Barry Liben, CEO of Travel Leaders Group, has been called the father of the independent travel agent. Under his leadership, Tzell Travel, which merged with Travel Leaders in 2008, grew from four agents and sales of $400,000 in 1977 to hundreds of what he calls commissioned agents and what others call independent contractors, and sales of $1.5 billion. Tzell acquired the host agency Nexion two years ago, which Liben has described as the “most prestigious” host agency in the market. Liben recently spoke with Retail Editor Kate RiceQ: You’ve said that one reason you acquired Nexion was because its agents were leaving a lot of money on the table by not selling air. Since then, the average international commission Nexion agents earned has increased from 2% in 2010 to 6% last year to a high of 8.49% last week. How does that translate into agent income?
In 2011, Nexion agents earned $2.3 million in new airline commissions. Those were the new commissions they generated for themselves, with a tad for us. If you’ve been an agent for years and never did air, don’t be intimidated. Get into the game. Selling air is critical. Q: You’ve built your business on commissioned agents. Why is that?
I think they are the single best agents in the industry. I don’t think there is anyone more motivated or incentivized than an entrepreneur. No one will work harder for their clients.
Certainly, when I came to Tzell, agency owners didn’t like them. Owners thought they were providing [commissioned agents] with everything, and commissioned agents were sucking out the profits. I looked at it the opposite way: They’re providing the clients; the owners are just providing the office and the desk. If you have a problem with them, send them my way.
When you’re a salaried agent working for a Liberty or an American Express or a Carlson or whatever, you come to work at 9, you take your coffee breaks, go for a walk at lunch and leave at 5.
There is no one who will work harder for their clients, who will drive suppliers more crazy for their clients than a commissioned agent. There is no ceiling on how much money you can make. The only thing holding you back is your own ambition. People don’t realize the upside. There are commissioned agents making six figures. It is easily attainable. Q: When Carnival Cruise Lines recently restructured its commissions, you issued a statement expressing your concern over that restructuring. Can you expand on that?
We are unaffected by that, but we’re always concerned when there’s an adjustment like that. The world is evolving; not all travel agents are created equal. People in the industry should be associated with firms like Travel Leaders that have earned the right to have the best commissions in the industry. We protect our agents by making clear who our preferred suppliers are, whether it’s airlines or wholesalers or car rentals. We work very hard to cultivate a culture where we work to get them the right partners, to help our agents earn a living, support their families and have fun. Q: What are your goals for the future?
We hope to train a new generation of travel agents. We are building an online school for travel agents. We really want young blood in the industry now, and we hope to train a new generation of travel. I’ll let [Nexion President ] Jackie Friedman talk about it more in the future, but she has already secured 11 industry sponsors for the school. If students become Travel Leaders agents, they’ll get their commission back. We’re really excited about it.