There’s a lot of work and preparation that goes into organizing a festival, especially if you want said festival to be able to reach its full potential. But one of the most important things you have to be able to bring to the table is the ability to create an environment that’s rich with love and passion. Mike Kociela is an entertainment entrepreneur dealing with large-scale productions. Steve Farber speaks to Mike about his experiences setting up these festivals to hit as many of their goals as possible. Looking to organize a festival? Perhaps your journey can begin here!
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The Business Of Festivals With Mike Kociela
It’s my great pleasure to introduce another person who falls into that category of a new friend. Mike Kociela and I met through our mutual friend, Pauline. We sat down, we’re having a drink, we’re having some food. He told me a story and I said, “You have got to come to tell your story to our community at the Extreme Leadership Experience.” He said, “I don’t know what that is but sign me up.” To give you a little background, Mike once upon a time and still to this day, professionally, is a musician. He had a band called New World Spirit on Universal Records. He has over the years, transitioned into this amazing business where he produces these ginormous festivals of tens of thousands of people. One of the things that struck me about this is that in the festivals that he has produced and put on they’ve never had any incidents involving the police, no violence. By all measures, everyone has been perfect. How do you act with that many people? Let’s find out. Please welcome, Mike Kociela.
I’m probably the most surprised that I’m standing up here right now because when I met Steve, what I do falls right into the category of leap. I didn’t even realize it. I’ve been doing this for 22 years. I’m a festival producer and self-employed. My philosophy towards producing ginormous large events is from a place of love. I didn’t even realize it. I called it passion. It was my passion or passion for the project. It’s my first day I’ve been involved with this organization. Coming up here, sitting in and listening to everybody, I was like, “Now I know why I’m here and why Steve saw that and what I do.”
Thank you for having me. I’m very honored to be here and to speak with you. I produce very large festivals. This is Fair Saint Louis. It is under The Arch. It’s on Independence Day. It’s 500,000 people and believe it or not, I am the adult-in-charge at this thing which is crazy because it all comes back to me. We deal with every level of security from the FBI, CIA, Homeland Security, Coast Guard, Air Traffic Controllers. We shut down airspace. We shut down the Mississippi River and we throw a big party with booze underneath The Arch. As Steve said, which was my crux to my thing and you blew it.
I have been doing this for 22 years and even at this festival, I’ve never had an arrest on our footprint. It didn’t dawn on me until about ten years into it. I was talking to the captain of the police department and he was like, “You run a tight ship. We’ve never even had a call in.” I was like, “That’s cool.” It kept going on and kept going on. I didn’t realize why until I started thinking about the way I did things. I was going to show you a few more things that we do. This is the same festival in a different location while the Arch was under renovation. This is a concert tour I did on the beach. This is about 50,000 people. This is an event that I own.A festival is like any other business - there's a goal, a team, and a result. Click To Tweet
I now live in San Diego, but I was originally from St. Louis. This is an event I created called Taste of St. Louis. At its peak downtown, we were at 400,000 people. Again, no incidents, no arrests. This is a Blues Festival that I started in downtown St. Louis, which is the number one blues city in America. This is about 70,000 people at this event. No arrests, everybody happy. A marathon that we produce in total of about 70,000 people. That’s a private party but it’s on the Bush Stadium Grounds and about 20,000 people or so. We booked talent. How do we do this? How do we have all these people in one space and have them working harmoniously together and in a good spirit and without incident and everybody walking away happy and the client being happy.
To get there, I wanted to back up and explain the philosophy of my style, but also how I get to the point of why we would do something like this. A festival is like any other business. It has a goal and there’s a team and then there’s a result. To get to that point of creating this big massive event and doing this business that only takes part over three days, I first meet with clients. I swear we get 2 or 3 calls a week, “I want to do a festival, I want to put on a big show, I want to make a bunch of money or I want to be cool or whatever.” I always sit people down or a client down and I ask them, “Why are you doing it? What’s the goal and what’s the passion behind it? What’s the love behind it?”
I always use the word, passion, but now that I’ve been here, I get it. It’s more than that. It is love because you can’t pull something off to that scale without being pure and authentic. I sit down with our clients and this is the hardest part of what we do, is boiling down the essence of what they want. They don’t normally know what they want. I would say more often than not, I’d say 95% of the time, we talk people out of doing festivals because they’re a huge risk, the full liability. At the end of the day, when they think it’s a great idea, but then they hear that they’re going to liability for people’s lives. When you gather that many people at a festival, that’s a big weight to take on.
I talk people out of it, but for the people who graduate to that next level and they have defined what they want to do with the festival and why they’re doing it and it has a pure purpose, then it’s a matter of getting there, just like any other goal in business. I believe that you can pretty much accomplish anything you want. First, you have to know what you want and then you have to find the path to getting there. I’ve done this with several businesses. I’ve owned five different companies. I sold two of them. Without knowing they did come from a good place. I wanted to build a community and that Taste of St. Louis event that I showed you.
I lived in Downtown St. Louis for many years. I wanted to put eyeballs on what was happening down there with lots of developments. I wanted to gather people in a very open and diverse manner so they could have a good time and see what was cool about downtown St. Louis. Unbeknownst to myself, I was doing it for the right reasons. Later on after a while, I realized why I was doing that. It became easy to find that path. If you’ve got a good goal, all you got to do is find the path to get there. You’ve got to find the ways, things and means to get to that location.
You’ve got to find the tools that you’re going to use to get to that location, which would be in the scheme of doing a big event in downtown or in any city. There’s politics involved, you got to have land, you got to have permits, you got to have a team, you got to have all these people that come together and all these elements, marketing, supplies, vendors and all these things like any other business. You start assembling all of those. That’s part of taking your skills and all the things that you need to follow that path to get to the goal. What I’ve found after many years of being a leader, I’m more of a team member, I’ve never called myself a leader but I’ve realized why I’m successful.
What I do is I’ve been on every side of the business. If the bass player drops dead, I can play bass, I could play drums, I can do the marketing, I could do the voice-overs, I can build the stage, I can do the power. As a leader in business, it’s your duty to know everything about it. I’m not saying you wouldn’t take input or keep learning from your teammates, but when you’re sitting idle like it’s time to lean, time to clean. For me, if it’s time to lean, I want to make sure that I learn more about even my own business because I equate business to a machine. When you’re putting all these parts together, you got to understand that engine or it won’t run right. I try to take all as much knowledge in as I can possibly have so that I can watch this machine run.
If there’s a little problem over here, I can go over and fix it, which is potentially a teammate or a strategy that we’ve employed or the wrong marketing message or whatever. If I know enough about what we’re doing, I can fix it or I can pull in our team and have them fix it because we empower everybody that works with us. To do an event that big, we have to subdivide the duties just like any other business. Even a festival looks like a big party. It is a business. There’s a subdivision of duties, there are people over the kids’ area, the bars, the music. We put good people in place and we empower them to run their area of the event. If they’ve got a problem, they would come to me.It's very important to make thorough job descriptions for the people working with you. Click To Tweet
We have a chain of command so that this ginormous event can happen. Some of the times, it’s funny because I’ll be walking around, I’ll be like, “I didn’t even know that was going on at the event. That’s cool. I’ll take a picture or whatever.” As a leader, it’s super important to know everything about the business and then I can help everybody else be successful. To help everybody else be successful, I build a machine and a way of speaking with everybody. I use Google Docs and it took me eight years to build our system within Google Docs. Everybody has information at all times and they can use it as they want. It’s a great platform for communication.
I also create very thorough job descriptions so that people can take what I want them or need them to do as this big machine is working and they can do it. If they’ve got issues or they want to change something, they can come to me and we can change it and make it work better. If they don’t know what they’re doing, they can’t be successful and we can’t be successful as a group. Communication strategy is super important in managing large scale operations, a festival or a giant corporation. That’s part of the process. As Marcus Lemonis says on The Profit, “It’s process and people.” We bring on the best people.
Now that I live in San Diego, I still fly in my St. Louis crew for all our shows here. I make sure that I have people that know what they’re doing, been doing it forever, have a passion and love for what they’re doing because that then translates to everybody else. It transcends throughout the entire business. If you have a good process with good communication and good people and they’re all happy doing what they’re doing, you’ve got this happy machine and it’s humming along, which brings me to my point is of my process and people of how I build a festival and run it to that scale. About a month out, I’m done. Everything is in place. Everybody knows what they’re going to do.
For the last month, we make little fine tunings, change the oil in the machine, whatever and do little things so that when the event takes place or in a business, every day an event’s taking place in a restaurant or a company or whatever. Our event is three days, so everything leads up to those three days. In regular business, it’s every single day. When that event takes place, it should happen naturally and smoothly. If you’ve built the right machine and fueled it with the right people, it should run. When I get to a festival and everybody’s doing their job and it’s humming along, it’s cool because everybody is being successful. That creates this happy machine. Everybody’s happy. I can sit back, fine-tune it from a distance.
If something does arise, I have the bandwidth, power and time to make adjustments. Even with a big festival, if 500,000 people underneath The Arch on Independence Day with all these people going and it happened in a drink and booze or whatever, we only have one or two odd things pop up. If you’ve done your job, when you get to that point, you should be able to deal with it and then you can. That’s my process of what I do it. As far as my style goes, when you build a city which is a festival which has housing, plumbing and electrical, contractors, signage, wayfinding, police, fire, emergency responders, and all these things, you’re building that machine which is the same as a business.
A festival equates to a business which equates to a city. If you’ve got a nice city and everybody’s happy and everybody’s doing their thing, it’s a good place to be. This is a rehash but for me, I need to have the answers. As a leader, I feel it’s incredibly important that at least you have some answer or you can work to find the answer so you can pull your teammates to find that answer. It’s on me to be the end-all, be-all. I’ve got oddly enough the FBI coming to me asking me questions. I’ve got the answers. It’s because I did my homework and I got everything done in advance. Preparing yourself and your team is so important. Having that structure for everybody working to be successful is at least how I equate doing good business.
Communication strategy is key. That’s on the backside of everything. The thing that got Steve when I was talking to him and said in 22 years, millions of people through our gates on festivals I own and festivals that we manage, I’ve never had an incident. It’s true. I’ve never had an arrest. I’ve never had anybody in handcuffs which is in my business, it’s unheard of. I didn’t realize that was happening, but it’s because I’m also super OCD about how the guests experience the product and the product is the festival. From the second they hear about the festival, they learn what it is, the brand becomes aware to them, and they find out what they’re going to get, say its entertainment or a food festival, that messaging is consistent.
They buy the ticket and they go to the website or whatever, that brand and message stays consistent. They get the ticket, they get in their car and they drive to the festival. They hear a commercial on the radio. That messaging is all consistent. As they approach the venue, there’s parking information. It’s easy for them to enjoy this product that they purchased. They park easily and they walk to the venue. Part of my philosophy is from the second you hear about it to the second you leave the festival and/or the second you learn about a product, you buy the product and experience it, it should be smooth and consistent. They walk up to the gate.Your job is to put people in an environment that is full of love and passion, and is being done for the right reasons. Click To Tweet
It looks the same as the website. It looks, sounds and feels like everything that they were expecting so far. If you’ve seen The Fyre Festival documentary, they didn’t get what they were expecting and that is a painful movie to watch. Two minutes into it, I could hardly take it. It’s important that you deliver what the customer expects. Every moment of encounter with our company, which is from the first time they hear it to the time they walk to the gates, it should be consistent. They walk through the gates and it’s a good experience. As you can see on this picture, it’s 50,000 people. Every tent looks the same, it’s uniform and all the signages are the same.
There are a few crooked ones that are bothering me, but everything that they experienced when they walk onto this footprint, and this was my own a-ha moment was even though I thought I was OCD, it played into the mindset of the customer being on the footprint of this festival. Not only have they experienced everything from the time they bought the ticket to when they got to the gate to when they walk in. Now, they walked into an environment that feels very in control. As soon as they feel that and they experience our team who is also happy and delivering what they’re supposed to be doing, they relax, they calm down, then they can have a good time, they get what they paid for and they get what they expected.
It washes away the anxiety of being in a large environment like this with many people. Even with that density of the crowd, we still had no issues. That’s three days straight for fourteen city blocks and we still had no issues. It’s because when you walk into an environment or your experiencing a product that feels in control, you’re in control. I say, “My OCD has paid off because now people can relax and enjoy it.” If they were the ones that did something out of the norm, it’s going to stick out. That’s what kept people from being stupid at an event and doing stupid things and causing chaos. They walk into an environment that’s very controlled or they’re experiencing a product that is exactly what they expected in a quality product.
It’s like, “There was good thought put into this and love put into this product and everybody cares.” My uniformity in my approach to symmetrical footprints and everything pays off because in the end, it makes people feel relaxed and then they can have a good time. That is what wound up being my success, which then leads to my everlasting goal of creating an environment that is in control, intuitive, people can come onto the footprint. They don’t have to guess where they’re at. They don’t get mad or upset. They walk onto the footprint and they know what’s going on. They feel good and they can have a good time. It’s enjoyable for everybody. When I say for everybody, I mean everybody.
From the person picking up the waste at the event to our top sponsor, everybody has the same experience because they’re in an environment that is full of love, full of passion, being done for the right reasons. It’s relaxed and they can be relaxed and have a good time so it maximizes their experience as well. I’m going to take a sidebar for a second because if you design a festival correctly and it’s symmetrical and you design it well, it’s a lot less expensive to host that festival. That one under The Arch, that’s about a $3.5 million deal over three days. The more efficient we can make it and the more symmetrical we can make and the more predictable we can make it, the cost goes down because it’s a very high-risk business.
It’s important that when you’re designing your business system and you’re wanting to spit out these great predictable results that it is well-designed and it gives you the result you’re expecting and you can always make tweaks. What will it do? It’ll create an environment that is calm, smooth and efficient. Everyone will feel the love, passion and respect. That’s the biggest thing that I always make sure that I do when I’m on-site at an event from start to finish. I’m always the first one there and the last one to leave. I buy myself time by being prepared well in advance. If somebody is picking up trash, I pick up the trash. I have moved 8,000 porta johns in my day and I’m the owner of the event.
I like doing it because they know that I want to have the time and I’m calm enough and I’m in a position where I could do that, but also it’s respect. I will do every job it takes on-site, so that everybody knows that we’re all in this together because it is a team effort. That starts with respect. With that machine built, the client and the customer get way more than they expected. They’re surprised because a lot of festivals or a lot of businesses, the end result and the client experience is secondary to money. For me, it’s all about the client. It’s all about the experience. The Taste of St. Louis Event, I built that from 0 to 250,000 people in four years. I did it by creating a culture that was harmonious and everybody could work together and everybody can win. We always set it up for everybody to win.
With that, it breeds success. Seeing some of the charts that you saw earlier, and now going through today’s experience and seeing everybody talk about how they do it, I was like, “I didn’t know I was doing it right or doing it in this fashion. It’s pretty cool.” I’ve been doing it for many years, but I didn’t know. I did it, hopefully from the right place. I’m a hippie at heart. If I could have hair, it’d be down here. I used to have hair. That’s where it started, with my hippie roots. Positive results become the only results when you set it up for everybody to win. That’s how we did it. In my case, many years of festivals with no arrests or major incidents, happy guests, happy team, happy clients, and happy me. It took me a while to get happy because I was so obsessed with making sure I had a good business.
For the last few years, I’ve been able to sit back and enjoy what we do. We’re still improving every day. In general business, success in reaching the goal. Whatever the company’s goal is, whatever the product is, creating the best product possible. When you have a well-running machine, it gives you the ability to adapt and grow with predictability. You have a happy team which I keep hearing is the mantra here. Happy workers, happy clients, happy customers and then happy you. That’s always the goal because life is short and we should all be happy. The following leap is the way to go in business because you’re going to make your team happy, you’re going to make your customers happy. At the end of the day, you’re going to be happy.
There’s something that strikes me about this. As we think back and the people you’ve heard from so far and you heard some of these. We heard from an engineering consulting firm, architecture consulting firm, OAC. We heard from a collections agency, a shipping and logistics company, a greeting card company, which on the surface seems like completely different businesses and now you come along and say, “This is how I do a festival.” It’s like, “That sounds familiar almost.” What strikes me about this and did it from our very first conversation is when you put a festival together and this is both the statement and the question.
I’m not sure that I have it right. What you’re doing in effect is you’re building a city for a defined period of time. Everything that you do from the registration to the signage, everything that happens is by design. That all creates a culture. A culture that’s going to happen for the next few days. My question is if we look at that as an example for a business that’s not around for a few days but that’s around for decades or 100-plus years in some cases, what’s the parallel? Maybe this is not a question for you, it’s a question for everybody. What parallels do you see in what Mike creates for a finite period of time and what we’re all trying to create for a longer period of time?
I can speak to that a little bit. Even though my end result or my business only lasts for three days, it’s a product at the end of the day. Like what you say, all the different companies that are here, it’s all the same thing, it’s just a different product. If we’re creating an environment that creates a successful harmonious machine and product, it’s the same thing as what I’m doing. It’s all the same thing. For me, it comes down to respect. If you’re respecting everybody around you, then it’s unlimited what you can do with that.
That’s got to be a common universal theme. If you go a little bit further into the mechanics of it, here’s the parallel that I saw. You are creating, you have the experience that you’re trying to create the product. Everything that you do, every sign that you put up and every place that you put it and every element on the schedule and all that what you call OCD stuff is designed to help you achieve that goal, that ‘why’ for that particular. To me, that sounds an awful lot and you people from American Greetings, tell me if I’m wrong. It sounds an awful lot like the Creative Studio project.
Everything in that building and American Greetings is designed to produce the effect that that company wants, that culture wants. The elements of it are different. In other words, let’s take the exact signage that you use at your festivals and let’s apply that here. Let’s take the same principle which is that every detail from the way we communicate with each other and respect each other to the way the environment is built and structured, all of that should serve the values and the why and the purpose that we all stand for.
You’re gathering people that are like-minded, whether it’s around music or food. There are heavy metal concerts and when you go to those shows, if done right, they have their own brand set. If you go to a country show, it has its own brand set. It’s all the same elements but it’s skinned and branded different ways so that when the people who you’re targeting and your target demographic come into the play, they feel comfortable in that environment and they know it’s for them. That’s what they’re paying for. That authentic experience and authenticity is key nowadays in festivals. For the most part, festivals are going to start shrinking. The industry is going smaller. The explosive growth of the mega festival is pretty much over. The unique branded experiences in the 10,000 to 15,000-person range is where it’s at. It’s because they want more, they want that experience that is very catered to their own being and their emotions. When you create that environment, it’s professional and it’s uniform, you can deliver what they expect.
You were also the Founder of the National Blues Museum in St. Louis.
Blues music, not hockey.
Tell us a little bit about the project you’re working on now.
I did sell my companies back in the Midwest. I only own two festivals in San Diego. My new project is the Museum of Beer in Downtown San Diego, in East Village. My homie of 26 years, Anton, is the Executive Director of the Museum of Beer. You’re the largest group that’s ever heard about this. It’s going to be in East Village and it’s dedicated to the history of craft beer in San Diego, which is the number one craft beer city in the world. It will also explore what beer is and how it gets to you and the different flavor profiles. It will be the only brick and mortar tourist destination for beer tourism.
About Mike Kociela
Mike Kociela is an entrepreneur at heart. For the past 30 years, he has built a wide portfolio of successful brands and entertainment-based businesses. His story began on the road, touring as a professional musician signed by Universal Records before launching one of the largest entertainment agencies in the country. He has raised and facilitated more than $100 million dollars in sponsor partnerships for his festivals and has produced numerous high-profile marketing tours.
Based in San Diego, California, Mike currently owns and operates Westward Entertainment, which focuses on large scale event production, brand management, sports entertainment, and content-driven social marketing. He is also the Founder and Creator of the National Blues Museum in St. Louis, Missouri—a 23,000-square-foot, $14 million dollar educational facility dedicated to telling the entire story of modern American music.