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Comicpalooza expects another record year, says Houston First Corp. executive

Michael Heckman shares about some exciting new aspects of Houston's 11th annual Comicpalooza. Courtesy of Houston First

Eleven years ago, Comicpalooza was a small event held out in Katy. Over the past few years, with the help of Houston First Corp., the three-day conference has grown to be so big, the 2019 programming will spill out of George R. Brown Convention Center and into Discovery Green, and attract over 50,000 attendees.

"These comic conventions used to just be for the hardcore pop culture fans. What we've attempted to do is make it so there's something for everyone," says Michael Heckman, Comicpalooza president and senior vice president at Houston First. "As a casual pop culture fan, there's a lot to see and do."

The festivities take place Friday, May 10, to Sunday, May 12, and include some big name events. Two Game of Thrones stars — Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen) and Nathalie Emmanuel (Missandei) — will be on a panel, and ESPN will host its first collegiate esports competition.

Heckman tells InnovationMap more about these big events and how Comicpalooza has transformed over the years.

InnovationMap: How the event has grown over the past decade? 

Michael Heckman: We've really worked hard to increase the impact of the event. There's a lot of out of town visitors that do come in — it has north of a $20 million economic impact every year. When you look at an event that is held during a traditionally slow period of time, it's a really big deal for the hotels and restaurants. The other part about it is when you're able to bring big stars to Houston, they're tweeting about it and posting Instagram stories about it. It does a lot to shine a spotlight on Houston's reputation and image.

IM: What are you most excited about for this year?

MH: It's a big sprawling event that takes place across all 1.2 million square feet of GRBCC. I'm excited about a few things. First, we've got the two folks from Game of Thrones. To be able to get Emilia Clarke in the middle of the final season of Game of Thrones, with only two episodes to go — the hype has been unbelievable. To be able to have a pop culture phenomenon like that come here to Houston — and it will be her first fan event. She's done the San Diego Comic Con, but that was more of a media event.

We've also got the ESPN Collegiate Esports Championship held here. We've done esports and gaming over the past few years, but it's a growth area for the event. To be able to hold that event with dozens of championships from around the country for this inaugural event is very exciting.

What a lot of people don't know is there are so many interesting aspects to Comicpalooza — from literature tracks to a film festival to a makerspace. There are hundreds of exhibitors on the expo showfloor, but there's an area carved out for makers. We have NASA, a cultural arts avenue, there's something for everyone. We're really looking forward to a blockbuster year.

IM: What did it mean for Houston to get ESPN’s collegiate esports program? 

MH: Esports is rapidly growing. That marketplace is developing very quickly. A lot of people and a lot of cities are figuring out what that means. We've understood the value of it for Comicpalooza for a number of years. ESPN is making a big investment — it's their first ever event of this nature, but it won't be their last.

IM: How did it come about?

MH: We've been talking to a number of folks across the landscape about how to best utilize the space that we have at GRBCC and find an opportunity that was a good fit for us. A couple people we were talking to out on the West Coast who connected us to the ESPN people, who happen to be the same division of ESPN that partners with the Houston Texans on a couple things. There's some synergies there, and they're familiar with Houston.

IM: How would you describe Comicpalooza's economic impact on Houston?

MH: Around 20 to 30 percent for the audience of Comicpalooza comes from outside of Houston. Last year, we had attendees from 47 states and 17 countries. It gives great exposure to the city, and the money they leave behind is valuable from an economic impact perspective. We think our numbers will be somewhat similar to last year.

If you look at the long term vision of what this could be, we have a beautiful campus for this event. We've moved some of our programming outside GRBCC onto the Avenida Plaza that connects to Discovery Green. If we have a full campus-wide event, that's something that's highly attractive. You grow that attendance, get up to 70 or 80 thousand people — that's a mega event. It's a snowball — once you get it started and then it just takes off. We're not there yet, but we've had really smart growth.

IM: How is the city as a whole preparing for the event?

MH: Houston's really good about handling events. It takes everything from the fire department to the police department and traffic control and 700 event volunteers — over 2,000 shifts. It's such a big footprint — it's kind of all hands on deck. It also looks like we'll have Astros at home and the Rockets playing game six of the playoffs at home. This major super block in downtown will be absolutely electric this weekend.

IM: What other events are you looking to bring to Houston?

MH: We'll always be chasing our conventions we have here. Our convention sales team looks to break another record this year. We have a lot of major events upcoming — from the college football playoff to the men's basketball Final Four, and we'll eventually pursue another Super Bowl. As we look to develop our portfolio of events that we manage here, there's a lot of opportunities here for events centered around innovation. There's a lot of talk around how Houston needs to have a better reputation for innovation. We've got aerospace, medical, oil and gas — what's an event we can create or partner on that could highlight Houston's innovation.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Building Houston

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

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