Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

The telephone rang; I picked it up.

"This is Hershel Sarbin," a voice said. "Do you know who I am?"

I didn't.

"If you were older, you would," the voice said, and chuckled.

It was a funny introduction from a man who would, over the next 32 years, become one of the most influential and important people in my life. His statement did not arise, as I first thought, from hubris but rather from a recognition that, having recently retired, his significant accomplishments had not conveyed to a younger generation.

He had been associate publisher of Travel Weekly 15 years earlier, on his way to becoming president of the Ziff Davis Publishing Co., which owned Travel Weekly at the time. Had I known that -- and, more importantly, had I known who he was as a person -- I might have recognized the introduction was self-deprecating.

He was headed to Paris, he said, and had asked his daughter Penny, who was a travel advisor, to send him some things to see and do. She had sent him a country profile from my destination information subscription service, Weissmann Travel Reports (now incorporated into Travel42).

He was impressed, he said. He wanted to meet me, possibly invest in the company. I was living in Austin, Texas, at the time, and he asked if I ever got to New York. I was giving a speech in Rome later that month and said I could overnight in the city.

"We'll have a power breakfast at the Regency," he responded. This time, I caught that he was playing with the idea of self-importance rather than asserting it.

At the breakfast, it was my turn to be impressed. I was taken with his warmth, wit, charm and intelligence -- and the steady stream of media bigwigs who came by our table to say hello in what truly was the power breakfast capital of New York. A few months later, he was my business partner, mentor and friend.

What I was to learn (and which became clear to anyone who read the profile of him in the New York Times in 1999) was that his curiosity was insatiable. He could no more retire than stop breathing. I felt fortunate to be with him as we explored the possibilities of the emerging online world, which he understood more intuitively than I, almost 25 years his junior.

His insights often led him to speak at travel technology conferences in the late 1990s. I recall once that a panel of nascent OTAs was on stage, the chiefs of Travelocity, Expedia and Priceline among them. "Who," the moderator asked, "will still be on this stage in 20 years?"

Each panelist explained why their company would have that kind of longevity. When the question came to Rich Barton, founding CEO of Expedia, he answered in one word: "Hershel."

Hershel was always fascinated by the latest technology and marketing approaches, which sometimes led him, with me in tow, to launch initiatives that, with hindsight, were ahead of their time. We spent years (and dollars) building a robust database of travel agents and their areas of specialization, and then a frustrating few years trying to convince industry suppliers of the value of database marketing.

Though he well understood what later would be called "mass customization," Hershel's approach to life relied on his delight in human interaction. If we showed up for an appointment with a CEO, he'd be sure to connect with mail clerks and executive assistants we met along the way. He liked to paraphrase a quote attributed to the adman Leo Burnett: "Before you can make a proposition to a friend, you need to make a friend."

So, it was no surprise that, after we sold Weissmann Travel Reports, Hershel, at the age of 74, became a senior director for media at the Peppers & Rogers Group, the company that defined one-to-one marketing and customer relationship management.

He co-authored papers for Phocuswright. And after I became editor in chief of Travel Weekly, he wrote a column on luxury travel.

Our friendship continued beyond our professional ties; we met regularly, even vacationing together with our wives. When he left Peppers & Rogers, he devoted his life to building and supporting communities to help underserved children, launching websites and e-newsletters through his 80s. In his 90s, he explored doing the same for the families of people with dementia.

I was fortunate to visit Hershel yesterday morning. He died yesterday afternoon, at the age of 96.

When I told some mutual friends in publishing of his passing, the response was not unexpected. I was hardly alone in thinking of Hershel as an important and influential mentor and friend. My interactions with him outlined above represent just a small slice of his life and accomplishments, but I hope that you now understand him better than I did when he first said to me, "This is Hershel Sarbin. Do you know who I am?" 

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