HANDS ON: Kenneth Feld knows his employees and what they’re working on at Feld Entertainment Studios. (Courtesy Feld Entertainment)
Kenneth Feld thinks big while minding the details as his company continues a tradition of entertaining millions of families
When Ticketmaster CEO Jared Smith got a tour of the Feld Entertainment global headquarters in Palmetto, Fla., his first takeaway was the sheer size of the complex.
Kenneth Feld, the second-generation chairman and CEO of the sprawling Feld empire, bought the 46-acre former Seimens industrial plant, which sits about an hour south of Tampa and a half-hour north of Sarasota on Florida’s Gulf Coast, for $8.5 million in 2012. He spent millions more gutting the site and rebuilding it.
Feld Entertainment Studios, a stand-alone massive 50,000-square-foot rehearsal space, takes up most of the footprint.
“It was an old aerospace compound with hundreds and thousands of square feet, and as you walk through, you get an appreciation for the complexity and diversity of the business Ken built. It’s impressive,” Smith said. “You walk into one giant room and it’s literally got every costume ever made for Disney on Ice. You go to another part of the building and there’s monster trucks being built. In another space they are merchandising. It’s a true vertically integrated company. Even knowing that before the tour, when I saw it all in person, I was blown away.”
The second thing that struck Smith was how close Kenneth Feld was to the details of any and all of it.
“Kenneth knows the names of the monster truck drivers. He knows who is sewing the costumes. He knows the size of the tires on a Supercross bike and how long a race takes.”
Most important, said Smith, was that Kenneth Feld knows what his customers want.
Feld thinks building the studio is his greatest accomplishment.
“We built Feld Entertainment Studios to have the entire company in one place,” Feld said. “We now have everyone under one roof and it’s really stimulating and exciting, and it allows all of us to talk to each other every day. From marketing to the scenic shop to Motor Sports to the ice side, we can get different points of view and come out with the best ideas.”
Feld, 71, has been running Feld Entertainment since his father Irvin Feld’s sudden death in 1984. Known back then as the company that produced Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, today’s Feld Entertainment has grown into a global powerhouse with eight franchises: Monster Jam, Supercross, Disney on Ice, Jurassic World Live Tour, Marvel Universe Live, Sesame Street Live, Trolls The Experience and Slime City. Feld produces events in 78 countries around the world and has partnerships ranging from Disney to Marvel to NBCUniversal, all realized under the leadership of Kenneth Feld.
“My father taught me to never compromise with quality and that the only thing that we totally own is our reputation,” he said. “Never tarnish your reputation.”
“I love getting up every morning and coming into work,” Feld said. “I am never happier than when I walk around this building and talk to people, whether they are the Monster Jam mechanics or the sales department, because I can always learn from all these people.”
Running the entertainment juggernaut is not without its headaches, but Feld has a theory about life. “Every day you can wake up and you can have 100 problems,” he said. “If you don’t have 101 problems, it’s a great day. Life is about good times and bad times. You can’t pick your days, so you may as well have a life you can enjoy.”
Feld has flourished because he figured out soon after he took the reins of the company that he needed to diversify.
And branch out he did. Today, Feld Entertainment licenses shows featuring Jurassic World dinosaurs, Marvel Universe superheroes, Trolls, Sesame Street Muppets and just about every Disney character ever created. Feld outright owns motorsports franchises Monster Jam and Supercross.
“We try to have a pretty wide array of content to bring to the audiences,” he said. “People now come to see Monster Jam. Ten years ago, it was incorporated in other attractions instead of being a stand-alone show. We have Marvel Universe, the Jurassic World Live Tour, and 10 different Disney on Ice shows featuring whatever the latest storyline is.”
Running at a new pace
Feld has boiled down the biggest challenge for family shows today as the precious commodity that time has become.
“Everybody is overscheduling. In most households both parents are working. We have to cut through the clutter and create something that people feel is so special that they have to take that time,” Feld said. “What they want is great entertainment and a great experience, but they don’t want to spend a lot of time at it.”
Twenty-five years ago, a Feld show could run two hours and 45 minutes to three hours. Today, Feld shows seldom run more than two hours.
Feld is taking his cues from other forms of modern entertainment. “If you look at movies and TV, there’s now almost double the number of scenes there used to be. People’s time spans are changing. It’s shorter. We’re operating on hyper-speed these days, and we have to create entertainment with the pace that the audience is comfortable with.”
Feld thinks the biggest difference between shows past and shows present is the level of specificity that’s taken over almost every aspect of life today.
“I think it goes to everything we do now,” he said. “For instance, the streaming world. There is a show for everything and everyone. There are shows geared to cooking or sports. Years ago, there were four different channels and now there is a gateway for every subject you can think of.”
Tim Leiweke has known Kenneth Feld since the early part of his career when he was the president and CEO of AEG. (Leiweke is now the CEO of Oak View Group, which owns VenuesNow.)
“Having Kenneth Feld as one of the first Hall of Honor honorees could not be more appropriate,” Leiweke said. “When I started in the business, I looked at Kenneth Feld as one of the people I most admired. If you are in the facility business, there is no way to ultimately have a successful facility if you don’t have a great relationship with Kenneth Feld.”
In fact, Leiweke went out of his way to reach out to Feld.
“I wanted to have a direct relationship with Kenneth,” he said. “This really came into play when (AEG was) building Staples Center. I wanted Kenneth’s opinion and input on what was important to him, from a design standpoint, a scheduling standpoint and a business standpoint.”
Feld passed along a circus-eye view of the arena, advising Leiweke on where to store the elephants, how to get them in and out of the building, where the arena could stage the “circus walk” to the building and how to get the animals into downtown.
“It was the first time there was an arena downtown” in Los Angeles, Leiweke said. “We didn’t know these things and Kenneth did.”
As time went on, the relationship expanded.
“Kenneth and I became close,” Leiweke said. “We spent a lot of time discussing our companies, and I absolutely marveled at his entrepreneurial spirit and his vision for where live entertainment was going, and how he was rolling up other assets that you never imagined Kenneth Feld would have acquired.”
Leiweke thinks Feld’s real gift is that he listens all the time. “Whether it be his relationships with the facility, the industry, his customers, or his relationship with his performers, Kenneth always takes the time to hear what you are saying. It even extends to his relationship with his daughters.”
Leiweke said that Feld’s other great talent was his ability to change with the times.
“As the circus evolved and eventually closed, he found ways to ultimately take that loyalty and move it to other properties. Ken realized he could take his magic formula to different brands. He understood that if he could get families and kids to find different things that they want to go see, that will move them. He’s very smart and has really grown that company.”
“I would not be where I am today if not for Kenneth and his family. I consider them to be the best partners in the industry,” Leiweke said. “There is not a decision we make about something we are building or developing without going to Ken and asking his opinion. So, for the last 30 years, it’s like the old commercial: I don’t do an arena without him.”
No one-hit wonders
Part of Feld’s process in choosing new projects is making sure that the ventures will have staying power.
“We’re not in the one-hit-wonder business,” Feld said. “We always look forward. Because we are a family-owned company, we take a much longer view of things. When I think about our business, I need to look at all of our properties, what we have now and what we’ll probably have in the future.
“We look at (intellectual property) and ask, ‘What can last us a long time?’ It’s a marathon, not a sprint. We want properties that can endure. And when we find a property, either a franchise that exists or one we can build, we invest in it.”
Feld said he looks for properties that are based on human emotion in a way that transcends language barriers.
“Entertainment unites people all over the world from every culture,” he said. “Kids are always the same. We try in business to appeal to anyone on an emotional level, whether it’s the circus or a monster truck or a dinosaur from the Jurassic World Live Tour. No matter what country we go to, the same thing will apply: The only thing that is not extinct is the excitement that dinosaurs bring throughout the world.”
The Jurassic World Live Tour, the newest addition to the Feld fold, kicked off Sept. 26 at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus, Ohio, to great reviews.
“There’s nothing that I’ve ever seen that compares to it,” Feld said of the show. “We have dinosaurs in there that are extraordinary. The T. rex is 42 feet long and 16.5 feet tall, and if you are sitting by it, it’s very difficult to believe it’s not real.”
Feld Entertainment spent over a year making the dinosaurs.
“Jurassic World could not have been done 10 years ago,” Feld said. “It could have been produced, but you wouldn’t have the level of quality that the dinosaurs have because that level of technology did not exist yet. When the T. rex comes out there is absolute silence. We can see their skin and hear them breathing. People are shocked at how real it all looks. And it’s all because of the technology that we now have.”
Feld never stops looking at technology but warned that relying on it would be a fool’s errand.
“You can’t use technology just for the sake of technology,” he said. “If you can enhance what we are doing, then use it. But it doesn’t take the place of a good story.”
Feld’s first franchise, the venerable Disney on Ice, has been performing an astonishing 38 years, but he quickly shut down any suggestion that he was amazed at how long the perennial has been playing.
“I’m not surprised at all by the Disney on Ice success,” he said. “Disney is the greatest brand globally and it’s loved by hundreds of millions of people around the world. We’re constantly changing the storylines, updating the shows and every show is totally different. We have a large inventory now and we can change it around. It’s wonderful that we can adapt their product. It’s been a great partnership. We wouldn’t treat IP better if we owned it ourselves.”
Feld’s ice show with a story concept has been copied many times since 1981. “Storytelling became a genre because of our shows,” he said. “Today there are cartoons about Everything on Ice, and it all comes back to Disney on Ice.”
In May 2017, facing mounting pressure from animal rights groups as well as the growing difficulty of producing the show in a modern economy, Feld closed the circus, affectionately known as The Greatest Show on Earth.
“In today’s world you can’t have a business model based on something created 146 years ago,” Feld said. “It was a business model that you can’t work with today. We all have to move with the times and be in the business that exists today and not a century ago. It can’t be replicated today.”
Feld said that he misses the people more than anything and that even though the circus no longer travels, its spirit is in the bones of the company.
“The circus was the genesis of this company,” he said. “It shaped our culture. What it also taught us is that what we do is create impossible things to bring to our audience. That goes to the ethics and culture of what we still do, which is make the impossible possible. I think it’s in everything we do.”
‘No other company like it’
Smith is impressed by the way Feld has integrated all the components of his business empire.
“The culture at that company is astonishing,” Smith said. “They do everything in an incredible, detailed way, across some very difficult stuff. Whether it’s the circus for all those years, or Disney on Ice or Monster Jam. It’s super-impressive, and there’s no other company like it in the entertainment industry.”
Smith has been working with the Feld company for the last 17 years.
“I come out of the venue side of the business,” Smith said. “I was working marketing at the Columbus Civic Center in Georgia and we hosted Feld shows there. When I moved to Ticketmaster, over the course of the years, I have become quite friendly with Kenneth.”
Smith recalled that relationship bloomed when he was a guest on the Promoter 101 podcast.
“We did it at a music conference in Aspen,” Smith said. “I showed up, and Kenneth, who had also been speaking at the hotel, pulled up a chair in the front row and stayed through the entire podcast. Afterward, he grabbed me, and we discussed the industry. He’s a student of everything around him. I was surprised and thrilled that he wanted to listen to my silly stories, and we’ve been friends ever since.”
Most of the Feld shows are ticketed by the individual venues, who have their own ticketing agreements, many with Ticketmaster.
“We do the majority of their ticketing and are their official provider,” Smith said. “Ticketmaster and Feld have always had a close commercial relationship, and they push the envelope on all of our products and services. Their promoter network is closely tied to our client development, and they are true partners in every sense of the word. They want everyone to do well — us, the venues and their employees.”
“The partnership we have with Feld is as deep as they come,” Smith said. “We partner with many content holders in music and family shows and sporting events and music festivals. But Kenneth and his family are completely unique. They take pride in every detail from the production to the business relationships and try to fill the seats.
“They do it in an incredible, detailed way, across some very difficult stuff. From fan engagement and customer satisfaction to the quality of the show to everything else, Kenneth has his finger on the pulse of it. I continue to be impressed with everything he’s done and his grasp of all of those details. He’s pretty unique in this business.”
Over the years, Feld Entertainment has launched the careers of many of today’s industry leaders.
“It’s great to be a mentor. There are people in the country and all over the world that started their career at Feld,” Feld said. “It’s a credit to everyone that is here, and how they mentor people that they work with every day to make them better. It makes me happy and proud.”
When Feld needs advice, he turns to friends not necessarily in the entertainment business.
“I have various business mentors and we discuss trends and what’s happening globally with the economy,” he said without naming names. “Of course, I also have people within the company who I can go to for advice. We have a lot of great people here.”
Regardless, Feld said, he gets his best advice when he goes and sits in one of his shows.
“The audience will tell you everything you need to know,” Feld said. “You see what they respond to, and what they don’t respond to, and that teaches us a lot. We see the customer every day. We listen to them.”
A family affair
Among those Feld employees that Kenneth Feld hunkers down with are his three daughters — Nicole, Alana and Juliette — all of whom are executives in the company.
“Every day is Bring Your Daughters to Work Day. It’s incredible. They are intelligent, strong women who have great and different qualities that they each bring to the company.” Feld said.
“I learned everything I know from my father and everything I didn’t know from my daughters,” Feld likes to say. “This thing spans for three generations. They are highly qualified.”
Juliette Feld Grossman is the company’s chief operating officer. Nicole Feld and Alana Feld are both executive vice presidents. “Juliette is here every day and she knows every aspect of this company,” Feld said. “Nicole and Alana are in New York and are involved in various projects and they have strong opinions about what we should be doing as a company. For me it’s great to see how well they’ve done. It’s not easy. The company is in great hands because they have a passion for it.”
Leiweke and Feld have often bonded over bringing their daughters into their businesses.
When Leiweke’s daughter, Francesca Bodie, now president of business development for OVG, “wanted to grow into the business, she did an internship at Staples Center, and one of her first jobs was to keep track of Feld and make sure the circus was happy and pay attention to anything they needed when they were moving into the building,” Leiweke said. “Part of that included picking up a shovel and removing animal droppings in the tunnel. To this day my daughter gives Feld credit for keeping her humble.”
“Ken and I always talk about how our daughters have to carry our name around and everybody thinks that those women are where they are because they are our daughters,” Leiweke said, “but we both agree our daughters are better, smarter and more entrepreneurial than anyone else we could ever have hired.”
All of the Feld women are mothers, which Kenneth Feld said gives the company an edge as well as personal satisfaction to a certain grandpa.
“There’s nothing better than watching your children raise their children,” he said.
With the succession plan firmly in place, Feld’s role has changed these last few years.
“I leave the day-to-day to other people,” Feld said. “I have interests outside of the business.”
One side gig is as chairman of the Board of Trustees at Boston University. “I spend a lot of time on that,” he said. “I get to hear all sorts of different views on all sorts of things, and I enjoy that a lot.”
When he’s not at Feld headquarters, or in Boston, Feld likes to run — marathons. “I only picked up running in my late 50s,” he said. “I do half-marathons now and run four to five days a week.”
Feld also plays golf and spends time with his “six incredible grandkids.”
Asked whether he’s ever going to retire, Feld points to the eye-rolling his daughters do every time the subject is broached.
“As long as I enjoy what I’m doing, I will do it,” he said.