generated more laughter than tears.
Cindy Schlansky, co-president of Tzell Travel Group, said: “You hear many people talk of Barry’s razor-sharp humor. We would be sitting in a meeting discussing something normal and then something bizarre and insane would jump out of his mouth. It was always just plausible. I don’t know how many times I fell for the joke, probably almost all the time.
“And I looked him square in the face and said, ‘What happened to your brain to make that come out of your mouth? Where did it come from?’ And then you get that true, wonderful Barry laugh, because it was funny.”
He never missed a birthday of anyone on his long list of important people, and his propensity for setting up crazy stunts was an instrumental part of his way of engaging and nurturing the people he loved. There was no separation between his business activities and matters of the heart.
“Barry’s sense of mischief and his ability to create the most intricate practical jokes was the best!” said Cindy Schlansky. “So often ably assisted by his accomplice Awilda. Working for Barry was a whole higher education. Everything I know today about supporting and defending contractors, about making Tzell a great place to work, everything I know about integrity, about asking hard questions and loyalty, I learned from Barry. He was always very clear about these things and he expected 150 percent every day.”
A very special human being
David Buda, former Executive Vice President of Tzell Travel, who identified himself as “one of many who were influenced by this very special human being,” described Barry’s ability, in the face of crisis, to calmly come up with a plan.
“The commission cuts were a big one,” said Buda. “Barry sat down with everybody and laid out the path of what we were going to do to get through what was, at the time, a dreadful situation. The path that he carved worked out very well for everybody. It was his ability to get everyone to trust him and follow his lead.
“And it wasn’t very long after a couple of those successful situations, that Barry established one of the major things that people admired about him. He knew what to do. He knew how to get through the problem. He knew how to get to the other side and he knew how to make money doing it.”
In the footsteps of a leader
A month after Barry Liben’s passing, Buda said, it is time to pick up the torch and continue moving forward in the footsteps of the leader.
“Barry had a kind of innate wisdom that was very simple for the most part,” said Buda. “It was, be honest, be truthful, be a leader, because he instilled in all of us that we should be able to keep things going if something should happen to him. If we followed those same thoughts and those paths, that we should be successful.
Now the time for mourning must draw to a close, Buda said. “So, there is a time for mourning, and once that mourning period is concluded, it doesn’t mean that we forget about that person. What it means is that we need to pick up those endeavors, all those charitable things, the kindnesses that he did for many people, and keep them going. That’s how we keep Barry’s memory alive.
“So, I challenge myself and everyone to be more kind, to be more charitable, and to work hard for those people who need our help.”