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Sports Marketing Guru Penny Lerner: “I know it goes against conventional wisdom, but I find it useful to combine business and pleasure whenever possible”

…I know it goes against conventional wisdom, but I find it useful to combine business and pleasure whenever possible. For example, I make it a point to have a pre-event dinner with key sponsors and my team. This makes our sponsors and my staff feel comfortable and appreciated leading up to the event. It’s the […]


…I know it goes against conventional wisdom, but I find it useful to combine business and pleasure whenever possible. For example, I make it a point to have a pre-event dinner with key sponsors and my team. This makes our sponsors and my staff feel comfortable and appreciated leading up to the event. It’s the ultimate ice-breaker. It also gives our partners the opportunity to get to know my team on a personal level. I want our partners to see us as knowledgeable event professionals, but I also want them to see us as cool people they can chat with over a cocktail.

I had the pleasure to interview Penny Lerner of AYS Sports Marketing. AYS Sports Marketing recently held their 20th Anniversary of their Taste of Tennis series in partnership with title sponsor, Citi Bank. The event series, founded and curated by the mother-daughter duo Judi and Penny Lerner, brings together professional athletes, top regional chefs and luxury brands for an unforgettable evening of gourmet food, interactive sponsor activations and appearances by the world’s best tennis players. It has been often frequented by Serena Williams, Chrissy Teigen and John Legend.


Thank you so much for joining us Penny! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was working in Atlantic City at a Spanish Community Center in 1995. That year, we lost a major government grant that would have resulted in key programs at the center being eliminated. Dozens of local residents depended on those programs for services such as child care, language classes, and youth development training. At the time, my mom Judi was the executive director of one of the most successful fundraising events in Philadelphia called the Flyers Wives Fight for Lives Carnival. My mom suggested that we run a fundraising event to recoup the lost grant money. We created an exciting Latin-themed entertainment experience at Caesar’s Atlantic City called Una Noche Latina. The event was a success, we generated tens of thousands of dollars for the community center, and I inadvertently discovered my passion for managing events.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

I guess you can say we are stubborn by nature. In those challenging early years, the easy thing to do would have been to close the doors, go to work for someone else, collect a paycheck and be happy. But I think we all agreed that we could never be truly happy working for someone else. We always believed in the potential of AYS and the ability of our team to deliver quality events and marketing platforms for our clients. And we always believed that our Taste of Tennis concept was ahead of its time. It’s important to note that we started the Taste of Tennis when celebrity chefs were just emerging, network food shows were still evolving, and tennis was not exactly renowned for its incredible parties. We really believed that foodies and tennis fans alike would jump at the prospect of attending a one-of-a-kind event featuring cuisine prepared by top chefs, great music and appearances by the greatest tennis players in the world. It took a few years and a bit of experimenting, but it turns out where were right.

So, how are things going today? How did grit lead to your eventual success?

Things are going really well. The Citi Taste of Tennis continues to grow and we are proud to announce we are celebrating our 20th Anniversary of the event this year. Kicking off with the first event on March 4th in Indian Wells, we will be hosting subsequent Citi Taste of Tennis events in Miami (March 18, 2019), Washington D.C. (July 19, 2019) and New York (August 22, 2019).

To accommodate this growth, we are actually moving into a larger office space next month. We’ve made several key new hires over the past eight months and plan to make a few more before the end of the year. It’s an exciting time for us and it’s been extremely rewarding to see the company flourishing after so many years of hard work, determination, and not taking “no” for an answer.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Several years ago we created an experience for a client with one of the top tennis players in the world. This particular client happened to be especially challenging to work with. On the night of the promotion, the client was their usual cranky self, the player was having an uncharacteristically bad night, and I admittedly made a few miscalculations. Needless to say, the experience did not go particularly well and the partner voiced his displeasure to me loudly and publicly. I was feeling totally despondent that I had just gotten reamed out and the experience we had worked so hard on fell flat. I looked at my colleague, hoping for some words of sympathy or encouragement, but instead he just shrugged his shoulders, told me we blew it, and explained that we had known for months that this client was more trouble than he was worth, and that this was the perfect opportunity to ditch him before he ditched us.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

One story that really personifies AYS as a company relates directly to the Citi Taste of Tennis. As you can imagine, we are always reaching out to potential sponsors to participate in our events. We have a highly qualified audience that sponsors can interact with and introduce to their products and services. Beginning in 2009, we reached out to the British Virgin Islands Tourist Board about showcasing the BVI, its incredible cuisine and it beautiful beaches at our events. And each year, they politely declined the opportunity. So, we would reach out again the following year. This cycle of rejection went on for nine years. Then, in 2018, the BVI Tourist Board decided that they would give us a chance and they sponsored the Citi Taste of Tennis. We are excited to welcome them back in 2019, and are proud to say the Tourist Board is now a major sponsor of all four Citi Taste of Tennis events. Additionally, AYS was also named the BVI Tourist Board’s Event Marketing Agency of Record. In this capacity, we evaluate incoming sponsorship opportunities and advise them on how to maximize their event marketing initiatives. I guess you can say that persistence really does pay off!

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

I know it goes against conventional wisdom, but I find it useful to combine business and pleasure whenever possible. For example, when we host a Citi Taste of Tennis event, I make it a point to have a pre-event dinner with key sponsors and my team. This makes our sponsors and my staff feel comfortable and appreciated leading up to the event. It’s the ultimate ice-breaker. It also gives our partners the opportunity to get to know my team on a personal level. I want our partners to see us as knowledgeable event professionals, but I also want them to see us as cool people they can chat with over a cocktail.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

We are fortunate to have forged relationships with some of the most successful and influential women in the sports, entertainment, and hospitality industries. Women like Jill Smoller (WME), Monique Townes (Citibank), tennis legend Billie Jean King, award winning chefs Michelle Bernstein and Adrienne Calvo, and so many others have really provided us with invaluable insights and assistance through the years. I mean, imagine negotiating a deal and seeking advice and perspective from someone like Serena Williams’ agent Jill Smoller…these are incredible resources. Even today, we continue to learn, grow and draw inspiration from these amazing women.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Founded My Company”?

There are more than five things, that’s for sure. My mom and I started AYS because we were driven by a passion to produce events and marketing promotions that generate value and deliver tangible results for our clients. Our company was founded on that premise. Through experience, our extensive connections and our instincts, we know what it takes to run successful events. What we did not know is what it takes to run a successful business. Things like accounting, insurance, payroll, technology upgrades, CRM systems, contracts and other legal issues, navigating changes to the economy, doing business internationally, and so much more. 23 years ago, we really had no idea about how integral all these elements are to running our business and we had to make some major adjustments along the way. I guess what they say is true, necessity really is the mother of invention.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I like to think the events we produce provide a fun and uplifting experience where guests get an up-close look top chefs and their favorite professional tennis players. Beyond just creating a memorable experience for guests, each Citi Taste of Tennis event benefits a local charity or non-profit organization. We make a donation to these worthwhile organizations, provide an allotment of tickets for them to use for fundraising purposes and use our media and social media assets to help amplify their message. Our goal is to not only produce good events, but to produce events that do good.

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