MILWAUKEE- Coming up on two decades at the helm of Milwaukee World Festival, CEO Don Smiley is calling it a career.
During the MWF Board meeting Friday morning Smiley announced that he is set to retire at the end of 2023 with the board naming COO & President Sarah Smith-Pancheri his successor.
“Stepping down sounds better than retiring,” Smiley joked Friday afternoon during an interview with WTMJ’s Jeff Wagner.
Saying he hasn’t spent too much time reflecting on his time at Summerfest, Smiley did say he was proud of the upgrades to the festival experience and the grounds themselves, “We worked to improve the park to the best of our ability for the benefit of the fans and the bands and everyone who uses this park.”
“Working on the infrastructure and having a vision and executing to that vision as to what it could be, it was just needed at that time,” Smiley added. “We compete nationally and internationally for bands and the infrastructure bar has been raised to such a height that you really have to be good at that, otherwise the bands aren’t showing up.”
Among the major updates to the festival grounds in recent years include a revamped Miller Lite Oasis stage, a reconstructed entrance and most recently a $51 million update at the American Family Insurance Amphitheater.
Another change under Smiley’s watch was moving the festival from a 10-day continuous event to one that is held over three separate weekends in June & July.
“Expenses have skyrocketed when you talk about bands and all of the things necessary to produce this festival you really have to look at the times when you’re able to generate as much revenue as possible so I understand the difference of opinion from ‘lets go back to the old days’ but when you looked around here on a Monday afternoon or a Monday night, there’s not a lot of people here,” Smiley said.
Smiley isn’t the only Summerfest figurehead calling it a career; head talent booker & Vice President of Entertainment Bob Babisch is also retiring. Babisch will step away from the Big Gig after this year’s festival, which begins later this month.
During Friday’s board meeting, Pancheri was also promoted to President of Milwaukee World Festival, a title she’ll hold until assuming the CEO role when Smiley’s retirement goes into effect.