He moved to Israel, founded the Mideast’s biggest US-owned travel agency

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Mark Feldman made aliyah in 1981. He is the CEO and founder of Ziontours Jerusalem. In 2018, his company was acquired by Diesenhaus BTC, and he was appointed director of their Jerusalem office, where he is currently responsible for 21 travel consultants. 

Mark writes a column for The Jerusalem Post, The Travel Advisor, focusing on travel from the viewpoint of the consumer.

He grew up in Northridge, a Los Angeles neighborhood, and graduated from UCLA with degrees in theater arts and economics. In Feldman’s words: “One for love and one for money.”

The Magazine recently sat down with Feldman in his Jerusalem office.

Ziontours is the largest American-owned travel agency in the Middle East. How did you get started?

Knowing nothing about the travel business, I started the company the year I made aliyah. I suppose I was bright enough to know that I wasn’t that bright, and so I hired good people. I actually started out as the office messenger – delivering paper tickets to the passengers and depositing money in the bank. As a team, we frequently challenged the status quo. 

Illustrative image of an airplane. (credit: PXHERE)

According to a municipal law in the 1980s, business offices had to close from 1-4 p.m. We met with mayor Teddy Kollek and were instrumental in getting the law changed. We were then among the first in Jerusalem to expand our office hours. Today we are accessible 24/7 for emergencies. 

Why the travel business and why the name Ziontours?

I was a Zionist before I made aliyah, and I’m a Zionist today. Still, I’m very close with my family in LA, and I like to be in a position where I can fly back and forth to visit them. To this day, my mother asks me when I’m moving back.

What advice do you give new immigrants who want to start a business?

First, give good service. Second, go on social media. And third, implement Q-commerce. Q-commerce means that people need “quick.” In our office, we have a “sundown rule.” Every email must be answered by the time the sun goes down.  If people are reaching out to you, you’d better get back to them quickly. 

Who/what influenced you to make aliyah?

I was raised in a Jewishly committed family where my parents started a Conservative temple. They instilled in me a Jewish identity, which included financial support for Israel, though not aliyah. Other influences were my junior year at the Hebrew University, my staff position at the LA Jewish Federation, and my position as head of Telem: The Movement for Zionist Fulfillment. After being head for two years, one was expected to make aliyah. And I did.

How difficult was your absorption?

I was very fortunate. I met my wife on the first day I made aliyah; Sharon, a South African, had been living in Israel for more than 10 years and had two sisters here. Thus, I had an immediate family, and we were blessed to have two children. Unfortunately, Sharon died in 2018.

I later remarried, and together we have a three-and-half-year-old daughter.

Having family in Israel is one of the most crucial factors to a successful absorption.  

In your ‘Jerusalem Post’ column, you generally take the side of the consumer. Is the customer always right?

That’s my whole concept. When some airlines went bankrupt, we gave money back to our clients. Many colleagues argued that we were not responsible, and we weren’t. But still, we gave the money back. Fast forward to COVID. Same situation. And once again, we gave refunds to our clients. Our clients have remained loyal. When you do good, you tend to benefit.

How have you helped individual clients deal with problems out of their control?

I can cite many examples, but this one is typical. It was immediately after Yom Kippur when a client called me about the passing of her mother in New Jersey. All flights were full. This was my conversation with the airline representative:

  • Rep: Even if we could find a seat, the passenger must present a death certificate. 
  • Me: In the US, you don’t get a certificate until after the funeral.
  • Rep: How do we know that she’s not lying?
  • Me: Ask her. And if she doesn’t burst into tears, you can kick her off the plane. 

What tips do you have for seniors when traveling?

First and foremost, order a wheelchair. Second, accept the SKI concept (Spend the Kids’ Inheritance). Flying is not easy. Treat yourselves to better seats.

As a college student, you wrote that you studied hard and played harder. Are you a player or a spectator today?

I’m fortunate to have a gym in my house. I wake up each day at 5 a.m. and exercise for 90 minutes. I’m also a rabid basketball fan and regularly go to Hapoel Jerusalem games. 

Do you have time for volunteer work?

I find the time. I currently chair an Israeli organization called AMI-Neshima (artists.org.il/), which uses musical and artistic educational workshops to explore and strengthen Jewish identity among youth. 

What are some travel trends you are noticing?  

There are currently 10 flights a day from Israel to Dubai – more than there are to New York.  Many clients are going to Saudi Arabia. After 24 years, groups are now going to Egypt. We’re starting to fly to Sri Lanka. My personal hope is that we open up to Indonesia. Many low-cost carriers are now coming to Israel. Flying is no longer as costly as it used to be. And that should continue.

Why use an agent for leisure travel?

Travel agents are consultants in helping to plan a trip, as well as advocates in the event that something goes wrong. Phone support from airlines remains abysmal. 

Do you have any suggestions for Tourism Minister Haim Katz? 

Among other things, I suggest that he deal with the issue of “Teflon tourism.” Tourists are coming, but they may not return because of our outrageous prices and outright price-gouging. Israel could become a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I urge government officials to address price gouging, enforce taximeters, and implement a long-term plan to encourage more return visitors. n

Mark Feldman, 65 From Los Angeles to Jerusalem, 1981

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