Smiley face

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:33 pm

Don Smiley has been the president and chief executive officer of Milwaukee World Festival Inc. for just over a year. The former president of Major League Baseball’s Florida Marlins and chairman of Pro Player Stadium near Miami, Smiley was hired to replace former Summerfest executive director Bo Black, who ran the festival for 19 years, building it into an event with about 1 million in annual attendance. The Summerfest board decided not to renew Black’s contract and hired Smiley with the charge to take the festival to the next level. After one year on the job, as he prepares to lead his second Summerfest, Smiley has already made some changes and has some ideas to improve the event. Recently, Smiley talked about his vision for Summerfest with Small Business Times managing editor Andrew Weiland. The following are excerpts from that interview:
SBT: You’ve been on the job for almost a year. Are you fully settled into this role? How is it going so far?
Smiley: "I took a year to read a lot of the research that has been done here over the years, to try to get a handle on who the customer is and how things were done. I came up with a lot of interesting information. And throughout this year, we really focused on structural changes and philosophical changes for the future. Structural changes would be critiquing and adjusting to what everyone did around here in the past and are they really playing to their strengths? There was a lot of multi hat-wearing around here. That’s natural in a business like this, in an event type of business. Some of that had to get reeled in and redistributed."

SBT: Did you eliminate any positions?
Smiley: "Just a couple that there really wasn’t enough work for us to justify having (those positions). That was only one or two people. That’s not really what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the people here, even senior staff members, as to what they were doing. And then philosophically, it was done here a certain way over the years. Certainly, I bring a different perspective and experience level to the party. I provide a fresh set of eyes, which ultimately will translate into change."

SBT: How does your philosophy differ from the way things were done in the past?
Smiley: "I can’t speak to that. I didn’t have first-hand knowledge as to how things were done in the past. I can only see the business that I inherited. I spend a lot of time on the financial end of the business in budgets and detail. My true strength is marketing, but in my experience and background, I’ve had a lot of opportunity to get involved in budgeting processes and so on. That’s very helpful to me. And also the operation and maintenance of the grounds. In running Pro Player Stadium, that served me well when I came here to have an eye for that type of thing. The Miller stage is a great example. The Miller stage is about 18 to 19 years old. It can only be painted so many times before the whole thing doesn’t work. So, Miller graciously agreed with me, and we are going to rebuild that whole Miller Oasis area, which will provide better ingress and egress for our patrons."

SBT: That was always a bottleneck area.
Smiley: "It won’t be any more. I saw a bottleneck there last year too, and I’ve only been here one year."

SBT: It’s a popular stage. Usually there is a big crowd around there. Is the new Miller Oasis going to be done next year?"
Smiley: "In October we will bulldoze that and start building. It will be ready a year from now."

SBT: What are some of the things that will be different at Summerfest that people will notice this year?
Smiley: "I hope they notice that the grounds are cleaner and more organized and the people that work here for us will be more engaging and helpful. I think they are going to see some fantastic music this year. We”ll try to stick to what we do well, and that’s put on concerts, food and beverage."

SBT: Last year, you said you wanted to take Summerfest to the next level. A year later, do you have any ideas as to how that is going to be done?
Smiley: "I also said that won’t happen overnight. To nationalize this event will take several years."

SBT: Do you think that can be done?
Smiley: "Oh, yeah. Absolutely I think it can be done but, that doesn’t happen overnight. This has been pretty much a regional music festival, albeit it’s the world’s largest music festival, but it really has (only) had regional reach. The brand awareness is off the charts in the Midwest, or in certain parts of the Midwest, and then it falls off the charts after that. So we have to get better at that, and we will."

SBT: How do you do that?
Smiley: "Get national sponsors involved, and you tap into their marketing budgets, and their P.R. plan and their activation strategies."

SBT: How does that work? Do you get Coca-Cola to put a Summerfest logo on the Coke cans?
Smiley: "That’s a good example, but it’s not Coca-Cola, it’s Pepsi here. Miller Brewing Co. could be a part of that. And then there’s new stuff like MSN. We can’t tell you everything we are working on, and we can’t tell you exactly what we are doing. We have competition in the event business, and I don’t want to tell everyone what we are talking about."

SBT: I want to ask you about the entertainment lineup this year. Some people are saying a lot of the acts, especially the Marcus Amphitheater acts, seem to appeal mostly to baby boomers. I’ve heard some young people say there aren’t enough contemporary acts on the schedule. How do you respond to people who say that? Do you feel there’s enough variety in the lineup to appeal to people of all ages, ethnic backgrounds and musical tastes?
Smiley: "It stumps me a little bit that people don’t understand yet that the bands that we get or we don’t get is a function of routing. And then they have to fit into our 11 days. So, one year we could have a Summerfest that feels really young, like last year. Why do you think that is? It’s because who was out there that you could actually sign that fit into our 11 days. I think it’s a little bit of a misnomer as to what we have and what we don’t have. Last year, it felt a little young, this year it feels something else. I am told a lot of the really young groups are in Europe. There’s nothing we can do about that."

SBT: So you’re at the mercy of who is touring that year and where they are during this 11-day window?
Smiley: "This can’t be the first time that this has been discussed. How many times do we have to talk about this? In one year that I’ve been here, I’ve talked about this where I’m like up to here. Do you not get it? If they’re in Germany, what are we to do about that? We’re not flying them back here for a show one night because they happen to be hot. Either we fit in their routing, or we don’t. Sometimes I think people say this to me as a joke."

SBT: Isn’t it also a factor that you need to get bands that are going to fill the seats? If you get a younger, newer artist that hasn’t been around as long and don’t have a large fan base as an older artist, they might not be able to fill up all of the seats.
Smiley: "We can’t put a group in the amphitheater that only draws 4,000 people. If we had 120 nights to play with we could do that. But we only have 11 of them. So the cutting edge bands go on the other stages. Bands have cut their teeth here and gone on to stardom. We will never go away from providing various genres of music and being a launching pad for new groups and new music. But there is a distinct difference in how this music festival works today in 2005 vs. how it worked in 1967, simply because of our own infrastructure, what Mayor Henry Maier’s idea was about this festival, the economics of the business and what bands charge today. There’s really nothing we can do about that. If Prince charges $750,000, he charges $750,000 in Milwaukee, Chicago, Minneapolis, it doesn’t matter. If Tim McGraw charges $550,000, he charges $550,000. We have and we will always make an effort to keep our ticket prices as low as possible in the amphitheater. If you compare ticket prices for these main stage acts here at Summerfest, compared to other venues, you will see we are cheaper, even though the price of the band keeps going (up). We try to keep prices in line with keeping it affordable for all. But, I will tell you that is increasingly more difficult to do. For Summerfest, for Milwaukee World Festival Inc. to continue to be successful in years to come, something has to happen. Our rent (with the city) went up from $30,000 to $1.2 million. Have you ever seen an increase in anything go from $30,000 to $1.2 million? So, we’re left to deal with that, and that’s fine. Having said that, the challenge is there."

SBT: In the past, the lawn seats at most of the amphitheater shows were free. Now people have to pay to sit on the lawn for most of those shows. Is that also a result of your increased costs?
Smiley: "It truly is. When all of the shows had free lawn seats, the rent was $30,000. Now it’s $1.2 million. We are trying to keep that tradition. I can assure you that’s a challenge. The basic fare price of Summerfest is so ridiculously out of whack, $12 for all of that music. It’s the best deal in America. Anyone from outside the area knows it’s a heck of a deal."

SBT: There are a lot of changes going on around Summerfest. The state is going to turn Harbor Island near Summerfest into Lakeshore State Park. Discovery World at Pier Wisconsin is under construction next to the Pieces of Eight restaurant, just north of the Summerfest grounds. Will these changes in the area hurt or help Summerfest?
Smiley: "I think it’s fantastic. I’m on the board of the Third Ward to talk about the positives and negatives of growth in the area. I met with Michael Cudahy of Pier Wisconsin. It’d be great to do a cross-ticketing deal with them. I envision creating some type of plan for our daytime hours to get kids down here. The state park is a beautiful piece of property. We’ve had discussions about many different ideas (for how to use it with Summerfest). I think that will play itself out in the future on a case-by-case basis."

SBT: A few years ago, Summerfest had some problems with guests who got into fights afterwards or vandalized or left trash in the neighborhood. What are you doing to avoid problems with crime, vandalism and littering in the neighborhood near the festival grounds?
Smiley: "We have our own security patrolling in the Third Ward. We stepped into that a little bit last year. This year, we’ll build on that. All we can do is ask people to behave themselves and act like ladies and gentlemen. We’ll do our best."

SBT: Are you targeting an older audience to try to attract a less rowdy, better behaved crowd?
Smiley: "We want young people here, absolutely. This is a music festival for everyone. To try to promote that, we changed the way we schedule our bands. In the past, all of the headliners at the stages on the grounds went on at 10 o’clock. If people wanted to see two or three headliner bands on the same night, they couldn’t do that. It also meant everyone left at about the same time, which caused a traffic problem. This year we will stagger the headliners at different times. We know some people have to get home earlier on a weeknight. They will be able to go to an earlier headliner show and still get home at a decent hour, for those who have to get up and go to work the next day. If the young people want to come and stay later, that’s fantastic. We invite them to come. We’re trying to please and trying to accommodate a lot of different age groups. When you have this many people down here on every day and night, there is going to be problems with littering and a couple of bad eggs getting out of line. Obviously, something is working, because Summerfest is in its 38th year. We just want to tweak it a little bit and make it easier for people to come down here."

SBT: Your attendance was down last year. The weather wasn’t very good. That was part of the problem. Are you concerned about the attendance this year?
Smiley: "No, no and no. In past years, there was a heavy emphasis on drawing 1 million people. I’m telling you right now we are deemphasizing that. We will have a better quality event with less than 1 million people. With 1 million people, it’s harder to get around the grounds and people don’t enjoy themselves as much. This is not about getting as many people in this place as possible. This is all about having a first-class event. So many people get hung up on day-to-day and year-to-year attendance (comparisons). It is not alarming to me that it goes from 1 million to 900,000, or even to 800,000. At 800,000, that’s 72,000 people on these grounds every day. That should be enough. I want people to feel safe, be able to get here, get around and have a good time. The more people you get down here, the better chance you have of having an incident occurring. This is definitely a case of less is more."

Marcus Amphitheater lineups
Some music fans have complained that most of the Marcus Amphitheater acts scheduled for this year’s Summerfest appeal to an older audience. But Summerfest officials say the acts they book each year are based on who is touring in the area during the festival. Last year’s amphitheater lineup featured more young artists, because they were available then, Summerfest officials say.

2005 2004
June 30John Mellencamp June 24 Prince
July 1 Tom Petty June 25 Kid Rock, Puddle of Mudd
July 2 Kenny Chesney June 26 Kenny Chesney, Uncle Kracker
July 3 Santana June 27 Big Boi, Ludacris, Twista
July 4 Stevie Nicks June 28 Blink 182
July 5 Allman Brothers Band June 29 Jessica Simpson
July 6 Journey June 30 Nickleback, 3 Doors Down
July 7 Pixies, Weezer July 1 Steve Miller, BoDeans
July 8 BoDeans July 2 John Mayer, Maroon 5
July 9 Tim McGraw July 3 Crosby, Stills and Nash
July 10 James Taylor July 4 Tim McGraw

June 10, 2005, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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