Sarah Pancheri preps for first Summerfest as CEO — and shares her vision for the future

Milwaukee World Festival's new CEO Sarah Pancheri has big shoes to fill — a pair of them.

Her immediate predecessor — Don Smiley, who retired in December after 20 years in the role — spearheaded a $160 million overhaul of the nonprofit's Maier Festival Park, home to Summerfest and multiple ethnic festivals. Nearly everything was rebuilt — or, in the case of the 5,000-seat BMO Pavilion, built from scratch — including a $51.3 million reconstruction of the park's primary venue, the 23,000-person-capacity American Family Insurance Amphitheater.

And before Smiley there was the 20-year run of the late Elizabeth "Bo" Black, the larger-than-life personality who made Summerfest the landmark event that it has become, ramping up crucial sponsorships, overseeing the construction of the superstar-luring Marcus Amphitheater and playing a leading role in nurturing the growth of ethnic festivals at the park.

Sarah Pancheri, president and CEO of Milwaukee World Festival Inc., is shown on the top level of the American Family Insurance Amphitheater on Friday at Henry Maier Festival Park in Milwaukee. This will be her first Summerfest since becoming CEO in January.
Sarah Pancheri, president and CEO of Milwaukee World Festival Inc., is shown on the top level of the American Family Insurance Amphitheater on Friday at Henry Maier Festival Park in Milwaukee. This will be her first Summerfest since becoming CEO in January.

Pancheri worked under both of them. Her first job at Summerfest was actually in high school as an usher in the amphitheater, then after college, she worked for Milwaukee World Festival from 2000 to 2007, initially in a corporate ticket sales role. She came back in 2015 as vice president of sales and marketing, was promoted to chief operating officer in 2019 and became president in 2022.

"I am a huge Sarah Pancheri fan," said Charlie Goldstone, co-president of FPC Live, the Madison-based, Live Nation-backed concert promoter that books American Family Insurance Amphitheater and BMO Pavilion shows outside of Summerfest. "She is perfect for that role. She's got a great vision, is well respected. … We're excited to see what she is able to accomplish."

Even with extensive Milwaukee World Festival experience, Pancheri isn't ready to say in a Journal Sentinel interview what major initiatives she may oversee after becoming CEO In January.

But she's already signaled a key goal during her tenure — a desire to have more events at Maier Festival Park. In April, the organization announced it is requesting proposals for the development of a new master use plan. Pancheri said RFPs are being reviewed now.

Sarah Pancheri, president and CEO of Milwaukee World Festival Inc., poses for a portrait on Friday at Henry Maier Festival Park in Milwaukee.
Sarah Pancheri, president and CEO of Milwaukee World Festival Inc., poses for a portrait on Friday at Henry Maier Festival Park in Milwaukee.

"Summerfest and the ethnic cultural festivals remain the north star, but we see opportunities at the park," Pancheri said. "We see the fulfillment of our mission to continue use of the grounds with recreational opportunities, employment opportunities, and to showcase the arts for Milwaukeeans and beyond."

More: Here's the Summerfest 2024 lineup by date, time and stage for the Milwaukee music festival

Growing events a growing focus for Maier Festival Park

On the date of Pancheri's first board meeting as CEO this March, Milwaukee World Festival unveiled the results of its first economic impact study in a decade. A key takeaway: The number of events at the park in 2023, 64 in total, was up 83% from 2019, according to research firm Tourism Economics, with 1.2 million visitors. A big factor of that increase was the rebuilt amphitheater, which hosted 19 concerts in both 2022 and 2023, the most since 2004.

The economic impact from the Maier Park events in Milwaukee was $263.2 million, and $318 million across the state, according to Tourism Economics. An estimated $22.6 million was generated in state and local taxes, with the events creating 4,300 full-time and part-time jobs.

"Milwaukee has bold ideas about growth and bold ideas about growing as a community," Pancheri said. "Great things are taking place, and we're thinking about all of that and how it rolls into Maier Festival Park. … The fact that Milwaukee has a world-class festival park along Lake Michigan, steps from downtown, makes it one of the most special places like it in the country."

But the same economic study indicated that the economic impact of Summerfest itself has dipped since 2013, from $180.7 million to $160.3 million in the city. The festival, however, is now nine days long compared with 11 in 2013, and Pancheri is quick to point out that the daily average economic impact in Milwaukee was $17.8 million, compared with $16.4 million a decade prior.

Since taking over as CEO Jan. 1, Pancheri's attention largely has been devoted to getting the 2024 festival and new amenities in order.

That includes the new Aurora Pavilion, previously the Sound Waves stage, and the implementation of a new point-of-sale system, Clover, as part of a new multiyear sponsorship agreement with Milwaukee-based parent company Fiserv. Summerfest is also welcoming additional bus service from Milwaukee County Transit System, and for the first time, expanded Summerfest service from the Hop streetcar.

Other new festival features Pancheri is excited about include "Yield," an immersive large-scale artwork likened to a "cosmic cornfield" designed by local firm FuzzPop Workshop, and among the new food vendors, the addition of DanDan, the acclaimed local restaurant co-owned by recent "Top Chef" and James Beard finalist Dan Jacobs.

"We're excited to offer more for the overall festival experience, and elevating that festival experience so there are more opportunities for fans to enjoy not only music but also different surprises," Pancheri said.

Pancheri takes over as Summerfest regains momentum

She's taking the Summerfest reins following some positive momentum for the festival, after the pandemic forced the festival to cancel in 2020 and host a September edition in 2021.

Last year, the festival's heavily-marketed 55th anniversary celebration saw a 40% jump in attendance from 2022, with 624,407 guests. It amounted to a higher daily average attendance than in 2019, the last pre-pandemic festival, and the last Summerfest that ran 11 days.

And while weather remains, as usual, an unknown factor, so far, late, high-profile headliner cancellations that have hindered the festival from 2021 on are not a factor in 2024.

Some ticketed shows are already sold out — including Americana star Tyler Childers at the amphitheater, and nearly all of the reserved seats for Goo Goo Dolls, REO Speedwagon and regional Mexican breakout Ivan Cornejo at the BMO Pavilion. (General admission attendees can occupy space in the back at pavilion shows on a first-come, first-served basis for those shows.)

The 100 and 200 sections are mostly sold out, too, for country stars Kane Brown and Keith Urban in the amphitheater, and limited numbers of reserved tickets remain for BMO Pavilion headliners Bryson Tiller, Muna and Fletcher.

Even though Summerfest's economic impact and attendance are naturally down with the nine-day format, spreading out the festival across three weekends instead of two "allows us to pick up more opportunities," said Director of Entertainment Scott Ziel.

That's evident in Summerfest's best get this year: R&B superstar and Lollapalooza headliner SZA — who'll headline the amphitheater June 22 before jumping over to London and Dublin for major shows during the Summerfest window.

The three-weekend format also gives the festival a better opportunity to spread out the talent budget and book bigger names for afternoon slots, to create more "dwell time" (and on-site spending) throughout the day, Pancheri said.

Breakout Americana artist Wyatt Flores, '80s pop hitmaker Tiffany, rock supergroup The Baseball Project (featuring two former R.E.M. members), and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell are among the noted names playing at 4 p.m. or earlier this year.

The festival's typical something-to-everyone lineup approach has also expanded for 2024. There'll be a K-pop artist at the festival for the first time since 2013 with HYO, and a significant surge of Spanish-language headliners from previous years, including Cornejo, Kevin Kaarl, Latin Mafia, Luis Figueroa, Cimafunk and Reyna Tropical. And players from Milwaukee's buzzy street rap scene will be better represented. Breakouts J.P. and 414BigFrank will get to open a stacked hip-hop amphitheater bill headlined by Lil Uzi Vert on closing night, with Milwaukee rappers like Certified Trapper, DC The Don, Myaap and AyooLii landing other prime slots on the grounds stages.

"We're constantly challenging ourselves to always improve what we're offering in terms of really unique artists and really unique combinations," Ziel said. "It's a constant, picking up on music trends, new styles of music, new artists and capturing them at the right time."

Zac Brown Band is one of Summerfest's most frequent amphitheater headliners (including a show last year), but this year the band will compete with the Big Gig with a show at American Family Field June 22 with Kenny Chesney.
Zac Brown Band is one of Summerfest's most frequent amphitheater headliners (including a show last year), but this year the band will compete with the Big Gig with a show at American Family Field June 22 with Kenny Chesney.

Increased competition, large carbon footprint among Summerfest challenges

One noticeable challenge facing Summerfest in 2024 will be greater competition — especially on the festival's first Saturday, June 22.

For the first time in Summerfest's history, there'll not only be another major festival happening in the market on a Summerfest day — Tacos and Tequila Festival at Franklin Field, headlined by Ludacris and T.I. — but also another first: a stadium concert, headlined by Kenny Chesney and Summerfest favorite Zac Brown Band, at American Family Field. Recurring Summerfest headliners Dave Matthews Band will be in the area, too, wrapping up a two-night run at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy.

But Ziel was able to find strong counterprogramming with SZA, and that Goo Goo Dolls BMO Pavilion show, with all the reserved seats sold out, is also on June 22.

"We're excited about what is happening here," Pancheri said. "The value we are able to give our patrons is incredibly significant. The idea that for (a general-admission ticket cost of) $28, or that there's 14 ways to get in for free, and then you add a beautiful setting, we believe what we offer is a special experience."

Another challenge for Summerfest that may face increased scrutiny as climate change concerns continue: Summerfest has the largest carbon footprint of any American music festival, according to a study issued by Texas electricity provider Payless Power, emitting an estimated 827 metric tons of CO2 in 2023.

Pancheri said she wasn't familiar with the study, but she stressed the festival's promotion of mass transit and use of recyclable and compostable materials. The Payless Power study credits Summerfest for following a reduce-waste-and-recycle program, for composting food scraps and for offering free water refill stations.

"Greening and sustainability efforts are certainly something that is top of mind for us," Pancheri said.

Contact Piet at (414) 223-5162 or plevy@journalsentinel.com. Follow him on X at @pietlevy or Facebook at facebook.com/PietLevyMJS.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Sarah Pancheri on her first Summerfest as CEO, vision for the future

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