What’s Your Story

Michael J. Lyons: Industry Leader Turned Leading Man

Longtime meetings and travel industry professional Michael J. Lyons' sideline career as an actor put his kids through college — and continues to help him play his latest role as exhibition director for AIBTM.


As a child, we moved from Philadelphia to Paris, France, for three years. And while I was there, my dad got me involved in doing some acting jobs, and so I got the acting bug. I came back to the United States, and during all of my youth and through high school, I was performing and working in theater, and really that is what I wanted to do as a career.

In the middle of college — I went to Notre Dame — and in the middle of having to announce my major, I switched it from drama to modern languages, because I realized that it was going to be difficult for me to make a living as an actor. So as much as I loved it, the practical side for me directed me to go into the business world. My first job actually was working for a [building-materials] company in Valley Forge, Pa. And the boss came in one day and said, “We need somebody to run our sales meeting in Nassau [in the Bahamas].” This was 1974, so almost 40 years ago.

That is how I got involved in meeting planning, and I found that I was good at it and that I liked it. And that is what set me off on my career, where I have worked for a number of companies in the hospitality industry, including some of the big ones like Carlson Wagonlit and some other meeting and corporate travel companies along the way.

But we were living in Connecticut about 20 years ago, and I realized that all three of my kids were going to be in college at the same time. In five years I knew that that debt was going to start hitting us. So I said to my wife, “I am working here in Manhattan and this is where they shoot commercials, so why don’t I see if I can go try to audition for some commercials?” The plan worked, and within a year I was starting to book some national commercials, including the longest-running Advil commercial ever that was on the air nationally, for four years. And that part of my life — the acting career on the side in addition to my day job in the travel and meetings industry — paid for all three of my kids’ college education. [Laughs.]

Along the way during those years in New York, I ended up making seven national commercials for Honey Bunches of Oats, Advil, Aquafresh, and a couple of other products. I also was on “All My Children,” and I was doing a lot of corporate videos and so forth. And I have continued that all the way up through the last year, where most recently this past May I was on “Veep,” the HBO series with Julia Louis- Dreyfus, in a small part. I was on the ABC show “What Would You Do?” three times in the last year. I shot a scene with Bradley Cooper in the film “Limitless,” which was kind of fun. And then I also have a small speaking part in “The Sixth Sense,” which I am still getting residual checks for.

I like to get in front of a camera. I enjoy the challenge of playing somebody else. The interesting thing is that that experience has helped me in my professional career as well, because as a meeting and event producer, it is no different than producing a show or a commercial or a movie. You have to balance a lot of different variables, and you have to pull everything together to create a great meeting or to produce a great trade show like AIBTM. I have been able to cross over both of my careers. As a business professional, when I have had to play businesspeople in corporate videos or other roles, it has been easier for me to do that because that is what I do in my real job. And then, conversely, I’m able to apply some of the techniques that I’ve acquired as an actor over these past 20 years into my role that I currently have. When you have to shoot a video or you have to be interviewed, it’s a lot easier if you’re used to being in front of a camera, in front of a microphone, than if you don’t have that experience.

I have been an adjunct professor at Temple University [in Philadelphia], in their leadership certificate program — I had to stop that, because now I’m working in Norwalk, Conn. — and one of the things that I tell the students is, do not go into this business unless you like working with people. It is in fact called the hospitality industry for a reason, right? We have to enjoy people. We have to have a service orientation. We have to be customer-centered in everything that we do.

We have done a number of things to really rethink [AIBTM]. I look at the show as a three-legged stool. We have education as a very important leg. We have the hosted buyers, so we have to make sure we’re delivering the kinds of exhibitors and the kind of networking events that make it worth their while. And then, of course, the exhibitors themselves. You have to satisfy all the stakeholders in the audience, and you have to make sure that all three legs of that stool are accommodated.

What we have tried to do is take a step back and look at, what are some of the innovations that we can incorporate that will make our show stand out, that will enhance that experience for all those stakeholders? That word “experience” is so critical. How people feel at the end of those three days is what is going to determine our success or our failure.


Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.