Summerfest attendance up 40% this year, but still below pre-pandemic levels

Summerfest 2023

Last updated on July 12th, 2023 at 01:15 pm

Total attendance for Summerfest 2023, which wrapped up last weekend, was 624,407, its producer Milwaukee World Festival Inc. announced today.

That is a 40.1% increase compared to Summerfest 2022, which had attendance of 445,611.

However, attendance for this year’s Summerfest, the 55th anniversary of the festival, still trails pre-pandemic levels. Summerfest 2019 had attendance of 718,144, 13.1% higher than this year’s festival.

Summerfest was cancelled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and then postponed to September of 2021, when it was held on three weekends, and had an attendance of 409,386 that year. That was the first time the festival was held on three weekends, instead of Summerfest’s longstanding 11-day run including two weekends and the weekdays in between. Summerfest returned to the summer in 2022, but officials have continued to use the three-weekend format.

The three-weekend format will remain in place next year. Milwaukee World Festival announced the dates for Summerfest 2024, which are June 20-22, June 27-29, and July 4-6.

At this year’s Summerfest Community Leader Luncheon hosted by BMO Harris Bank, Milwaukee World Festival chief executive officer Don Smiley, who will retire at the end of this year after leading Summerfest since 2004, talked about the changes to the Summerfest schedule format:

“We did a lot of homework on this,” he said. “We didn’t really have a choice, but I don’t think the test was fair when we rolled it out in September of 2021. In 2022 it was a little bit better, like I said. I think this year will be a fair test. We went to our customers, and we did focus groups. And over 60% of the respondents voted for Thursday-Friday-Saturday. So when (Milwaukee World Festival president) Sara Pancheri, when she takes the reins in January of 2024, that will be her decision along with the team as to how this all works. When you think about restaurants and theaters in town, it’s not going to surprise anyone that a lot of restaurants are closed on Mondays and theaters are closed on Tuesdays. And why is that? Because you fish when the fish are biting. So, we know that people are out on the weekends, they have disposable incomes and they’re ready to roll. And Monday night is grilled cheese and Campbell Soup night. When you look back, and we did, you look at all of the data and you look at Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays it’s just a runaway as far as the data goes. That’s how we ended up there.”

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. Smiley, who succeed Black, took a different approach, deemphasizing total attendance at the festival seeking to provide the best experience possible for festival-goers.

Here are the total attendance figures for the most recent years of Summerfest:

  • 2023 – 624,407
  • 2022 – 445,611
  • 2021 – 409,386
  • 2020 – canceled
  • 2019 – 718,144
  • 2018 – 766,192
  • 2017 – 831, 769
  • 2016 – 804,116
  • 2015 – 772,000

Of those who attended Summerfest this year, 17% accessed the festival via a free admission promotion. Summerfest patrons provided more than 27,000 pounds of food donations for Hunger Task Force, more than $18,000 worth of hygiene products, which will be donated to Milwaukee and Waukesha County schools through the United Way, and more than 3,500 books for Next Door’s community literacy initiatives.

Summerfest 2023 featured more than 600 artists, including capacity crowds at the American Family Insurance Amphitheater for Zac Brown Band, Zach Bryan, and Imagine Dragons.

Milwaukee World Festival says it had a record number of sponsorships this year, with 15 new sponsors joining Summerfest and 17 new sponsors becoming part of Summerfest Tech.

“These are fantastic results for Summerfest’s 55th anniversary. We are thrilled our fans turned out to enjoy Summerfest’s unique brand of music, food, and fun,” said Smiley. “As I look back on my 20 years of leading Summerfest, this year’s festival is a highlight, as our team continued to deliver a world-class experience in a world-class setting.”

“Summerfest’s 2023 results allow our organization to continue to position the festival for future success. The Summerfest experience remains one of the best in the business and our team looks forward to enhancing that experience in the years to come,” said Pancheri.

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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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