There's no debating it

Houston poised to win benefits from presidential primary debate exposure

Historic Texas Southern University will host the September 12 Democratic debate, and Houston is expected to be the real economic winner. Courtesy photo

If past presidential debates are an accurate barometer, Houston stands to reap millions of dollars worth of benefits from what's been called the "Super Bowl of politics." However, one economist isn't casting his vote for any sizeable economic surge from the upcoming presidential debate in Houston.

On September 12, Houston's Texas Southern University, one of the largest historically black universities in the country, will host the third debate of the Democratic presidential primary season. The Democratic National Committee and ABC picked the 150-acre TSU campus for this showdown, where 10 Democratic candidates are set to take the stage at the 8,100-seat H&PE Arena.

While the Greater Houston Partnership isn't able to provide an estimated economic impact of the Houston debate, it still sees the value of Houston basking in the national spotlight.

"Texas Southern University hosting the third Democratic presidential primary debate here in Houston will focus national attention on the city for several days in much the same way the Republican presidential debate did back in 2016," Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, tells InnovationMap. "These events put Houston top of mind among people across the country — including the companies and talented individuals we're working to recruit to Houston."

The debate will help showcase Houston as a diverse city that's tackling presidential-level issues like education, infrastructure, and climate change, Harvey says. Climate change, in particular, hits close to home in Houston, as the city is "redefining its role" as the Energy Capital of the World through local initiatives taking on renewables, carbon emissions, and sustainability, according to Harvey.

Three years ago, the University of Houston hosted a Republican presidential debate featuring five candidates. For historical context, Houston hosted the Democratic National Convention in 1928 and the Republican National Convention in 1992.

Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political science at UH who's an expert on the presidency, says nationally televised debates serve as a "massive platform" for host colleges and universities to recruit faculty and students beyond their normal regional or local confines. Furthermore, he says, presidential debates can elevate the status of these schools in the realm of "public discourse."

"These debates are also a way to connect to alumni networks flung far across the nation," Rottinghaus tells InnovationMap, "and give them some something to brag about that isn't sports-related."

No estimates were provided of the economic impact for the University of Houston debate, but other spots in the U.S. — communities and college campuses — that have hosted presidential debates tout millions of dollars in value from debate-related spending and free publicity.

In October 2012, the Boca Raton, Florida, area realized an immediate economic impact of $13.1 million from hosting the final debate ahead of that year's presidential election, as well as $63.7 million in free publicity from news coverage of the nationally televised event. Those figures come from a study commissioned by Lynn University, which hosted the debate. An accompanying survey found that after watching the debate, 4.7 million American adults definitely wanted to visit the Boca Raton area over the next five years.

Also in October 2012, the University of Denver hosted a general-election debate that generated an estimated $56 million in free publicity.

Victor Matheson, an economist at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, dismisses those figures as inflated and irrelevant. And he says Houston shouldn't expect the city or TSU to receive any direct economic benefits from the September 12 debate.

For one thing, Matheson downplays the value assigned to free publicity surrounding a presidential debate. He complains that the methodology applied to tallying the benefits of so-called "earned media" coverage is flawed.

For another thing, Matheson notes that few people from outside the Houston area will be attending the debate at TSU, meaning little in the way of revenue from hotel stays, meals, and other visitor expenditures. "This isn't a Super Bowl," he says.

As a matter of fact, Houston hosted the 50th Super Bowl in February 2017 and fielded an economic impact of $347 million thanks to spending by 150,000 visitors, according to a study commissioned by the Houston Super Bowl Host Committee.

While not on the scale of a Super Bowl, the upcoming debate will attract positive attention for TSU, Matheson points out.

"This sort of debate can really put a college on the map, especially one like Texas Southern, a fairly obscure university from a national standpoint," he tells InnovationMap.

Matheson cites Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, as an example. Few people outside New England would have heard of Saint Anselm without its frequent hosting of presidential debates since the 1980s, he says.

The college has been dubbed the "academic epicenter" of the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary. During the 2015-16 political season alone, Saint Anselm hosted one Republican and one Democratic presidential debate, leading to more than 8,100 mentions in the news media of the college or its New Hampshire Institute of Politics.

"So, the effect for colleges is real, but there is still a question about how big it is," Matheson says. "And let's not pretend that the debate is somehow going to put Houston on the map. If Houston isn't already on your map, you really need to get yourself a new map."

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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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