|Their differences in background and style have made Mike Batt and Barry Liben a “dream team” of sorts in the travel business.|
The strong bond between Mike Batt and Barry Liben of Travel Leaders Group is a winning business model for success in the travel industry.
The story behind the phenomenal success of Travel Leaders Group really comes down to an unlikely friendship. Barry Liben and Michael Batt are two very different people—a kid out of Brooklyn and the son of a Welsh coal miner, respectively—but together they lead one of the most powerful brands in travel. Their giant umbrella company is made up of over 6,000 wholly owned, franchised and affiliated agencies, which dominate the industry.
The agencies under Travel Leaders Group fall into six divisions, including Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Leisure Group, Travel Leaders Franchise Group, Tzell Travel Group (of which Liben is president and CEO), Nexion and the most recent acquisition, Vacation.com, the largest consortium in the country. With these forces combined, Liben and Batt are pulling in upwards of $14 billion in travel sales each year. And they aren’t stopping there.
While not exactly an “Odd Couple,” the dynamic that Liben and Batt give off is of opposites attracting, then utilizing each other’s strengths to create a successful partnership. The two have completely different styles, but the level of trust and respect they have for one another and their drive and ambition have helped propel Travel Leaders Group to the top.
From Brooklyn to Billions
Travel Agent met with both men last month at Liben’s office in New York. Liben, the CEO of Travel Leaders Group, began in true raconteur style, recalling his background.
“How I got into the travel industry was completely by coincidence,” he says, in his thick Brooklyn accent. “I was working in a small office on 42nd Street running a summer camp and the next-door neighbor was running a tiny little travel agency. I got friendly with these people and one day they asked me if I wanted to buy into the travel business.”
|According to Mike Batt, “travel agents are more relevant today than ever before.”|
From there the ride took off. Liben, a high-school dropout, was 24 years old and had come into a small “fortune” of $30,000. “I considered retiring because I thought $30,000 might last the next 60 years,” he says. “I thought about going to Vegas and turning it into millions. Then I said, ‘Let me go back to these travel agent guys and see what they want for this travel agency.’” After some negotiating and smart business moves, Liben bought the agency, Tzell Travel, for $10,000.
It was 1977. From there he worked to build the company by various different ways, mostly by hiring commissioned agents. “I was a big believer in commissioned agents because commissioned agents bring their own business with them. They are highly motivated, they are entrepreneurial in spirit, and who better to take care of a client than someone whose income is dependent upon that client?” says Liben. Commissioned agents, along with big-name clients ranging from rock stars to sports teams, allowed Liben to generate enormous revenues.
He credits Carol Green, his first major outside agent, with bringing the business to the million-dollar level. “I think the hardest thing is getting your first big client,” says Liben. “After Carol Green brought in her big-name clients, we showed that we could handle that level of service. That gave us credibility.” By the mid 1980s, Tzell Travel was bringing in $100 million a year in sales, due to the drive of its commissioned agents and its upper echelon of clientele.
From Humble Beginnings
Batt grew up in the 1960s in Wales, surrounded by the coal and steel industries. His future began with the help of the British education system. “At the time there were no such things as student loans, so basically your level of education depended on a series of tests you had to pass,” Batt says. “I managed to get to university so I had a free education, which was great.”
Following college, Batt joined the M&M/Mars candy company where he discovered his true calling: sales and marketing. “I did 20 calls a day and was only allowed to sell people anything that they didn’t want,” he says. “Think about it: Why do you need to sell somebody something when it’s already in the store? It’s what’s not in the store that you need to sell them to extend distribution. I was good at that. I was really good at that.”
Within two years, Batt rose to area sales manager, then regional sales manager and then at age 25 he was placed into the export division and began globe trotting to Lagos, the Canary Islands, Spain, Dubai, South Africa and more. From there, Batt went into marketing at British Airways, which is where the travel bug took its first bite.
Batt had a huge hand in reshaping British Airways’ image because he understood the mentality of the luxury traveler. His impeccable marketing skills had earned him the attention of Michael Egan, owner of Alamo Rent-a-Car. “Mike was at one of our product launches, saw me, and took me out to dinner,” Batt says. “He told me he would triple whatever I made at British Airways if I came to work for him.” He came to Alamo as its executive vice president of sales and marketing.
Eighteen months later he received a call from Carlson Companies’ Marilyn Carlson Nelson, who, in 1996, brought Batt aboard as president of Carlson Leisure Group, an offshoot of Carlson Travel Group Inc. He was also made a board member of Carlson Wagonlit Travel, which had a joint ownership stake between Carlson and Accor. This essentially split Carlson’s travel pie in half, giving Batt all of Carlson’s leisure travel and franchise travel holdings in the U.S., while the corporate travel management worldwide went to Carlson Wagonlit. It was from there that Batt became a contender in the travel industry game.
“There were quite a few people that questioned why I wanted to go into this line of work. They said the long-term outlook was negative,” says Batt. “But I have never seen the long-term outlook as negative. I think travel agents are more relevant today than they have ever been.”
Foe to Friend
How Liben and Batt teamed up came about curiously. By 2000, Tzell Travel was one of the major players in the country. In 2003 Liben sold Tzell to a company called CNG, an Irish Internet company. Liben stayed on to keep running the business, but CNG took major ownership.
“And then this guy named Mike Batt kept calling me. I didn’t know him at the time, but I knew what he wanted. He wanted Tzell from CNG. That would not have been good for me financially, so I was nice to him, but I didn’t let him have it,” says Liben.
Quite the opposite, actually. Liben bought Tzell back from CNG in 2007, where it continued to grow to be a $700 million player. Then all the chips had fallen into place. Batt came back to Liben offering to buy Tzell again. At the time, Batt had bought out from Carlson the assets of Carlson Leisure Group, renaming the company as Travel Acquisitions Group, which as the name implied was in the position to make some hefty purchases.
Shortly thereafter, in March 2008, One Equity Partners, the private investment firm owned by JP Morgan Chase, took a stake in Travel Acquisitions Group. One Equity Partners had an already established relationship with Carlson Wagonlit travel because they were large investors in the company. One Equity Partners had worked closely with Batt on the board of Carlson Wagonlit, and due to the success of Carlson, One Equity Partners decided to take a bigger position in travel and turned to Travel Acquisitions Group. The situation looked financially agreeable to Liben. He was ready to listen.
“Mike wanted to take his companies and combine them with Tzell. The deal was contingent on me running all of the companies as CEO, with Mike as the chairman,” says Liben. “So we sat down with One Equity Partners and literally a year from when I bought Tzell back from CNG, we made the deal. Travel Leaders was born.” This was in 2008, on the eve of the global economic downturn. But due to both Liben’s sharp business sense, and the backing from JPMorgan Chase, Travel Leaders Group was in position to keep scoring.
(It should be noted that even after Batt merged with Tzell, the company was still known as Travel Acquisitions Group. The name Travel Leaders Group didn’t come about until 2009.)
The Yin and the Yang
While much is made of their differences, it is probably their similarities—their keen business sense, drive and pure, unadulterated respect for one another—that have lifted Travel Leaders Group to the very top.
“I would put Mike in front of any forum to represent us,” says Liben. “I think he is articulate and has a beautiful view. I think my strength is in operations and in how we should run our company and how people should be handled. We complement each other.” (In contrast to Batt, Liben describes himself as "a more off-the-cuff guy.")
Even with this trust and respect, the two speak to each other at least twice a day, usually via Skype, as Liben is based in New York and Batt out of Fort Lauderdale. The two concur that 99 percent of the time they are in full agreement, and have never had a sour word to say to or about one another.
Holding All the Cards
Today, Travel Leaders Group prides itself on having a home for everyone. “For anybody in the world that sells travel, there is a home for you in Travel Leaders,” says Liben. This includes leisure shops that only sell leisure, cruise shops looking to do better, a stay-at-home mom who wants to make an extra $200 per week, a full-time commissioned agent, etc. “If you can’t find a home in Travel Leaders, then it doesn’t exist,” Liben adds.
Most recently Travel Leaders Group acquired Nexion, a host agency that is in business to help agents succeed as independents, and Vacation.com, both of which are considered by Liben and Batt to be absolute jewels of the industry. While Travel Leaders Group is comprised of approximately 30 percent of all the agencies in North America, what they have is nothing short of the crème de la crème. “We are smart and we are aggressive,” says Liben. This combination is how Travel Leaders was able to weather the storm in 2009. “We weren’t just going out there and throwing money at people. We are going to buy only smart things,” Liben says.
|Barry Liben describes himself as an “off-thecuff guy,” but that plays to his business strengths.|
The merge with Vacation.com took place in December 2010 and was announced to the public in early January 2011. Travel Leaders Group had purchased Vacation.com from Amadeus Americas Inc., giving Travel Leaders Group total travel sales in excess of $6 billion. This was the merger that pushed Travel Leaders Group into possession of one-third of the travel agency industry. Like the rest of Travel Leaders Group’s acquisitions, Vacation.com will continue to operate as a stand-alone division and will be led by current president Steve Tracas.
“Steve Tracas and his team is incredibly strong and their top management team is fantastic,” says Liben. “This is a tremendous job, and the integration is really in its embryonic stage, but there is going to be great synergy between our existing franchise division at Vacation.com, between Tzell and Vacation.com and between our existing cruise division and Vacation.com. We are looking at every avenue, but it’s still way early to tell.” However, Liben and Batt agree that both preferred suppliers and member agents have looked upon the acquisition favorably.
Looking to the Future
According to both Batt and Liben, Travel Leaders Group is far from done growing. “We think 2011 is going to be a brilliant year,” says Liben. “We are extremely optimistic about 2011 and, as I said before, we think both our big acquisitions of Nexion and Vacation.com are jewels—absolute jewels.”
The only challenge that Batt and Liben face is finding more quality organizations to complement the others. They want to buy the best. “We already have something for any human being that wants to sell travel under our umbrella.
We just want to expand and add in anything that makes sense,” says Liben.
“That’s how it all happened,” Liben sums it up. “That’s how a little Jewish boy from Brooklyn met a little guy from Wales named Mike Batt.” The rest is history.