Events like Summerfest and the State Fair typically draw hundreds of thousands of spectators to Milwaukee every summer. But in 2021, those events were all canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those cancellations were costly to vendors at the State Fair, according to State Fair CEO Kathleen O’Leary. She was a guest on WTMJ 2021 on Tuesday.
“The majority of the vendors did not work all year long. They shuttered up at the end of the fair and festival season at the end of September, and in March, April and May they start their routing. So a number of them did not have a gig at all,” O’Leary said.
O’Leary says once she and her team found out the State Fair would be canceled in 2020, they got to work on figuring out how to make things work in a drive-thru model. She says she gave her team three directives for making things work.
“First one was that whatever we did in the drive-thru concept, that it had to be up to the standards of everything we do at State Fair Park, the second directive was that it had to be monetized at every turn and the third one was that we basically could not lose money,” O’Leary said.
The end result was a fair-food drive-thru that allowed people to still visit their favorite food booths and get the food they had been craving while supporting local vendors in the process.
O’Leary says she hopes the State Fair returns in full in 2021, but doesn’t know for sure that it’ll happen.
“There’s still a lot of months here between now and then and a lot of unknowns and we just gotta’ keep moving forward and forging forward, we gotta’ stay positive and we have to stay hopeful.”
Summerfest will look different in 2021 after switching to a weekend-based model instead of two consecutive weeks. Summerfest VP of Entertainment Bob Babisch says the change will allow for more flexibility when booking bands and will hopefully allow people to spend more free time at the Summerfest grounds.
“A lot of times when you have just an 11 day window, you have to take acts that want to work in that time period. Now when you take it out to three weekends, it’s a 17-day window of music you’re doing so you might be able to pick up some other bands that are deciding to route through during that at time period,” Babisch said.
“I also think that people who go out on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday… Now there’s a couple of days in between where they can get that energy again and feel like they want to go out again instead of going day after day.”
Babisch said another change coming to Summerfest in 2021 will be more nationally recognized acts throughout the day.
“So you’re going to see national bands on all of these stages starting at 4, 5 o’clock in the afternoon every day,” Babisch said. “So people are gonna come down and see national acts so I think that’s going to be exciting for people.”
Both O’Leary and Babisch were guests on WTMJ 2021.