By Mary Tucker, IAEE Sr. PR/Communications Manager

“Our industry is a face-to-face business, that’s why I love it.”

Tony Lee
President & CEO
Tony Lee International

Tony Lee’s nomination for the IAEE Awards Program sums up his service to the exhibitions and events industry with this statement:

In a distinguished career of almost forty years, “in sunshine and in shadow,” Tony Lee has been a role model for all that we stand for as an industry.

Tony has earned the respect of his colleagues through persistence, consistency and staying true to the industry he has grown to love after nearly 40 years of experience in just about every facet it has to offer. This service earned him the 2015 IAEE Distinguished Service Award, which recognizes an individual’s distinguished service to IAEE and to the exhibition industry as a whole. Here, Tony shares his thoughts on giving back, striking out on your own and the future of exhibitions and events.

Throughout your career, you have maintained a high level of involvement in IAEE and the industry as a whole. Why do you feel it is important to stay actively engaged within the industry and what have you gained/accomplished as a result?

I love the industry; it has been very good to me and for me over the years. I believe that you only receive back what you are prepared to give. IAEE has given me more than I could ever have imagined: mentorship, knowledge, experience, contacts and most important, so many friends.

I love the fact that there are no competitors. Board members and committee members can be from competing companies but they leave their hats and egos at the door and move forward for the benefit of all.

I have learned so much about the business, and also about life itself. We all go through good times and bad in our lives, and my friends and colleagues have been there for me through thick and thin. Receiving the IAEE Distinguished Service Award was such a great honor for me. I just wish there had been time to express my thanks to everyone in person.

You worked for some of the biggest and most recognized organizations in the industry before launching your consultancy firm. How did you know the time was right to venture out on your own, and how did your experience with the big companies influence your approach to creating a start-up?

Life has a habit of making decisions for us sometimes that we do not expect, or perhaps have the courage to make ourselves. I have worked for several companies throughout my career; the last two positions holding the longest tenure and the most significance for me. In both of these situations, circumstances outside of my control led me to leave. I totally enjoyed my time there, but in retrospect I am glad that fate conspired to have me leave when I did.

I have been lucky to have been in senior positions which, combined with my Board service with IAEE, gave me access and friendships with many other senior industry members. I sought council as, although I was old enough, I was not ready to retire. I wanted a fresh start and felt consultancy was the way to go as I have experience in pretty much all areas of our industry.

I started out consulting on new show development and sales/marketing as this was my main area of focus over the years. But I got bored working out of the house, just me and the dog. Then my Freeman friends asked if I wanted to work with them as a concierge on the show floor for several of their shows in New York. My first day on the show floor was like an epiphany. I was where I knew I should be, where the action was!

We have always floor managed our events so I was comfortable working with labor and contractors, but I really had to take off my “show management hat” and put on a “contractor hat.” This was something I had not anticipated but quickly realized it was a transition I had to make.

Now I was where I wanted to be, and the next step was to reach out to other show management companies and offer my services as a floor manager. So right now I am focusing on operations and onsite logistics with five or six other clients, as well as my concierge work.

I am always on the lookout for more floor management positions as you lose some clients and gain some. But the changes bring fresh challenges and experiences. I like the variation of industries and working in different facilities that these changes bring.

What is the one thing you feel you’ve done absolutely right in your career and/or an accomplishment you are most proud of? Was it something you purposely set out to do, or did you learn it along the way? If learned along the way, how did this lesson come about?

I am proud of receiving my IAEE Distinguished Service Award and being honored by my peers; being asked to serve on the International Board for five years and on the New York Area Chapter board for over 22 years; and serving as Chair through the 9/11 terrorist attack and hosting a meeting of the industry at the Javits Convention Center to bring us together two weeks afterwards.

I never had a plan in mind with my career, it truly has developed as it went along.

Many years as a soccer coach for both boys and girls has taught me so much that I have used in my professional career. Trade shows are a team sport, not an individual one. Ours is a “people” industry and I have always recognized the importance of the interaction between staff, my teams and our customers. I believe people recognize that being a part of a “team and a leader” rather than a “boss and staff” have been my priority – and, that in most cases this has been achieved.

I can honestly say that I have always tried to give my best to my companies and, most important, to our customers. I love interaction with the exhibitors. I talk a lot so this trait really helps in this area. Our exhibitors are the ones who provide our whole industry with work and income whether you are show management, contractor, building facility or anyone else making a living form our industry. It does frustrate me sometimes though when I see people who don’t understand this.

Throughout the course of your career, what occurrence do you consider to have had the greatest impact on the industry and how so?

Probably the advent of the digital age and social networking. This has changed the way we do business, challenged the way we work and the way that buyers buy.

Our industry is a face-to-face business, that’s why I love it. The digital age has challenged this pillar of our business, made it less personal, yet given us new exciting ways to reach our prospective audiences.

What direction would you like to see the industry take short term, say within the next 5-10 years? What would you like to see happen in 10-20 years?

In my opinion, the need for face-to-face interaction when doing business will survive the challenge of digital only if we embrace it and use it to our benefit as we go forward. The key is going to be how we help our young professionals (YPs) move forward in our industry.

Millennials are requiring more accountability and this is refreshing. How much does it cost? What is our ROI? These are questions that have challenged a lot of us as in the past and many companies exhibited “because their competitors are there” or for many other non-quantifiable reasons.

I work with a group of YPs in New York and we really need to listen to them. They are looking for mentorship, support and continuing education. Many companies are not giving enough focus to this area and letting their young people sink or swim. We continually offer advice and training to our children, no matter how old they are, and we must apply the same logic to our young staff.

The reverse of this is that management says that the young people have no “people” skills. They are great in the digital world and social media, but sit them in a business meeting or a lunch and they don’t know how to interact. We need to help them, not ignore them.

When I suggested to YPs that we, as senior managers, cannot teach YPs anything about digital, they floored me when they said quite the contrary. They don’t need to know how to do it, but how to use it. Their questions were, “What are other organizations doing that we are not, and how can we better use what we have?”

As we go forward, questions that we need to ask ourselves in my opinion are: What do we need to do to be the best at what we do? And what do we need to stop doing in order to make that happen?

The 2016 Call for Nominations for the IAEE Awards is now open! Visit for more information about the various award categories and their corresponding criteria as well as submit your nominations for deserving colleagues whose outstanding efforts merit recognition.

Posted by Elizabeth McQuade

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