SUMMER SOUND: BMO Pavilion serves as one of Summerfest’s main venues alongside the larger American Family Insurance Amphitheater. Headliners at BMO Pavilion this year include Goo Goo Dolls, REO Speedwagon, Mt. Joy, Ivan Cornejo, Brittany Howard, The War and Treaty and Bryson Tiller. (Courtesy Venue) 

A Q&A with Sarah Pancheri, the new president and CEO of Milwaukee World Festival

This year, Sarah Pancheri took over as president and chief executive officer of Milwaukee World Festival, Inc., after longtime CEO Don Smiley stepped down at the end of 2023.

The nonprofit organization owns and produces the annual Milwaukee Summerfest, billed as the world’s largest music festival. Presented by American Family Insurance, Summerfest spans three weekends June 20-22, June 27-29 and July 4-6 with hundreds of performances on 12 stages throughout the 75-acre festival at Henry Maier Festival Park along Lake Michigan.

From 2015 to 2022, Pancheri was MWF chief operating officer and vice president of sales and marketing and from 1999 to 2007 she was the director of corporate sales. Pancheri currently serves as the board chair of VISIT Milwaukee and is a member of the marketing committee of Travel Wisconsin/WI Department of Tourism.

Leading into her first Summerfest at the helm, Pancheri talked to VenuesNow about the bands, the boon and the beer.

VenuesNow: You have a long history with the event, but this is your first year at the helm. How have you prepared?

Sarah Pancheri. (Courtesy Summerfest)

Sarah Pancheri: I was really fortunate to have worked here as a young professional and then come back on a track to have my current position; and I was really very fortunate to have about an 18-month transition with my predecessor Don Smiley, who was a great advisor and continues to be a great advisor. Don gave me some great advice, he said, “You don’t always have to have the right answer, but you should always be asking questions.” I would say I’m asking many, many questions and learning every step of the way.

Summerfest was the creation of former Milwaukee mayor Henry Maier in 1968. What was the vision at the time?
It has civic roots. With a rich brewing history in Milwaukee, the home of Miller now Molson Coors, and at the time Schlitz and Pabst, there was a heavy brewing influence and [Maier] looked to Germany’s favorite celebration, Oktoberfest. So, the vision was really how do you elevate the city through showcasing all that’s really great about Milwaukee and at the time, that was our rich brewing history as well as wonderful performing arts. 

How has Summerfest evolved over the past five decades?
Miller Brewing Co. and Molson Coors are still very much involved and have one of our signature stages, the Miller Lite Oasis, where over time you’ve seen a variety of different acts from EDM to country to rock to fill-in-the-genre. They are very much involved and we are very grateful for the partnership. One of the points of difference about what we do here as an independent non-profit organization, the sponsorship model really allows us to present the best in entertainment across a wide variety of genres and keep our price as accessible as possible. To come to the festival, it’s $28 at the gate to see music from noon to midnight.

How has Milwaukee World Festival affected the strategic vision of Summerfest?
It’s something we believe is special and important to the landscape because we do have an independent booking team that books all of our stages. And we do our best to book as wide a variety as possible and present as much music as possible. That includes local artists, which we are a great showcase for, as well as national headliners.

How do the festival grounds and permanent facilities factor into that success?
We really feel like it is a point of difference and rare in our space to have a permanent facility just steps away from downtown Milwaukee that is completely devoted to public gathering and music.We are able to offer both the artists and touring teams permanent amenities, permanent stage houses, some of the creature comforts that may not be available when you are performing at other events. But it also supports the fan experience to offer permanent restaurant facilities and restrooms, permanent shade, all of which exists along Lake Michigan. We also have a 23,000-seat American Family Insurance Amphitheater that hosts ticketed shows. It’s a separate ticket, but you are given access to the grounds as well.

What investment has the organization made in the festival grounds over the years?
Over the last 20 years the organization and its sponsors have put $160 million in capital improvements into the festival park. We’ve done that as a non-profit pouring our own resources into festival park as well as many sponsors stepping up and providing capital contributions to support that growth. The other piece that we’ve been able to establish more recently is extensive programming of shows outside of Summerfest. The BMO Pavilion and American Family Insurance Amphitheater are used throughout the summer.

In 2023, Henry Maier Festival Park hosted 64 events reaching 1.2 million attendees. What is the impact of Summerfest and the full season on Milwaukee?
For Milwaukee we generated $160 million through Summerfest; for the state, Summerfest generated $188 million. So, it is significant. When you think about all the concerts that take place at American Family Insurance Amphitheater and BMO Pavilion as well as all the festivals that take place that generated $263 million across the season for Milwaukee and $318 Million for Wisconsin.

How does the festival support the local community?
We distribute about 90,000 tickets to our community in various ways and that can mean everything from supporting a specific scholarship program to working with different organizations throughout the year. The brand recognition locally and the civic pride is very high so those tickets are in demand across the community. Ninety percent of our sponsors have a community tie that is embedded in their partnership. We have a grant program with one of our sponsors where we’re supporting local schools with direct money to support their music and general arts programs.

It appears that inclusion and diversity are central to the booking strategy as well. The lineup includes Kane Brown with Kameron Marlowe, Illenium, Tyler Childers, Lil Uzi Vert with Lil Yachty, JID, Rico Nasty, Maroon 5, AJR with Carly Rae Jepsen, Keith Urban, Mötley Crüe with Seether and Buckcherry, En Vogue, Goo Goo Dolls, The Wallflowers and Three Dog Night among many others.
You can imagine it’s a big task to book all nine days, all 12 hours of nine days across all of our 12 stages. For Summerfest we are an independent booking team with three full-time staff that grows with lots of friends as we get closer to the festival and things get finalized. The Summerfest event team books Summerfest, while shows at Summerfest venues outside the festival window are booked in conjunction with (Live Nation affiliate) FPC Live.