Back In Action: Q’s With Kenneth Feld, Feld Entertainment Chairman & CEO

courtesy of Feld Entertainment
– Kenneth Feld
Kenneth Feld, CEO of venerable events producer Feld Entertainment.

Kenneth Feld sits at the helm of Feld Entertainment, Inc., which, like so many other live businesses, was absolutely devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. But the company is quietly leading the return of live entertainment as our industry ramps back up, with Feld saying the company has welcomed 1 million fans back to its events between October and April. 

When COVID struck, Feld had to lay off the vast majority of its workforce according to media reports. But Feld did not cease operations altogether, continuing to host Supercross events in a bubble format, without fans. And on Oct. 24, 2020, Feld hosted Monster Jam at AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas, for a reduced- capacity event. It followed that by beginning to host “Disney On Ice” for fans in reduced capacity arenas in November, and Supercross in January. 

Feld Entertainment leadership has the whole time been learning about how its business will survive in a post-COVID world as the comeback continues to ramp up. Kenneth, who runs the company out of Ellenton, Fla., with his daughters Juliette (COO), Nicole (EVP) and Alana (EVP), took some time to chat with Pollstar about the last 15 months. 
Pollstar: What were the early days of the pandemic like for Feld?

Kenneth Feld: So on March 12 we basically got shut down all over the world. We had shows and equipment in Indonesia, Singapore, Germany, all over Europe, and all over the U.S. And we had people there, so we had to get well over 1,000 people back to where they came from. Some were in the Ukraine, Russia, Japan, and different places beyond the U.S. and Canada, so that was a logistical challenge. 
Then there was the equipment. The shows travel and they could have 20-40 containers outside the U.S. and inside the U.S. they could have 12-15 semis. And we have a lot of perishable electronics and costumes as well as, with “Jurassic World,” we had a lot of dinosaurs out there. 
So the logistics were first to take care of all of our people on tour and our pretty extensive staff of associates at Feld Entertainment Studios, to figure out what to do and how many people we needed to get everything back, dismantle it, unload it from trucks and containers and store it in our facilities, here or around the world. 
After getting everyone home, the decision was taken to lay off most of your workforce?
We unfortunately did have to let go of a substantial number of people. These were associates, not only performers, but other people. We just didn’t have the work, so we had to take care of that. Then we had to say “What are we going to do? What is the future going to look like and what do we need to do as a company to make sure we come back strong?”
When you are in heat of the moment with all these shows out there, full tilt with everything going, you don’t have the luxury to step back, to take a look at everything and then revamp. But this was a time when we had nothing going on as far as entertainment shows, so we thought about what is the future for live entertainment and how can we be a more efficient company than we were going into the pandemic. And that took up literally 100% of our thought, time and actions for over a year. 

Were you able to get PPP money to keep on some employees when the pandemic hit?
We did not qualify for PPP, I believe, because we were a larger company. Also there were certain restrictions with it that would have inhibited how we could have come back. 
The problem was we didn’t know – and no one did at that time – when we could come back. We didn’t want to go ahead and continue with people not knowing, then they couldn’t get on with their lives. 
We didn’t want people in limbo, nobody likes that. People want to know where they are going to be and what their future is going to be. So we tried to do that in the best way that we could.

What are some of the things that your company has taken out of this extended downtime?
Well, it accelerated our investment and use of technology in many different ways. For instance, we have a huge merchandising and concession business in conjunction with all of our shows. So we were working on a contactless/cashless point of sales program, we had tested it a few places, but [during the pandemic] we knew customers would not want to interface with people one-on-one anymore, many would be concerned about germs, and would not want to use cash. So we were able to complete the program we were working on and we set it up in our facility here, in the equivalent of a full-size arena with concessions stands, and simulated how we would operate it. 
So we figured it out and, once we were able to have shows it became much more efficient. We could give better service and people could order things with QR codes before they left for the venue, on their way to venue, or once they were at the venue. We can deliver items to patrons at their seat or to pickup points. It’s very similar to the system being used at Target. 
The other things that we had to do, which was really the most important work, was ask, “How can we keep everyone safe?” and, “What do people want in order to come back to live entertainment?” So in June, July, August, September of 2020, every month we did new market research with our customers in eight random cities around the U.S. to figure out if they were able to go back to live shows, what would make them feel comfortable enough to go back with their families. 
Something very interesting we found, that I feel venues across America should be very proud of, was our customers felt that the local venues in each of those cities would definitely take the most care of the people and make sure it was safe to be there. We also found out what was important to patrons. Was it social distancing? Podded seating? Mask wearing? Having hand sanitizer available? From that we developed what we call the Feld Wellness Program. We did this to assure our customers what we are committed to doing at every venue. 
The other part of the program was for our associates. Just one “Disney On Ice” tour has more than 100 associates traveling with it; performers, people that sell consumer products, stagehands, management. So we hired an epidemiologist that we consulted with and tested everyone with rapid-response tests two to three times a week. We knew we were going to have some positive cases, which we did, but through the testing and through contact tracing we were able to contain those cases and continue to perform and have healthiest possible outcome we could with everyone. 
From the time we opened until the end of March we tested over 20,000 of our own people and spent well over $1 million on our internal testing program. 
Naturally, as the vaccine started rolling out, the need for testing was reduced somewhat. But we follow all the local mandates and that’s the way we’ve been able to have continuity since last October with two Monster Jam tours, two “Disney On Ice” tours, and a full season of Supercross. And this is all with patrons at reduced capacity venues, typically about 25%.

Courtesy Feld Entertainment
– A different kind of circus
Supercross is one of the many types of family entertainment Feld Entertainment now produces.

What has it been like working in arenas over the past six months?

So after Monster Jam at AT&T Center Oct. 24, in the first week of November we opened at American Airlines Arena in Dallas with “Disney On Ice.” At that time there was something like 12 states we could operate in, Texas, Utah, Florida, Mississippi, Georgia, Iowa, South Carolina. As places would open up, we would figure out how to fit them into the tour. 
In the case of Supercross, we normally have 17 races in 15-16 different venues. But we could only operate in seven different locations. So we would do two weeks, a Saturday, a Tuesday and another Saturday race, because we had to get the whole season accomplished. So that worked out very well from a television standpoint and in getting the whole season done. 

Why did you decide to start pushing into arenas in the fall, when no one else was doing those venues?
We thought about it and we wanted to get back soon. The one thing we knew, and maybe this is the blind optimism that I have, but we knew at some point in our lives we would get back to a level of normalcy and we would get back to having a live entertainment business. It might be different from when we closed – and it is different in many ways – but we said, “Let’s try it. We are going to do everything we can for the safety of our associates, our audience, and all the people, all the venues.” 
Because if you think about the ad-on effect of having a show in a venue, how it affects travel, transportation, hotel rooms, having local stagehands, ushers, ticket-takers, parking lot attendants, these people had no shot at a job [while everything was closed]. So we said, “We will give it a shot, we will see how this is going to work.” 
Yes, it was expensive, but from Oct. 24 when we had our first performance, a Monster Jam performance at AT&T Stadium, through the end of April, we had played to over one million people. And that is with having not a lot of shows, and with reduced capacity. The demand is there. It’s a pretty astounding number, if you think about it. 
What lies ahead?
Now, every day we are getting calls from stadiums and arenas around the U.S. They have dates and are asking, “When can you come?” So we are booking all throughout the summer, which is a time period we used to have very few shows in the U.S. Typically in the summer we are in South America, Asia and South Africa, primarily, because it is their winter. But this summer we have shows every single week in the U.S. We have three tours of Monster Jam in the summer, and one summer tour of “Disney On Ice,” and then in the fall we will add another five. 
What is something you wish more people understood about your experience from the last year?
I’ve learned a lot in the past year and a half, more than I’ve ever learned during any other period in my life, and one thing I’ve learned most of all: However you went into this COVID-19 period with your business, if you think you are going to come out of it the same way, you are probably not going to have a business when you come out. 
We took this time to rethink every single thing we do with our company, in every area, I don’t think we left a stone unturned. I said to our senior team, “We now have to look at our company as a 50-year-old startup.” We’ve been able to do things – and not all of them are in practice yet, because we’re not back at full tilt yet – but we viewed coming out as the first live entertainment tour globally as an investment. 
We didn’t know if we were going to make money or not. If we made money it was still limited at 25% capacity. But the learning that happened when we got together every single week to talk about what happened the prior week, what went right, what we could improve on and improving it for the next week, we are that nimble, now we can change from week to week what we do… We are going to be a much better company coming out of this, and we will be able to do more: to have more shows and have much more capacity for doing what we need to do more efficiently. 

Anything else?
We have gotten so much mail from fans of “Disney on Ice” and Monster Jam, that this is the first time they have been to an event in over a year, and they are never going to forget it.
We have made an indelible impression in the minds of our fans that they are always going to remember the first thing they did as a family after COVID-19. We want to be that memory.