In spite of some negative publicity from an unfortunate accident, the Alabama State Fair was another successful event for Universal Fairs, an independent producer of fairs and other events. The Alabama State Fair is located in the rural Alabama town of Pelham, which the latest U.S. census says is only home to approximately 21,000, but is located in Shelby County, with a larger 200,000 population.
According to Mark Lovell, president of Universal Fairs, and fair manager of the Alabama State Fair event, which he has been operating for six years, the 2018 edition was “…our most successful. This year was a huge success. We had days of more than 40,000.” As a private company, Lovell declines to release attendance or revenue figures.
Much of that success can be attributed to “great weather,” he said. “We had a real good run this year. In Alabama it is either hot or rainy, but it was not extremely hot.”
The Universal Fairs website states it produces 12 events in nine states, a mix of consumer shows, such as the Tennessee Boat & Fishing Expo, Home Show of the Mid-South, new Mid-South Sports & Boat Show and small-to-mid-size fairs, which include the Delta Fair & Music Festival, and the Georgia State Fair. Universal Fairs has also produced the El Paso Sun City Fair and the Bluff City Fair, although those fairs were canceled this year
Lovell has been a live and outdoor event promoter/producer since the 1980s, starting in the concert business and expanding into outdoor events, consumer trade shows and other “one-offs” as well as fairs and community oriented events. The fairs have become his most favorite – and by far – profitable events on his roster.
“There’s a lot more moving parts, than a trade show,” he said. “One of the most difficult is that every city and county can have different regulations. We have a good product, and we don’t cut corners. What I’m most truly passionate about is a safe and smooth operation.”
Old Fashioned & Wholesome
The uniqueness of fairs themselves is a decisive factor fueling that passion. “Fairs are things of the past that everybody remembers and everybody loves. They are a little old fashioned and are about wholesomeness. They’re very American and we bring a lit bit of that old fashioned and wholesomeness back and people like that, they respond to that. Fairs are something with broadened demographic that reaches all people to come, reach out to people to come”
The trap he most avoids is one he sees as pervasive in many local and county fairs, especially those held in other rural communities. “Some of the smaller fairs still do a great job. But that is because they are not doing the same old and same old. Historically, a lot of fairs fall by the wayside or don’t grow at all because they do not keep it fresh. We constantly keep it fresh, and we always add little twists and experiment with different things to see if they work and if they do we make them better.”
Also key to his fair production philosophy is maintaining professionalism. “We truly do care about what we do. We look out for the major and the minor things. We do things as if we were the customer, what that customer wants, which is safe and clean shows, family-friendly environment and good customer service.”
Marketing for the fairs on his route is comprised of a strong social media presence, selective “old media” spots and grassroots efforts reflective of the rural communities supporting their annual events.
“We did quite a bit of radio for Alabama,” he said. “We did a little bit of TV. But we had great weather and did a ton of billboards. People pass them every day, and the fair is affordable, so if it’s a nice day they go to the fair.”
But flyers, posters and community marketing were also essential to the Alabama State Fair’s marketing strategy. “We do a lot of grassroots marketing. We have a lot of ground people spreading the word and talking to the community. You have to do the grassroots. I believe in being aggressive in the promotion. Uncover every little avenue to reach people while being as frugal as possible.”
The Alabama State Fair featured the Banana Derby, high-flying trapeze acts, bird shows as well as the Puppetone Rockers, and regional performers such as Jimmie Allen, Konzentido, Neto Bernal, Brandon Solano and Domenic Marte and a meet and greet with Sky Katz, one of the stars from Disney’s Raven’s Home television show.
The midway featured 35 rides, which he call lite. “We are looking for a new carnival company for next year.”
“We had great entertainment and great value for a very low admission fee,” he said. “That is what you do with a fair. It costs $13 to go to a movie. If you offer good value for the money, the families will come.”
Lovell has steered the Alabama State Fair away from national acts, finding that more family oriented entertainment and grounds acts combined with aggressive grassroots marketing more than compensates in pulling power than the drawing ability of high-priced national acts. “It is better to spend on advertising and regional live music than to get national acts. You can blow through $200,000 and they don’t bring in the people like used to, it very rarely pays off in this market.”
The 2018 Alabama State Fair was able to withstand a public image crisis. During the fair, a goat was found dead that was quickly discovered to be a grisly if somewhat bizarre accident. The animal was killed when a camel accidentally fell on top of it, AL.com reported.
A 10-scecond clip of a dead goat, his muzzle in bowl of water, went viral with more than 10,000 views. The fair got in front of this story as soon as possible, emphasizing that it was an accident not caused by petting zoo conditions, which did not receive any violations. It was reported, as Pelham police Chief Larry Palmer said in a statement late Monday that investigators determined the goat died as a result of an injury caused by another animal in the petting zoo. "Officers have observed the animals several times since the incident, including on Sunday and today," the statement read. "At no time did they observe any without food or water, and none appeared to be in distress. We have determined this was an unfortunate accident.”
Alabama State Fair director Mark Lovell told WBRC, a local television station. “No one did anything wrong. It’s a shame that the camel slipped.”
The negative press aside, the Alabama State Fair was a profitable event on this independent producer’s route. “We are having a good year, people are spending. I work with a lot of the same vendors, and they were buying at the Alabama State Fair. The economy is better this year than it was last year.”But whether upswing, downturn or plateau, the Universal Fair philosophy remains clear: “Under promise and over deliver. If you give good value, your fair business will grow.”