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Universal Fairs' Mark Lovell Talks Fairs and Retirement

5/24/2013

By Austin Rooney

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As large groups of fairgoers exit the fairground after a long day of entertainment, the conversation is usually centered around the best and worst experiences they had attending the fair. Little do they know, if they were attending a fair run by Universal Fairs, there is a good chance that CEO Mark Lovell is mingling with people near the main gate, listening for opinions on the fair his company has produced.

"I hang out incognito and try to figure out what their reviews of my fairs are," said Lovell. "I get tons of great reviews, but I also get complaints."

Lovell said he doesn't take the complaints personally. Instead, he uses them as a way to find out how he can improve future fairs, and tries to fix any problem they bring up. Each day one of his fairs operates, he spends hours dedicated to this type of research.
For Lovell, the fair industry is more than just a way to make money. He is dedicated to making his as fun for patrons as they can be, and above all, having fun while doing it.

As the owner of  an independent fair production company which operates a multitude of different fairs and shows every year all of the country, Lovell tries not to overcomplicate the primary task of Universal Fairs. "It's pretty basic. You produce a good product, get the word out, be frugal in spending money, and make more than you spend," said Lovell. "It's all common sense."

Lovell was not always one of the biggest names in the fair industry. In fact, ten years ago Lovell was not even a part of the industry. That changed when he attended a fair he didn't like, and had a feeling that he could have run it better. This led to Lovell starting the Delta Fair near Memphis, Tennessee in 2007, an event which has become very successful.

Today, Lovell said he still runs his business in the same way as when it started. Universal Fairs may also take over an existing event by giving the owners of the fair a guaranteed amount of money  for the right to operate event and then commence the planning, funding, advertising, and operation of the fair itself.

Many of the fairs Universal Fairs operates are large, costly to operate and ultimately; lucrative. However, as proof of how passionate he is about fairs, Lovell also operates some not-so profitable fairs in order to keep them alive. One of those fairs is the King County Fair in Enumclaw, WA.

"The King County Fair is the oldest fair west of the Mississippi River, and they were going to shut it down," said Lovell. "It's got a lot of history, a lot of memories, and we felt like we had the ability to save it, so we did."

Universal Fairs still runs the King County Fair, and will continue to do so until another company offers to step up and devote more time to it. Until then, Lovell said he does not want to see the fair go.

This Spring, Universal Fairs ran the Georgia State Fair in Macon, GA and the Ostrich Festival in Chandler, AZ.  While these events are usually a success for Universal, Lovell said an unexpected weekend of rain and cold weather tampered with the Ostrich Festival this year, keeping attendance down. Still, even with that bad news, Lovell said he is optimistic about future fairs.

"We just paid our bills and went home," said Lovell. "So what? That's OK. That's just the way it is. We'll make our money back next year."
Lovell admits that weather plays a big part in a successful fair, but cannot be controlled. Instead, he focuses on the factors he can control, such as advertising.

"We try to hit on every type of media for advertising," said Lovell. "The thing about the fair industry is that everyone is a customer. All ages, all races, all genders, all income levels, everybody enjoys the fair. When you ask 'who is our target audience' it's anyone who wants to have a good time."

Universal Fairs also operates a Facebook page, which has over 30,000 "likes." For each event, a separate page is created and manned by a tech-savvy local hired by Universal.

However large Universal Fairs becomes, Lovell has always made it a point to try to visit all of his fairs while they operate, even opting to take along his daughter and ride the rides together. He considers himself "hands-on," a sentiment that is proven by his willingness to go out of his way to try to satisfy random guest's complaints next to the main gate.

"I want to make sure everything is running the way I want it to run," Lovell said. "I have a lot of great people helping me out, so I don't have to go to all of my fairs, but I still try to."

Lovell's main concern when running a fair always comes down to having fun. He said he can be "selfish" in picking the entertainment for his fairs, many times booking bands that he enjoys so he can sit backstage and watch them perform. He said he also avoids working with anyone who he deems "unpleasant."

"I work with people who are fun to do business with. If they aren't fun to do business with, I don't do business with them," said Lovell. "There's no reason to do business with people who are unpleasant."

When asked about the future of his company, and his plans for retirement, Lovell had a unique answer.

"I consider myself retired right now. If you enjoy what you do, it's not work. And the definition of retirement is not working. So I am retired," said Lovell.

Lovell also offered some advice for others trying to achieve the same level of success and enjoyment out of their job.

"Anyone can make money if they just get off their lazy, well, you fill in the blank," joked Lovell.  "It's very easy to make money. It's just that you have to enjoy what you do. If you don't like what you're doing, just quit, and do something you like."

Lovell, currently "chillin' like a villain" in Florida, stayed humble when asked about his success story in the fair industry. No matter how much money he earns, Lovell is still more interested in the fairs themselves. Have fun doing your job, said Lovell, and the money will come.

"It's the great USA, man," said Lovell. "It's easy to make money in this country if you try."

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