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Summerfest CEO Don Smiley is preparing to throw the biggest party of the year. (PHOTO: Zach Karpinski)

Milwaukee Talks: Summerfest's Don Smiley, 2009

If you have hosted -- or even attended -- an enjoyable wedding, graduation party or even a family cookout in recent weeks, chances are that you noticed how important planning and execution are to ensuring the success of such events.

And, you probably have what Don Smiley is up against in the next two weeks.

In case you missed the memo, Summerfest starts tomorrow. As president and CEO of Milwaukee World Festival, Inc., Smiley and his staff on Harbor Drive are responsible for the 11-day orgy of music, food and beer on Milwaukee's Lakefront that is billed as "The World's Largest Music Festival."

We talked with Smiley last week about the latest edition of the Big Gig, which will be his sixth at the helm. Enjoy this Milwaukee Talks with Don Smiley, 2009. What is it like for you in the final days leading up to the festival? Are you checking the weather reports every five minutes?

Don Smiley: That is (vice president of entertainment) Bob Babisch's job. He started in February checking out the weather for late June and July (laughs). No, we've been at it. We've really put a lot of time and effort into this particular Summerfest, which is the 42nd Summerfest. And with the economy being the way that it is, certainly in the fourth quarter of 2008 and the first quarter this year, we've set out to do a couple things.

OMC: What types of things?

DS: Number one, we wanted to make sure the quality of the product was up to par and even better than it was last year. And number two, we wanted to create value packages for customers so that when they go to our Web site, which is, it would be very difficult for a customer to say, "I can't afford to go to Summerfest because of the value packages put out this year."

It was all contemplated in a way that we wanted to make sure everyone could afford to go to Summerfest. You can either get in free or for very little money. If you go Friday night or Saturday night at 9 o'clock, the highest ticket price you'll pay is $15. We have Kapco Two-Buck Tuesday this year, so from 12 to 8 p.m., you can get in for $2. We have a "3 for $33" ticket package this year. We just completed a ticket promotion with the Milwaukee Brewers and Harley-Davidson. So, there is all kinds of ways to enjoy Summerfest for very little money.

On the other hand, we spent more money on our ground stages entertainment than we did last year, to the tune of 7.8 percent, which translates into $232,000 more than last year. So, we wanted to increase the quality of the product, and then in turn, make sure that everyone had a chance to afford a ticket to Summerfest and come down and enjoy the world's largest music festival.

OMC: You talk about the importance of keeping costs down for the customer. How hard is that to do in this climate, when the cost of everything seems to be going up? The costs of keeping a band on the road aren't going down. Neither is the cost of beer cups or mozzarella sticks. How do you avoid passing on costs to the customer?

DS: You are right, none of this is getting cheaper between the production, the bands and all the costs that are associated with pulling off a mega-event of this stature. You have to be very good at managing your expenses line by line, no matter how small you think the expense may be. I mean right down to a $500 line-item expense. After this event is over, we will start with our budget at the end of August and go into September and October and just tear the whole business apart line by line and manage those expenses. Wherever we can save, we re-invest back in to the event.

So, we really try hard to keep our ticket prices low. We try to do the best job possible with corporate sponsors, and the like with which, if we didn't have the corporate sponsors that we have, and we didn't have the volunteers that we have to help make this event what it is, there is just no way we could pull it off if we had to pay for everything that is associated with signing 700 bands over eleven days and so on. Kudos to our corporate sponsors and our volunteers.

OMC: Bashing the music lineup at Summerfest has become an unofficial local pastime. A lot of people look at the lineup and say "They just bring the same bands every year," or that "The acts are geared toward an older demographic." In past years, we've talked about the calendar, competition from Europe, tour routing and other factors that prevent you from booking every act you'd like. But, as you get ready to welcome bands like Bon Jovi, Steve Wonder and others, do you worry about a time when bands of that stripe are no longer available?

DS: Right now, it is not an issue. But that is an issue for the future as you were discussing. Classic rock bands, really good classic rock bands ... I liken it to the Senior Tour in golf. It really is the ultimate mulligan because there is really a market for those types of bands all around the United States and internationally.

Sooner or later, they are going to put their guitars and drumsticks down and they are going to be done, so it begs the question: Who's next? Who is coming along the way here? Sometimes, this event is a lot like a sports team in that you are critiqued continually about the lineup. Now this happens to be a musical lineup versus a lineup you would put between the lines. But the fact is that critique is usually all about passion and people love the event. And we are asked the question: Why not this group in the Amphitheater? Or why not that group in that Amphitheater? And, generally speaking, that group is not of the stature yet of selling enough tickets for a 23,000-seat Amphitheater than the groups that are out there touring. But the question remains: What happens when the Bon Jovis are done? What happens when the Kenny Chesneys are done, and so on and so forth. Who is next? It is a valid question.

OMC: While some may see the "repeat" headliners like that as a drawback, you could probably point to the top-selling acts keep coming back, year after year, as a positive, right?

DS: This is the 42nd year of Summerfest, so there is a credibility factor that goers a long way with the groups that are signed. Bob Babisch has been signing those groups for many, many years. They do love Milwaukee; they do love Summerfest. We do compete with all of the music festivals in Europe. It becomes a chess game to fit bands that are touring into our 11 days. Just because they are out there working, does not mean they fit into our 11 days. So if we get critiqued as to, "Why didn't you sign this band or that band?" -- chances are they did not fit into our 11 days. So, that is some of the chess playing that you have to do to make this all work.

OMC: It seems like there are a few things that are recession-proof in this market right now -- beer, bratwurst, the Brewers and Summerfest. In the last few years, you started to announce Amphitheater shows early in order to help build buzz and sell tickets. Has that helped?

DS: There is no question. The Amp shows sold and they sold early, which was a really good indicator to us because obviously a concert of that nature is a luxury and not a necessity. So, we were a little nervous in December and January as to how all of this was going to go this year, and so on. But when we put those shows up for sale and they sold, that is a pretty good indicator that there is some money out there in the market. I mean, the Brewers can attest to that. Their attendance is outstanding, and their per caps (spending per capita) have to be through the roof.

OMC: Given your background in baseball, as president of the Florida Marlins, can you go to Brewers games and relax or do you find yourself looking at concession lines and parking issues and hot dog wrappers on the concourse like a team executive. Are you able to shut that part of your brain off and enjoy the game?

DS: I can't shut it off, but I don't have to worry about it anymore. One thing I will say about Miller Park (is) how extremely clean it is. It is funny you say that, because I have noticed what a good job they do in keeping that ballpark very clean. That is not easy to do. Now, when you get in the strategy side of the game, it is really easy to just sit there just as a ticket buyer and not have to worry why this guy can't throw strikes.

OMC: Like a baseball team, you deal with big crowds in a short period of time. You just do it over 11 days and not over a whole summer.

DS: We have 11 days to make an impression. And we want to -- I think Disney World is the gold standard when it comes to customer service, and ingress and egress and cleanliness and quality. And we want to get as close to that as possible in the way that we implement our operating philosophy.

OMC: If you could wave a magic wand, what one band would you like to have headline the Amphitheater?

DS: Of course, it would be the Beatles. Now that wand is bringing people back that are not here anymore. That's a tough question.

OMC: What about bands that are still together? Would it be Bruce Springsteen?

DS: Well, Springsteen was part of the Harley Festival that was right outside of our gates last year. I think that show is so large that it probably wouldn't go in a 23,000 seat Amphitheater. I would have to think about that. I have seen so many groups come through there now. This is my sixth year here. I would have to get back to you on that on who the magic wand would produce.

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sandstorm | June 24, 2009 at 11:44 a.m. (report)

"That will provide more room and little bit more breathing space for our fans that go to the M&I Fiduciary Classic Rock Stage." lol. did he really say the entire name of that stage or did you add that yourself? i just can't see anybody saying that in conversation.

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