Howard Schnoll: Bo Black’s Departure Signals New Era for Summerfest

Howard Schnoll has been a member of the Summerfest Board since the festival started, but he has been on the hot seat in recent months as the leader of the board that ousted popular Executive Director Bo Black. Schnoll said the decision not to renew Black’s contract after nearly 20 years was a tough one, but necessary as the festival embarks on a strategic planning process to put together an expansion plan for the next five to 10 years and figure out ways to use the lakefront location all year.

As a result of this and other planning efforts, Schnoll said Summerfest goers will already start to see changes in 2004, with the possibility of a sit-down restaurant and more family activities to increase attendance on weekdays. Schnoll recently sat down with WisBusiness correspondent Mark Kass to discuss the decision not to renew Black’s contract, the search for her successor and the planning process underway to update Summerfest.

Mark Kass: When you made the decision not to renew Bo Black’s contract, you talked about the festival moving in a new direction. Explain the direction you want the festival to move in over the next several years and why Bo was not in that future?

Howard Schnoll: We decided that this was the right time for a change. We need to study how we can use the grounds on a year-round basis and also look at some possible expansion options. We’ve begun a strategic planning process, a separate one for the staff and the board. We’ve looked at 13 questions and really tried to focus on the best way to serve our customers. One area that we have to improve in is dealing with two-spouse working families. We are going to be looking at new programming for the middle of the week, which is our slowest time, between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., to have children’s entertainment and food. We’re also looking to expand our customer base. Many people come when they are in their twenties and thirties, but they don’t come back when they are in their forties and fifties. We are also looking at adding a sit-down restaurant, similar to what they had last year at Festa Italiana. We have over 600 ideas in just two days of strategic planning. It has been a very good process and the staff is very excited about this exercise.

Kass: Are you concerned about any backlash from the public over the decision not to renew Black’s contract?

Schnoll: I don’t think there will be any backlash. Right after, talk radio chopped us up a little bit. But that has died down and the people I see in the community understand what we did. I’m not really worried about that. The staff is excited and out to prove that they are capable of running the festival and seeing it grow. They are working hard to open a lot of eyes next year.

Kass: You recently appointed a search committee to find a new executive director. What will be the process the committee uses? What are they looking for? And are there any local candidates that you will consider?

Schnoll: In the next week or two, we are going to begin define the role (of the executive director) in specifics in terms of leadership skills and team building. The one thing that has been surprising is the number of unsolicited resumes I’ve already received. These are coming from people in top national companies in top jobs with national experience in this industry. They have ties to Milwaukee and are interested in returning to the city. We’re going to look at both local and national candidates, including people at Summerfest right now, and pick the best possible person for the job. This is going to a very fair process that I expect to take six months or longer.

Kass: You’ve said the process will take at least six months so there is likely not to be a new executive director until right before the 2004 festival. What impact will that have on the event? What planning steps are underway for next year’s event?

Schnoll: The staff started planning the week after Summerfest ended. We’ve been looking at both the good and the bad. Our planning efforts are well underway and not having a permanent executive director in place will have no effect. And we know, even if we have a new executive director in place by April or May, they are not going to have much impact on next year’s festival. We’ve started the budget process and things are right on schedule.

Kass: Why was Bob Babish appointed interim director?

Schnoll: We needed to have someone handle the day-to-day operations. Bob has been the chief of staff for the past few years and has done a great job. We need someone to answer questions and make sure everything is getting done. We have a lot of confidence in Bob. He and I will meet regularly and I am confident we are not going to miss a beat. People like Bob a lot. He is very well respected.

Kass: From a business standpoint, where do you want to see the festival move over the next couple of years? Are you looking at any new marketing efforts or business initiatives?

Schnoll: We are examining every aspect of the festival. We have a great piece of property and we need to see if we can make better all-year-round use of it. We are also looking at how we can incorporate the state park into Summerfest and also how we can work with our neighbors in the Third Ward. We run a big business and we have to pay $1 million in rent per year. We need to have plans in place for continued improvements to the property. We want to continue to improve the new south end and the North Shore Landing. We also want to look at the North Stage and see if we can stage mini-concerts there other times of the year.

Kass: Summerfest is obviously a very popular place during the evening, but what about the daytime? Are you looking at any changes that would increase attendance during the day and help your overall numbers, which fell slightly this year?

Schnoll: The big thing is to try and increase attendance in the middle of the week. The weekend and end of the weekdays are already crowded enough. It doesn’t do anyone any good to get more people on those days. It’s hard to get food and beer and people don’t have a good time. Our busy nights are perfect right now, so we need to work on building up the middle of the week. We need to attract more seniors, which could mean setting up a senior dance area in the middle of the week. We also need to attract more minorities and offer them entertainment they like. We can please both crowds by putting them in different areas or having them on different nights. At our next session of strategic planning, we are bringing in 20 different users and asking them a set of questions to try and see what else we need to add.

Kass: What about food options? Are you looking at anything new for the upcoming year?

Schnoll: Festa had a sit-down restaurant this year and it was very successful. We think trying something like that would really appeal to a number of our customers. We’re also looking at adding kids’ meals. Right now, we don’t have anything that is specifically for kids. We are also reviewing all of our food offerings to see if we can make some improvements. We have some of the best chefs in the city on our food committee and I am confident we will make some improvements that people will like.

Kass: How about long-term planning for the festival? I know the board has begun a strategic planning process. What have you learned and what changes could you make as a result?

Schnoll: Unless you have a plan, you don’t know where you’re going and if you ever get there. I’ve been part of this board since the first day when I was its accountant. We need to look at what we want to be when we grow up. We can’t just look at next year’s festival. We have to look three to five years down the line and look at areas that can be expanded. We have to set goals and then keep adjusting them every year. We are looking at everything from food to entertainment and top to bottom on our operations. I am confident that we are going to be a lot stronger as a result of this effort.

Kass: As you look back over the last few months, is there anything that you would have done differently in deciding not to renew Black’s contract?

Schnoll: The one thing I wish is that we could have resolved the issue before it went to a full board vote and turned into such a negative situation. Unfortunately, we were not able to do that. Bo did a great job for us over the years. But this was the right thing to do for the management of the festival and ultimately I believe Bo will see it was the right thing for her in the future. It was a tough time because the talk shows took a lot of shots at us and attacked us personally, which was very unfortunate. It was difficult to deal with, but we knew what we were doing was the right thing. It was a difficult decision, but the right decision for us.