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Conversation with Summerfest CEO Don Smiley

"It's a mega event."

-- Don Smiley, President and CEO of Milwaukee World Festival, Inc.

This year marks the 48th year of Summerfest.  Approximately 850,000 people are expected to be in Milwaukee during its 11-day run, June 24 - July 5.

And it's a major money maker.  Summerfest generates $226 million for the State of Wisconsin and creates 2,200 jobs, according to Don Smiley, president and CEO of Milwaukee World Festival Inc.

So what does it take to put it all together?  What kind of impact -- economic and otherwise -- does Summerfest have on the city and the region?

Click the player below to hear our conversation with Smiley.





Nate Imig: Explaining Summerfest to people out of town or never been to summer, are they often blown away with the number of acts coming through the city?

Don Smiley: The people that I have explained it to, I spent a lot of time in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. When I explain it to my friends down there, I don’t think they really get it until they really come here to visit and experience the magnitude and scope of this music festival. Over 800 bands are going to play over 12 days; we have the Rolling Stones June 23. It’s tough to explain Summerfest to people who have never been here. You really have to experience it by being there, have a cold beer, people watch and enjoy the music. 

NI: So when you are explaining this to people out of town, where do you start? How do you try to describe it?

DS: It’s a mega event, that’s how we look at it and refer to it.  Indianapolis has the Indi500, Louisville has the Kentucky Derby and Dayton has the Dayton 500, Milwaukee has Summerfest, the World’s Largest Music Festival. So we start there and in that it is mega event, when you have attendance 850,000 to 900,000 people a day over eleven days, you have a very large event. 

NI: This is the 48th year of Summerfest.  Can you talk about how it has grown in those 48 years, and where it started, and compare how it is today?

DS: A lot of people know the background and some don’t.  It started in 1968, it was the brain of Mayor Henry Maier and it was his way and idea to bring the community together through music.  It was held at a multiple locations throughout the city at that time and it was a few years later that it ultimately ended up on the footprint on the lakefront that we currently operate on.  It has really grown over time it is really been sustained. It’s all due to music fans in Milwaukee and beyond now. The fact that Summerfest will be 50 years old in 2017 is really a tip of the cap to all of the fans, sponsors and volunteers that have made this festival possible over the years. Being in the music business we have seen festivals come and go, they operate for a couple of years, maybe 5-6 years, and they hit a wall and they just can’t keep it going.  I think Summerfest has proved itself time and time again as being one of the best music festivals ever in a unique and friendly city. 

NI: Do you think that Summerfest gets the same national attention that other music festivals get like Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, South by Southwest, etc?

DS: Over the years, I don’t think this festival has generated the national or international press that it deserves simply based of the bands that we sign and bring in. Over the past few years, we have made an effort to reach out to the media on a national and international basis. We hired a national PR firm to help us out with that, so that we can get the word out to more people to the nation and the world. By the very nature of what we do, ever genre of music is covered. That’s how we look at it, in the national and international press, by virtue of what has been written both online and print as well as television stories that have been done in the past few years, I think that tide is turning a bit.  

NI: One of my favorite things to do at Summerfest every year, I suppose it is cliché, but I love to ride that Sky Glider at night and cruise by and catch all of the genre of music playing on each of the stages. One night was Kool and the Gang, Image Dragons and The Offspring. It’s really just a gradient, throughout, and it’s really a cool thing to see. 

DS: Yeah, it really is. That’s an excellent way to look at it and experience everything at the same time and take the Sky Glider ride and do exactly what you did. 

NI: Going back to the economic level of it. I want to relay on a personal level, Summerfest was the first job I ever had when I was 14. I was not working on the grounds, but I was working at a restaurant that had a booth down there. I’d image that’s the same for a lot of people because this could be there first job or a seasonal job.  In terms or creating jobs and bringing people into patronizing surrounding businesses, there is a lot of soft impact here too beside Summerfest the hard revenue of ticket sales and attendees.

DS: We have attendees for 50 states and 40 countries, the direct and indirect spending attributed to summer fest for city of Milwaukee is $187 million.  For the state of Wisconsin, it’s $226 million. We create over 2,200 jobs at Summerfest. Approximately 35% of those jobs are for people 16-20 years old. We have 1,250 volunteers that come help us put events on like the Summerfest Rock and Sole Run. There over 800 bands and over 1000 performance.  Hotels and restaurants are bustling, this all goes into the economic impact study which was done by Tourism Economics an Oxford Company.  They specialize in putting numbers on companies like ours 

NI: I want to know a little more about you personally, how did you end up into this role of being CEO of Summerfest? You have got a very unique job, safe to say.  Where you before you were at Summerfest?

DS: I have had a very unique career to tell you the truth. I am blessed and thank the lucky stars every day since I have had such an interesting career. It all started in sales, I moved onto the PGA tour and ran a PGA tour event, and then I became involved in company called Blockbuster Entertainment. I was in the entertainment business and I had a nice run with Blockbuster. I was then involved in Major League Baseball and became president of the Florida Marlins. It was an expansion franchise.  Five years later in 1997 we won the World Series, in 1997. After 1998, the team was sold and I moved on. In 2004, I became president and CEO Milwaukee World Festival, Inc. - Summerfest

NI: What it is about Summerfest that makes it special to you, are you a big music fan?

DS: Always have been a big music fan, music is on 24/7, from the moment I get up, I’m always playing something.  It’s in the car, it’s in the office, and after work, so on and so forth. But what I will tell you is the breadth of music that I listen to now is much different than when I was younger. My 26 year old son gave a father the best compliment a father could receive, he said Dad “you’ve got the best iPod of anyone I know,” (laughs) so when that comes from a 26 year old, he’s asking for your iPod to play instead of his, then you know you’ve got it going on. 

NI: So who are you going to see this year at Summerfest?

DS: I want to see Kendrick Lamar I am very excited to see him, Keith Urban, of course, The Rolling Stones. This is my second go around with the Rolling Stones. I booked them in Miami in 1994 as part of the Voodoo Lounge Tour. So this is my second time around, and it was a fantastic show at that point and I’m sure it will be good one this time around. 

NI: My last question is, zooming out to the big picture, as far as the impression Summer Fest makes on the region and people visiting Milwaukee. What’s the big picture vision for Summer Fest fitting into the fabric Milwaukee?

DS: Here the big picture view of it. When you speak to the large companies in town, like we do, we have relationship with most of them. Whether is it Miller Coors, Johnson Controls, Harley Davidson, Briggs and Stratton, Northwestern Mutual, all of them will tell you when they are recruiting young people, they talk about Summerfest. What does your city have to offer? That person that is being recruited has choices in a lot of cases. So what does your city have to offer? We have the Milwaukee Brewers, the Milwaukee Bucks, and we have Summerfest, the world’s largest music festivals, museums, etc. So when you are included in the conversation in what things you have to offer and some of the biggest companies in the nation are talking about that and mentioning that in their pitch to hire people. You can understand how important this music festival is. These things are a little funny because you can loose a NBA team or a MLB team, its happened before. I hope that never happens because you want to be a big city, you need to act as a big city. These social events and entities that we have and call our own, they are ours and we don’t want to give them away. The PGA is a good example, we had a PGA tour event and then it went away and is probably never coming back to Milwaukee. There is so much competition, throughout the US and the globe for an event. So once you have something and lose it, you will probably never get it back. That’s why it’s so important to invest in Summerfest, to keep investing in the grounds, tearing down old stages and building new ones. To keep moving the bar up for our fans, our fans expect a certain type of music, a certain caliber, multiple genres, they expect to be comfortable, they expect the restrooms to be clean and service to be friendly. That’s what is important about keeping events. Because if you keep doing all of those things, the fans will keep coming back and the corporate sponsors will be there and your event will be deemed healthy.

NI: Obviously at 88.9, very happy to be a partner and looking forward to another great, 48th season.

DS: Thanks Nate, we are really looking forward to working with you, thank you very much.