Juliette Feld Grossman moved to Sarasota from Chicago in late July with her husband and two young children just as red tide hit the coast. Neither the heat nor the algae bloom seemed to bother her. In fact, she’s cheerfully become a Floridian. “I was joking this morning that I already need to call pest control again,” she said on a day in late August.
But Grossman has other issues on her mind. As the chief operating officer of Palmetto-based Feld Entertainment, the world’s largest live family entertainment company with 3,000 employees and shows in more than 75 countries, she is leading Feld’s strategic plan for the future.
By some measures, 2018 has been a transitional year for Feld. It is the first full year without the 146-year-old Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Feld’s first property in the entertainment business (purchased from John Ringling North in 1967) and one that was synonymous with Feld Entertainment. The company owns eight other well-known brands, including Disney On Ice, Monster Jam and Sesame Street Live.
The circus held its final show in May 2017. Saying goodbye to the clowns, the daring young men and women on the flying trapeze, the roaring lions and smell of popcorn was gut-wrenching for the performers and everyone else in the company. But it was foreseeable. Changing tastes in entertainment, declining attendance and high operating costs had taken their toll for years. And after Feld took circus elephants out of the show in 2016 due to fierce battles with animal rights activists, ticket sales plummeted.
But the absence of the circus also means space for growth, and 2018 has shaped up to be a year of new ventures that is keeping Feld the giant in the family show industry. “Everybody’s looking for the biggest demographic they can get,” says Linda Decker, founder and senior editor of VenuesNow, a magazine that tracks the live entertainment industry. “Feld builds an audience from children to teens to parents and grandparents. If you look at the numbers they draw, Feld is No. 1. Nobody builds a venue without going to Feld and asking them, ‘What can we do to make your life better?’”
Grossman’s daily presence is another one of 2018’s big shifts. Her father, Kenneth Feld, the CEO, has made no secret of his succession plan. He has carefully prepared his three daughters in every facet of the company so they can take over. Grossman, 35, is the youngest daughter and, as COO, the daughter who’s sitting in the office next to her father. Alana and Nicole Feld, both executive vice presidents, live in New York and travel to Palmetto regularly.
But for now, it’s Grossman who daily walks through the doors of Feld Entertainment Studios, the 580,000-square-foot building off U.S. 301 in Palmetto. She looks tiny as she speeds down an enormous hallway lined with old circus posters. The sight of those promotional posters delivers a jolt of sadness, but it’s also a reminder of how the circus remains ever-present here. “Ringling Brothers is part of our ethos,” Grossman says. It’s apparent as she stops off at the gigantic costume shop, where 10,000 color-coded sequined outfits—most of them circus costumes—hang on rows of racks that stretch from one end of the room to the other.
Grossman, who is warm, open and energetic with a ready laugh, grew up with these costumes. Raised outside Washington, D.C., where corporate headquarters were located until Feld moved its operations to Palmetto in 2012, she spent school vacations at rehearsals and shows and thought nothing of seeing circus animals and performers close up. “When you’re growing up, you don’t have a barometer to know how different that is,” she says. “I didn’t know it was unusual to have an elephant come to the house for your birthday party or to take a whole class to Disney On Ice for a meet-and-greet with Belle and the Beast.”
Grossman and her sisters were the perfect test market for their father. As young girls, they stayed up late in Las Vegas to watch the new Siegfried & Roy shows and attended Feld’s Clown College graduation performances. Feld would give his daughters books with all the faces of the clowns. “I remember getting to write notes during the graduation about which clowns I thought were funny and which costumes or tricks I liked,” Grossman says. Her father then used the notes to gauge which acts worked best. On one occasion, he liked the pattern of one of Grossman’s outfits as a kid and it turned up in circus costumes the next year.
But even though the sisters were surrounded by show business, Feld, 70, wanted each daughter to find her own passion. “I never worked outside this company,” he says. “Maybe it was somewhat of an insecurity.”
Feld’s father, Irving Feld, died suddenly in 1984 when Feld was 35, and although he had been working there since the day after he graduated from college, he was not ready to take over the company. “I didn’t want my daughters to have to live through what it took me to figure out and get comfortable with,” he says. “It took me a decade, from 1984 to 1994. I wanted them to have the confidence to be contributors.”
The daughters followed his advice. Nicole, 40, worked as a photo editor at People magazine before joining Feld in 2001. She’s now in charge of Disney On Ice, Sesame Street Live! and Supercross. Alana, 38, worked in advertising and media research before joining the company in 2003. She oversees corporate and family governance and manages the Feld Family Foundation. Juliette, who, in a Washington Post article is described as the most bookish and organized (she reportedly scripted her wedding minute by minute) did her undergraduate work at the University of Chicago, worked in public relations and then got an M.B.A. from Emory University before joining the company in 2010. “We all carry on the family legacy,” says Grossman.
Feld says he also made sure his daughters “were as prepared as possible in his estate plan.” According to Forbes’ annual list of the world’s richest people, the estate is significant. Forbes listed Feld’s worth at $2.5 billion.
Feld says Grossman had a desire to earn the COO position. “She had a great education in the humanities and then got an M.B.A.,” he says. “She was well qualified and organized and fascinated with process. That’s very important here.”
As Grossman conducts a tour of Feld studios, which includes on-site design and fabrication, rehearsal space and all the administrative support services, it’s clear she also takes pride in the family legacy. The company is a one-stop-shop operation, she says, and she knows the company from the tiniest sequin up to the huge Monster Jam trucks to many of the 600 Palmetto-based employees, some of whom have worked at Feld since she was born. She pauses at the costume department where a red costume for Sebastian (the crab) from The Little Mermaid and a cowboy suit for Woody in Toy Story are hanging in preparation for skaters who will wear them in Disney On Ice productions. The weight of every sequin has to be factored in by the tailors and seamstresses, so skaters can perform, Grossman says.
At a cavernous 50,000-square-foot space that includes an ice rink, skaters are rehearsing. Grossman looks at a treasure chest and notes the wooden pegs holding it together to show the craftsmanship and attention to detail. Every show, she says, is built in Feld’s scenic shop, and everything has to be designed to come apart and go back together. In the warehouse where Monster Jam trucks are built and repaired, Grossman knows the names of the trucks and understands how they’re dismantled and transported to different arenas.
“Every element of detail goes into making sure the audience has the best time,” she says. “That’s what we do when it comes down to it. The focus is always on making sure people have a good time.”
And that is an ever-changing formula. Computer games and smart phones have changed children’s attention spans and their need to interact instead of passively watch shows.
To that end, Grossman is concentrating on making shows more interactive. The new Disney On Ice show called Mickey’s Search Party has characters that walk through the audience. Sesame Street Live! has a preshow where a select number of ticket buyers can walk on Sesame Street. Fans vote for the Monster Truck they want to win.
And for the first time in its history, Feld has opened a show in a fixed location across from Carnegie Hall in New York City. Called Trolls the Experience, it’s an interactive production where kids will be able to dress up like trolls, scrapbook (apparently that’s a favorite pastime for trolls), create music, dance and play touchscreen games. Next year, Feld opens Jurassic Live, which uses the latest in animatronics and projection mapping so that audiences feel like they’re on a jungle island with life-size dinosaurs.
The company won’t reveal revenues, but VenuesNow reports that Feld puts on more than 5,000 shows annually with tickets prices ranging from $15 to $40. Monster Jam, for example, drew 200,000 to five shows in Anaheim, California, this year. The company also takes money in from concessions and sponsorships and sells toys. (They sold 30,000 24-volt battery-powered Grave Digger trucks at nearly $400 a piece at Walmart last Christmas.)
It’s a complicated business, says Feld. “First quarter 2019, we’ll have 28-30 shows simultaneously in 28 to 30 cities around the world,” he says. “If we were in the movie business we’d spend two years planning and making a film and then the film would come out and you’re making prints. Everything we do is a one-off. The scariest thing is we’re selling tickets to events that we haven’t even created yet.”
Feld says he still loves the business and has no retirement date in mind. “But it’s great to see my daughters in the business,” he says. “The future is up to them, not me.”
Grossman doesn’t seem daunted. The only sleepless nights she confesses to are when her two young children keep her up. And in some ways, the job is less stressful than when she was in Chicago.
“The big difference for me is that I was commuting down here for so many years, and you can’t be in two places at once. It was hard for me to be away from my family and hard to be working remotely for the business. Now in the morning, I get to be with my family. [Her husband is in the wine and spirits distribution business and still commutes to Chicago.] Then I come here, and I’m engaged throughout the day and then get to go home and be with them in the evening.”
And sometimes, just like her father used to do, she brings her children with her to work to watch rehearsals and she regularly takes them to shows. At a Monster Jam season kick-off event in September, Grossman said her son’s first word was Megalodon, the name of a Monster Truck.
The fourth generation is waiting in the wings.