Summerfest attendance this year was far below pre-pandemic levels

Summerfest 2022
Summerfest 2022

Last updated on July 18th, 2022 at 02:10 pm

Total attendance for Summerfest 2022 was 445,611, according to its producer, Milwaukee World Festival Inc. That’s an 8.8% increase compared to attendance of 409,386 in 2021, but far below pre-pandemic levels for the festival.

The last pre-pandemic Summerfest was in 2019, which had attendance of 718,144, 38% higher than this year’s festival.

The festival had even higher attendance prior to 2019, including:

  • 2018 – 766,192
  • 2017 – 831,769
  • 2016 – 804,116
  • 2015 – 772,000

Summerfest attendance peaked at more than 1 million in 2001 and 2002 during the Elizabeth “Bo” Black era. Black was executive director for Summerfest from 1983 until 2003 and aggressively promoted the festival seeking to maximize attendance.

Don Smiley, who succeed Black and has been president and CEO of Milwaukee World Festival since 2004, deemphasized total attendance at the festival seeking to provide the best experience possible for festival-goers. Smiley will retire at the end of 2023.

Summerfest was cancelled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and then postponed to September in 2021, when it was held on three weekends.

Traditionally Summerfest was an 11-day event, including two weekends and weekdays in between. The festival returned to the summer this year, but was again held on three weekends, Thursday through Saturday, for a total of 9 days.

In a news release, Milwaukee World Festival officials listed five factors that contributed to the low attendance this year: changes in consumer spending habits related to both the pandemic as well as rising inflation, a reduction of transportation options with the elimination of some bus service from private providers and Milwaukee County Transit System, a crowded concert calendar this year as concerts and tours cancelled during the pandemic returned, the loss of eight major artists throughout the festival including the postponement of Justin Bieber’s sold-out concert, and the fact that Summerfest’s group ticket sales results were down 46% over pre-pandemic levels, which MWF attributed to changes in work-at-home policies for many employers.

“This year’s (attendance) results highlight the current state of the event industry as we continue to manage through the impact of the last few years,” Milwaukee World Festival said in the news release. “Given the lasting effect of the pandemic, the world has changed and, accordingly, the music festival business has changed as well. In 2020, MWF stated it would take years to fully recover and that is what we – and others – have experienced in 2022. While we did not top pre-pandemic attendance levels, our fans were happier than ever to enjoy live music in our world-class festival setting. As we reflect on this year’s festival, we are celebrating a return to our traditional summer timeframe, a strong response to our hiring initiatives and a record year for sponsorships. We thank the artists, fans, vendors, staff and sponsors for their support – it was a great run.”

The three weekend setup for Summerfest this year was a trial format and Milwaukee World Festival officials said they would review the results and set dates for Summerfest 2023 in August.

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Andrew is the editor of BizTimes Milwaukee. He joined BizTimes in 2003, serving as managing editor and real estate reporter for 11 years. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, he is a lifelong resident of the state. He lives in Muskego with his wife, Seng, their son, Zach, and their dog, Hokey. He is an avid sports fan and is a member of the Muskego Athletic Association board of directors.

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