By Ali Kaufman
The 2016 Festival Season is in full swing with an ever-burgeoning crop of options that cater to every kind of fan. In this increasingly competitive market, there are a select few festivals that have survived the test of time, growing with their guests to become events that millions of people look forward to each year. Summerfest in Milwaukee, Wisconsin is a prime example of longevity, variety and spirit. Taking place over the course of 11 days this year, from June 29th – July 3rd and July 5th – July 10th, the annual event will welcome close to one million visitors to its 11 stages along the shores of Lake Michigan at the 75-acre Henry Maier Festival Park. Now in its 49th year, Summerfest’s lineup is still nothing less than incredible, with at least one global superstar headlining each night of the festival. The Rolling Stones kicked things off last year, and the organizers’ excellent reputation has helped to lock down Paul McCartney for 2016. If you’ve ever been involved in pulling together any kind of event, the mere thought of successfully executing a festival of this magnitude is mind-boggling, to say the least.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Bob Babisch, the man who has been at the helm of this ship for 39 years as VP of entertainment, Talent Buyer, “Super Fan” and- by his own admission- a frustrated musician. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Bob is self-professed super fan, as so many of the successful people I’ve been lucky enough to interview share that same, important trait, but somehow his utterly calm, good natured demeanor belies the fact that he has a whole lotta people coming over for one of the summer’s biggest parties. He is, however, quick to share the credit with his entire crew and point out that everything they do as a team- from the CEO on down- is a “Labor of Love”. He went on to say, “that moment when the band on stage is really into it, the crowd is going nuts and we get swept up in it… knowing you had a part in bringing this experience to life is a magical thing.” Magic indeed, especially since Babisch’s lineup has plenty of talent to offer. This year boldly offers everything from country, with Blake Shelton July 1st, Tim McGraw July 3rd and Luke Bryan July 7th, to pop, with Selena Gomez in the first headlining slot, June 29th. The stellar collaboration of Sting & Peter Gabriel will cap the Fest on the final day, July 10th. In between, there are a myriad of other genres from over 800 acts… and that’s just the music!
The other thing I was interested in finding out from Babisch, was how could this 501C-3 venture continue to raise the bar and the funds to make this a reality year after year? Especially when I realized that the ticket prices are the most affordable I’ve ever seen. $20 – the price you pay to spend the day at Summerfest- wouldn’t even get you into a show at most clubs. (For the sake of full disclosure, I should add that the headlining shows that take place in the Marcus Amphitheater are ticketed separately at various price points.) Affordability is clearly at the core of the mission; Babisch and his crew actually want everyone to be able to enjoy the great music coming to town. The ticket combinations available for purchase are flexible, and if the day pass is still too much, Bob offers this advice: “there is always a way to find your way in, whether it is volunteering or bringing a non-perishable food donation, our sponsorship department works tirelessly to continue bringing in funds that keep our unique pricing structure doable.”
Once you are there, you will find almost as many food choices as musical options. The fact that the event draws such massive crowds means it’s a great chance to show off Milwaukee’s best. Yes, you will find cheese and beer, but there are so many alternatives as well. As times have changed, so have people’s tastes and what they want to spend their money on, so choice seems to be another operative word at Summerfest. They sure provide plenty. The vendors, special interest tents, Emerging Artists Series, media outlets and Exhibiting Partners all bring something interesting or interactive to the table. Bob conveyed to me a need to keep providing the high quality entertainment while keeping up with the changing face of the industry, embracing technology and utilizing social media platforms to expand their reach and connect with the guests posting videos and pictures. The team makes an effort to listen the festgoers, figuring out what people like and what they can get better at the next year.
With so much going on and so many people looking to him, I wondered if Bob can really enjoy any of the actual event. Rest assured, he does. While he does spend a lot of time covering as much ground as possible, shaking hands and greeting visitors, sponsors and talent alike, he tries to get to each stage every day. “It is hard to relax, lots of adrenaline pumping, not just for me and our crew, it’s about keeping that level of excitement high for our guests… which our marketing department does a great job of,” he shared. “On day two, three and four we are gearing up for days seven, eight and nine. With music starting at noon, six bands a day times 11 stages, it creates a tangle of equipment and talent all coming and going.” But thankfully, “we have an excellent group of people just working on the logistics and doing an incredible job to keeping it all running smooth.”
While Summerfest is just about to welcome folks to its 49th year, don’t think for a second that they aren’t already working on great, big plans to celebrate their 50th anniversary year. Being in the moment is what festivals are all about to me, but reaching a milestone like a golden anniversary calls for celebrating the past as well as looking forward to the future. Bob puts it best; “We want to convey the importance of this festival to the people of Milwaukee, our great hope is that the festival will continue for another 50 years.” I couldn’t agree more. Cheers to a wonderful 2016 season, and continued success in the years to come.
To check out everything Summerfest has going on and start planning your visit, head to the website: http://summerfest.com/