Summerfest’s Longtime President Passes the Torch

Don Smiley is giving up his title as president, but hanging onto his CEO responsibilities.

Don Smiley, who has led Milwaukee World Festival Inc. since 2004, plans to retire at the end of next year and will be succeeded by Sarah Pancheri. Smiley will remain in his role as chief executive officer of Milwaukee World Festival, which produces Summerfest, through December 2023. The organization’s board has unanimously approved Smiley’s recommendation to name Pancheri president of the organization, effective immediately.

Smiley had simultaneously held both leadership titles.

“Don will continue to provide overall leadership for Henry Maier Festival Park, Summerfest and Milwaukee World Festival Inc. in fulfillment of our non-profit mission,” Milwaukee World Festival Chairman Howard Sosoff said in a news release. “Don’s contribution to our organization, the Milwaukee community and the state of Wisconsin is remarkable given his vision and execution of rebuilding Henry Maier Festival Park, making it possible to invest more than $160 million, culminating with the redevelopment of the American Family Insurance Amphitheater. The organization will continue to benefit from his leadership.”

Pancheri has been with Milwaukee World Festival since 2015 when Smiley hired her as vice president of sales and marketing. In 2019, Smiley promoted her to chief operating officer, adding oversight of operations and event management to her responsibilities. Pancheri served as director of corporate sales in an earlier stint with Milwaukee World Festival.

“Sarah has been an integral part of the executive team since she rejoined the organization,” Sosoff said. “She has been involved in over $150 million in capital development on the grounds since 2015. I am confident that Don, Sarah and our outstanding team are well-positioned for the future. The promotion of Sarah is richly deserved.”

Pancheri will work closely with Smiley as Milwaukee World Festival continues to manage Henry Maier Festival Park, Summerfest and an increasing number of concerts and events.

“Sarah is one of the most talented executives I have ever hired and promoted,” Smiley said. “She has played a crucial role in our success, building an all-star team that continues to create value for our sponsors, partners, and fans. She has forged relationships locally and nationally with a variety of stakeholders.”

Pancheri began her career at the United Performing Arts Fund and has also held development roles at Marquette University and The Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee.

“I have had the good fortune to grow with this organization and am excited to have an opportunity to further enhance our mission,” Pancheri said. “In partnership with Don, I look forward to continuing to deliver a diverse calendar of events which represents the world’s top talent as well as festivals which consistently engender significant civic pride.”

Smiley’s planned retirement is the second major departure at Milwaukee World Festival announced this year. In March, Bob Babisch, vice president of entertainment, began to transition his role as leader of the organization’s entertainment department, which he will leave at the end of this year. Babisch has been with Milwaukee World Festival for 46 years, starting in 1976, and has served in his current role for more than four decades.

Scott Ziel, currently the associate booking director, will become director of entertainment, taking on additional responsibilities for Summerfest and other events produced by MWF.

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.