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'We're reimagining the circus': Feld Entertainment CEO

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Feld Entertainment Chairman & CEO, Kenneth Feld, joins 'Influencers with Andy Serwer' to discuss the reopening of Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey circus.

Video transcript

ANDY SERWER: In this episode of "Influencers," Feld Entertainment Chairman and CEO Kenneth Feld.

KENNETH FELD: People want entertainment, and they want affordable entertainment, and we can bring it to them. The one-hit wonders, you have as much effort and energy into something that is a one-shot. If you can build something for a lifetime, you've really got something.

I think what it is, it's people watching other people that they can relate to as humans, but then, when they see what these people do these amazing things, they go, wow, how would I be able to do that?

[THEME MUSIC]

ANDY SERWER: Hello, everyone, and welcome to "Influencers." I'm Andy Serwer. And welcome to our guest, Kenneth Feld, CEO of Feld Entertainment. Kenneth, nice to see you.

KENNETH FELD: Thank you. Great to see you, Andy.

ANDY SERWER: So I want to talk to you about all your properties and all the different kinds of businesses and shows that you put on, but we really have to start with the iconic Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. And you're bringing this back next year, but it's a little bit different from what people may know historically. Talk to us about that, Kenneth.

KENNETH FELD: Yeah. Ringling Brothers Barnum Bailey is the ultimate family entertainment icon across America. So we're 151 years old. We're bringing it back in the fall of 2023. And it will be a completely redesigned show. A lot of the things-- when we closed in 2017, we were working with, really, a 146-year-old business model. And we had two mile-long trains. We had a school. We had restaurants, all these things.

And we decided that we wanted to streamline it and take all of those types of-- where we were spending a lot of money that the consumer never saw to function and rethink it, modernize it, and come back with the new Ringling, the Greatest Show on Earth, for today and tomorrow's kids, parents, and grandparents.

ANDY SERWER: Right. Now, there are no elephants. There's no animals in the show. That's one big difference. And how will you be able to make the show as captivating as it was before without the critters?

KENNETH FELD: The-- the thing about Ringling has always been about the people. And I-- I started in-- really, it was 1969. And I was going all over the world looking for talent. And what impressed me more than anything were circus people and their stories. And they're incredible, because they're people that are like all of us, but they rehearse, they have a discipline, and they create these incredible feats where, many times, they're risking their lives, whether it's a high wire, flying trapeze, or different skills, to-- to perfection. But it's something-- they all have other talents. It's not just the one thing, even though they dedicate their lives to entertaining people in a way that is pretty unique, but it is global.

So we're going to tell their stories while you're there. So there'll be a real emotional connection that families will have with the performers, and then everybody will get to know them in an incredible way, the way I've gotten to know them over a half a century.

ANDY SERWER: Right. So there was criticism by animal rights activists, I guess, that sort of led to your decision not to have animals there, number one. And number two, is it going to be a little bit like the Cirque Du Soleil? I mean, you're going to have the traditional clowns and trapeze artists, but is it going to be a little bit more like that? Those two points, please.

KENNETH FELD: It's really going to be something that we're reimagining. And we're focusing on families. And we're focusing on connections between the performers and the audience.

And if you think about it, by the time we go out, it'll be 6 and 1/2, 7 years of not seeing Ringling. So it's a whole new generation of kids, a new generation of parents, and actually a new generation of grandparents that can go together to have a great experience.

And it'll be a show or production that will be mind-blowing. And it will have all the tenets that we've always had, which are the humor, the whimsy, the wow factor, the thrill factor. And it'll be something that is relatable to everybody.

And if you think about it, humor is quite different today. So the humor-- what kids laugh at today is quite different than what they laughed at probably 40 years ago. And so everything will be updated. And the presentation of it will bring you into the fold.

And you'll be able to get an emotional connection with the performers as you follow them through the show. And it'll be a give and take between the audience and the performers. And I think it'll be a really unique way to experience a brand new type of family entertainment.

ANDY SERWER: And why did it take so long? I mean, I'm sure the pandemic had something to do with that, but you were closed down, wanted to revamp things, even before that.

KENNETH FELD: That's true. And actually, we were planning to come back in 2021. When the pandemic hit in 2020, March of 2020, unfortunately, being in the live entertainment business, we were completely shut down. And we had tours literally all over the world.

So we thought we'd take the extra time in rethinking everything about our company, actually. And if you think about it and what we talked about with the senior team was we're basically a 150-year-old startup. And we can make it-- anything that we didn't have the time for because we were so involved in the operations.

And so we did that. And it was really something. Rarely, in the-- in business, do you get an opportunity to do that. So we took a deep, hard look at all of our businesses and came back, I think, stronger than ever. We were the first live touring entertainment in the world to go out at the end of 2020, in November of 2020. And that was first, initially, with Disney on Ice and with our Monster Jam productions.

But in addition to that, we were the first sport-- because we have Monster Energy Supercross-- the first sport in the pandemic to finish and complete the season. And we did the last seven races in Salt Lake City-- with no live audience, but with the television audience. But we learned a lot from all of these different things early on so that we figured out how we could revamp in this new world that we're living in, and especially with touring entertainment.

ANDY SERWER: Yeah, you talked about some of your other properties and businesses, and we do want to get into that. But I think that's really interesting when you're talking about the learnings that you guys were able to glean from conversations, I'm sure, with health experts, but also with executives who run the different venues.

Talk about what those conversations were like, Kenneth. And where do you think things stand today with regard to getting back to live events in this country?

KENNETH FELD: Well, I know from-- at least from the Feld Entertainment side, we've seen incredible pent-up demand. And it's been extraordinary, and not just because we go and we put on shows, but I would go there, and the energy from the audience was almost like a relief. They have been waiting two years to come to see something where they could come, as families, share the experience. And I think the level of audience appreciation is greater than anything I've ever seen in my life.

ANDY SERWER: Yeah, so I want to ask you-- I mean, everyone's gotten so wedded to our devices, to digital communication, to digital entertainment. Is there really a future for live events and for live entertainment?

KENNETH FELD: Absolutely, more than ever. And I think we all realized this during the pandemic. And we were doing the Zoom calls and all the remote calls and everything else. And it's all two-dimensional. No matter how great it is, it's two-dimensional. What we provide is a three-dimensional experience. And I was more positive than I'd ever been to know, when we came back-- and it's one of the reasons we wanted to be one of the first live entertainment entities to return because the pent-up demand.

People missed-- we realized how we missed the actual socialization of what it is to go out and share these live experiences in real time. And there's always been an emotional level that the audience gets from live entertainment that you don't get on a screen or remotely.

And I think that was missed maybe as much as anything else, even if we didn't recognize it at the time. We're seeing the results of that, not only in business but in the way people feel about it. And we get so many comments, and we get emails, and people go on our website and they just go, thank you for reopening, for coming back so we could share something with our family.

And I think that's what we're about. It's all family entertainment. And that's everything that we do. And I think it's something that is never going away. We're always going to be people. And yes, there will be the metaverse and there will be all of these other things, but there will never be a real substitute for live entertainment.

ANDY SERWER: One thing you guys seem to be pretty good at is partnering with other organizations. You just mentioned a couple of them. I mean, the Disney on Ice-- so you work with the Walt Disney Company, obviously. Marvel, you work with. You work with Sesame Street. How do you engender those kinds of relationships from a business standpoint, Kenneth?

KENNETH FELD: Our whole philosophy and being a privately-owned family business, I think, maybe is a little-- it helped because we look at everything with a long-term view. Our Disney relationship with Disney on Ice started 41 years ago. And we've played to, over that time, probably pretty close to 400 million people around the world. And we operate in 75 countries.

So it's been an incredible relationship with the Disney Company. And it's really because we love what we do. We treat their intellectual property like it's ours. We care about it. We have the respect for it. And I think that's been one of the keys to our success is the respect for other people's IP in the same way that we have respect for ours, whether it's Ringling or Monster Jam or Supercross, which-- things that we actually own.

And so it's been good. It's non-conflictive, and it allows us to do things in different ways. Because especially today-- and you've got the prices of gasoline-- we bring the entertainment to your backyard, basically. We're playing all the stadiums, all the arenas, all over the world.

And so it is a way to get a localized feeling for-- whether it's the Disney Company, whether it's Monster Jam, whatever it may be. And I think that's important because we bring it to-- to the people. And I think that's a big differentiator with our company because we focus on the live entertainment and we take it all over the world, wherever it may be.

ANDY SERWER: You know, I'm thinking about Disney on Ice and the length of that relationship. It is one very specific type of entertainment, which is the skating. Have you ever talked to them about, what if the Disney characters played basketball? What if they played volleyball? What if you have-- I mean, just, there's all kinds of things you could do with them, right?

KENNETH FELD: There is, and there has been over the years, and we continue to. And our shows are Disney on Ice, but they have a lot of aerial work in them.

And if you think about it, look back, our foundation is Ringling, is the Greatest Show on Earth. And there's a saying, of Ringling Brothers Barnum Bailey, "nothing is impossible." And when you see what the people do-- and so we've brought that-- that feeling of entertainment into everything that we do. So they may ice skate, but they may be aerialists as well. And that's always been the way we've operated.

And the same thing-- we've done that and brought it to all different types of IP that we have or-- or that we have through other companies.

ANDY SERWER: And how did you get into monster trucks? I mean, obviously, it's the big-- the venues is the common denominator. But tell us that story.

KENNETH FELD: In 2008-- I had seen Monster Jam before, and it was a great idea, and it was a good show. And it was owned by Live Nation. So found out they wanted to sell it, and wound up getting involved in the-- the business side of that and-- and a bid. And we acquired Monster Jam Supercross in 2008, ironically, about a week before that recession started.

And we've built it over the years. And we now operate globally with Monster Jam. Supercross has grown. And we've continued to grow these valuable franchises. And that's what we like to do.

Because my theory is, the one-hit wonders, you have as much effort and energy into something that is a one-shot. If you can build something for a lifetime, you've really got something. And there's a legacy. And it's something that people look forward to every year.

But the great thing is we've been able to constantly improve what we've done because we're sort of relentless in that. And we-- our whole focus is on the consumer. What we want to do is make families that come to our shows happy. We want to create a conversation in the car ride home so that they have something to talk about. They may like different things in any of the shows, but they each have a point of view.

And I think it's something great. And I think, in many ways, this kind of family entertainment is lacking around the world.

ANDY SERWER: Speaking of the consumer, I want to ask you some questions about the economy, Kenneth, because we're starting to see some strains there. Obviously there's inflation. There's talk about a recession. And you have to price those tickets. I'm wondering if you've had to change your business model or your thinking this year in terms of inflation or consumer fears about a slowing economy.

KENNETH FELD: Well, we definitely have. And I mean, I think, for us, the transportation side, the supply chain, has been issues. And as we go internationally, we have a half a dozen tours out now, outside the US, it's very challenging.

But the one thing that we've always done is we-- we are priced for families, and we don't want to change that. So what do we do? Hopefully, we'll get more volume. And I think, in times like this-- and you know, I've been with the business over 50 years. I've been through a lot of economic cycles. And I've seen gas prices. And I remember 1982 and all of this.

But people want entertainment and they want affordable entertainment. And we can bring it to them. And if they-- they may forgo some long trip or someplace else, and they'll be at home. But this is something that we bring to them. It's affordable and it's a real value. And we're committed to keeping our pricing affordable.

Another facet of the economy, Kenneth, of course, is labor and finding employees and compensating them. How are you finding that environment right now? Are you having a tough time trying to hire people and retain them?

I think I see a big difference in all of our businesses. So for instance, if you're a professional ice skater, we're the largest employer of professional ice skaters in the world. So we have a place where you can work. And these people want to do that and they want to tour. I think, in the technical positions, it is more difficult.

But what we've tried to do-- and hopefully been successful over the years-- is create a culture within our company. And we have so many multigenerational associates with us. And I know a lot of them when they were kids and their parents worked for us. So I think we try and be a good place-- a good workplace. I mean, I think that's the most important thing. And people want to come to work here. And it's something different. It's unique. And we're flexible, because in today's world, you have to be flexible with everything we can.

But the one thing, when we have shows, we have to have all the people show up. And it's always been that way. And these people are primarily giving up their weekends because that's when most of our business is.

ANDY SERWER: Quick follow-up question there-- how many ice skaters do you typically employ?

KENNETH FELD: We employ, typically-- and it varies throughout the year a little bit-- but with eight shows, it's probably about 500 ice skaters.

ANDY SERWER: Wow. 500 professional ice skaters-- that is a lot, right?

KENNETH FELD: It's a lot, yeah.

ANDY SERWER: I didn't know there were that many. But I guess hockey players are professional ice skaters in a way, too. So there's a lot of them out there as well.

KENNETH FELD: They are.

ANDY SERWER: Do you ever hire any former hockey players?

KENNETH FELD: I think we have had some. I don't remember off the top of my head, but we do. And they typically-- you know, it's a different discipline for ice hockey and for figure skating. But we used to have-- or we have people that do a lot of jumps. And the jumpers typically wear hockey skates so they can go faster and they get a little better lift on that.

ANDY SERWER: There you go. So your business must have been pretty hard hit during the pandemic, getting back to that, because things got shut down. How did you manage the company at that point? Did you have to lay people off? Did you have to cut salaries? What did you tell people? And how did you get through it?

KENNETH FELD: Well, it was the-- the most difficult time in my business life for sure. And we got hit almost all at once. And it was about March 12. And we had 28 shows around the world and about 3,300 people on all these shows, and we had equipment and people in different parts of the world.

And we had to get-- first and foremost, we had to get the people back to their homes, which we did. And then the equipment, we had to figure out a way to get it back here for the most part, because we couldn't leave containers with a lot of electrical equipment, costumes, and things like that, on a pier for-- we didn't know how long it would be. So that was another challenge that we had. And it was devastating.

And we did lay off a lot of people, and because we had no business at the time. So what we did is the senior team got together and we said, what can we do? How can we get back as soon as possible? What are the ways that we can get back? And how can we do it differently so that we come out of this as a better company? And I did always have a theory that when-- when COVID hit and we got shut down like everyone else, really, in the live entertainment business, anybody that was going to come back, if they thought they were coming back the same way, they weren't going to make it.

And we really revamped everything. And we have been working on different kinds of technology in different areas of our business. And it was a time-- let's do it. And we actually made some investments in technology to upgrade us so when we came back, we could come back in a better-- better space. And I think that was it.

And it was grueling to come to work every day for that period of time. Because I-- you know, we have the people, and they have families. And there wasn't anyone that was exempt from the COVID. Even if they didn't get COVID, it was what was happening.

And it was really, at that point, I had to be positive. And I always felt that we were going to come back great. And there was always going to be a demand for what we're doing. It wasn't going away. We just didn't know when it would come back. And so that's really how it evolved.

And I must say we couldn't have done it without the team that we did and everybody really working together. So it changed the culture a little bit. And I would say in better ways for the company. And now we have a very bright future, a bright outlook, and business has been extraordinary over the past year.

ANDY SERWER: Perhaps you've benefited from the fact that you're a private company, as you said, Kenneth. And you've got the third-generation, the company founded by your father, Irvin, you joined the company, as you said, your daughters work there now in executive positions. What is it like having a family-run enterprise at scale like this? And what are the upsides and maybe some downsides too?

KENNETH FELD: I think, for me, it's the most gratifying thing. Because you know, I think, when we had little kids-- I now have seven grandchildren, but when my daughters were young, they would spend so much time at the circus, at Disney on Ice, whatever it was. This is how they grew up.

And it-- it has something. It's almost like a magnetic pull and a love that we have for everything that we do. And I think I was gratified that they wanted to come in the business. And it's difficult. And I admire them for that. And they've done extraordinary jobs.

And you know, I must say they bring a different point of view to the business than I had. They're a different generation. And it's the right thing for the long term for the company to have a lot of more youthful thought than what I have. I've been there. They can ask me about history, but they've really helped take it to a very new place.

ANDY SERWER: Kenneth, what do you think it is about the circus that resonates so deeply with human beings? I mean, this goes back hundreds, maybe thousands of years, right?

KENNETH FELD: It does. And the other thing, they may call it something different in every country, but every country in the world has circus. They may call it acrobatics, they may call it something else, but it-- when you get down to it, it's circus.

I think what it is, it's people watching other people that they can relate to as humans, but then when they see what these people do, these amazing things, they go, wow, how would I be able to do that?

And one of the things, with Ringling, as we bring it back now, we're taking that, and instead of just coming to your city once a year, our goal is to be a 365-day-attraction franchise, for want of something better. Because first of all, there are all kinds of youth circuses around the country. We're going to affiliate with a lot of them so that we can touch you on a regular basis. Because the more interest there is and it's aspirational, the more people are going to want to do it and stay involved.

And it can hit you-- the circus covers everything, and Ringling does. And whether it's from an art point of view, whether it's a physical point of view, whether it's humor, it's something that everyone can relate to on different levels. And each of those aspects is what we want to bring to you every single day of the year.

ANDY SERWER: You have a pretty big facility down there on the Gulf Coast of Florida, near Sarasota and Naples. How big is it? And what do you guys do there?

KENNETH FELD: So we have a 47-acre campus. We have-- the main building is 580,000 square feet. And we have-- to give you a point of reference, we have two rehearsal halls. Each have larger floor space than Madison Square Garden. We have more hanging capacity for equipment in each of those rehearsal spaces than any other venue in America.

So we train everybody. We-- we rehearse here. But we-- more than that, we fabricate. We have a costume shop. We have over 12,000 costumes. We have dinosaurs that we've built for our Jurassic World live tour which goes out in September. And it's incredible. You go by, and you think it's the real deal.

We have Monster Jam. So we have the whole shop here. One of the aspects of Monster Jam is there's a lot of damage every week. I will tell you that. And so we're fixing trucks constantly, but we're building them. And every single piece of that truck is fabricated here. The tires-- we have a tire partner, BKT, in India. And we've engineered monster truck tires with them to get the most and the best performance out of all the trucks.

We have Monster Jam University, where we teach people to become monster truck drivers for Monster Jam. And that's a rigorous schedule. And we've been on a mission, over the past several years, to bringing in-- before, there was no way in. So now, with the University, we can train everybody. We can train people that maybe were never in this business that wanted to be, that were thrilled, as kids, with Monster Jam. Now they can become part of it. It never existed before.

So we have women. We have a great amount of diversity in all the drivers. And they're great personalities. Because again, everything we do-- it's wonderful to see all the effects-- it relates to people. It's the live people that come to see us. And it's the live people that perform these incredible feats.

ANDY SERWER: If you have any openings for monster truck drivers, let me know. I am-- I'm ready to sign up. OK?

KENNETH FELD: We have a simulator. You can come down here and try it out.

ANDY SERWER: All right. I'll see if I like it, and then maybe I can apply. Final question-- you have had an incredible career developing all these different properties and businesses. What are you most proud of, Kenneth?

KENNETH FELD: I think I'm most proud of, when I go to one of the shows, and I see the audience, everybody's happy. And I think that's something that, more than anything, should be the legacy of what we do, is we're bringing families together for a happy experience. Doesn't happen a lot in today's world.

ANDY SERWER: Kenneth Feld, CEO of Feld Entertainment. Thank you so much for your time.

KENNETH FELD: Thank you.

ANDY SERWER: You've been watching "Influencers." I'm Andy Serwer. We'll see you next time.

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