rodeo ready

Houston rodeo prepares for 2020 season with new technology on the grounds

From digital carnival tickets to gamification on a revamped app, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is prepared for its 2020 season with new technologies. Photo courtesy of Rodeo Houston

When the 2018 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo opened the gates to its first show of the season with headliner Garth Brooks, the nearly 90-year-old organization had just switched to digital ticketing. Around the time to enter the stadium, the BHP Billiton entrance, which welcomes in 51 percent of rodeo goers each night, was backed up with impatient rodeo fans.

For whatever reason, the roll out of the technology didn't go as planned, says Joel Cowley, CEO of the rodeo. But, after some damage control, the rodeo made some adjustments to the gate and ensured that those inefficient lines never happened again.

It was a lesson to learn for the rodeo, which isn't shying away from any other technology upgrades that will benefit rodeo goers and the organizations staff and volunteers.

"Anytime you do something new, you have to be on guard," Cowley tells InnovationMap. "You have to make sure you are stacked up on capacity — whether that be personnel, scanners, server capacity — because if you're not, it could create a situation from that."

A few months ago, the rodeo announced a slew of c-suite changes to its team following a reorganization led by McKinsey & Co. Among the changes was changing Andy Sloan's responsibilities from chief information officer to chief technology officer.

"As part of that reorganization, there was some focus on improving the technology that we utilize — and that's everything from our customer management system to what the consumer sees," Cowley says. "Andy is a great resource when we're trying to integrate those things."

The study prompted big ideas for new tech-driven initiatives for the rodeo, like a wristband that acts as your ticket but is also synced to your credit card for all purchases on rodeo grounds. But while that's an initiative for the future, 2020 rodeo attendees can expect to see new technologies this season.

Digital carnival packs

This year, the rodeo's carnival has began selling digital carnival ticket packs in an effort to transform the carnival experience to 100 percent digital. To prepare for this transition, the carnival volunteers have received extensive training — especially on how to communicate the process during the sales encounter.

Cowley says he expects to receive some negativity from longtime carnival ticket buyers, but also knows many people will appreciate the upgrade.

"The convenience for the users once they get used to it is going to be really great," Cowley says.

Gamification

Around two years ago, the rodeo conducted a study to understand its market. The study found that there are seven types of consumers for the rodeo. Cowley says they learned that there was a particular consumer type that they realized the rodeo could improve on attracting.

One of the ideas to attract this segment within the market was gamification. Cowley explains that according to the rodeo's survey data, rodeo goers' primary reason for attending is the show is the musical performer. The data also shows that when they get here, they enjoy their overall experience — not just the concert, Cowley says.

"Gamification is something that we are adding this year to engage the younger tech-savvy segment to give them something to do on the grounds," Cowley says.

The new tool, which is available on the rodeo's app, prompts users to check in around the grounds and complete tasks to earn buckles that can be redeemed for prizes.

"We think the more they see of the grounds, the better chance we have of making them lifelong fans," Cowley says.

There's also a new lounge called the Social Spur just north of the stadium where visitors can charge their devices and learn more about the app and the game.

Updated app

When it came to exploring gamification, Cowley says the rodeo looked into its app developer's capacity, as well as other app development companies. This process resulted in a new app provider and an overhaul of the rodeo's mobile app. The app, which syncs to the user's Facebook, is run by Canada-based Greencopper.

"It has been completely rebuilt from the ground up," Coweley says. "I think appearance-wise and functionality-wise — even though there was nothing wrong with the last one — this one is better."

Over the years, the rodeo's app has become more and more key in the rodeo experience. Users can find maps, buy tickets, view schedule information, and even receive up-to-date parking information.

Cowley says connectivity hasn't been a huge issue for the rodeo, but this year they've extended their WiFi service within NRG Stadium to cover just outside the gates so that users with digital tickets on the app can have that access.

In-seat food ordering

Also new for rodeo attendees is sEATz, a Houston-based startup that has developed an app that allows sporting event or concert attendees to order food to their seats. The app — through its partnership with the rodeo's food and beverage provider, Aramark —will be servicing the 100-level seats.

"It's really great to be able to be a part of the rodeo as far as a provider to help enhance that experience in the stadium," says Aaron Knape, CEO and co-founder of sEATz. "It goes back to our model of we want to serve a venue and the fans in that venue — not necessarily a specific sport or concert."

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Building Houston

 
 

AvidXchange executives explain why a crisis like the pandemic can provide opportunities for growth or realignment. Photo via Getty Images

From esports to telemedicine, some technologies are having a major moment during the COVID-19 crisis. As many businesses are operating remotely with work-from-home policies in place indefinitely, payments automation is another technology that's seen an opportunity amid the pandemic.

AvidXchange, which has invoice and payment processes automation software for mid-market businesses, is one of the companies in this payment automation space that's seen growth in spite of the economic downturn caused by the virus. The Charlotte, North Carolina-based company was founded in 2000 and went on to acquire Houston-founded Strongroom Solutions Inc. in 2015.

Since the acquisition, AvidXchange has quadrupled its presence in Houston and does a good deal of business locally. Equipping companies with tools for remote work is crucial — now and especially in light of Houston's propensity for challenges. Tyler Gill, vice president of sales for AvidXchange based in the Houston office and former CEO of Strongroom, joined Houston Exponential on a virtual panel to discuss this topic.

"We've had a history of disasters in Houston. Any time we can help businesses move to a more cloud-based infrastructure is going to be better," Gill says on the livestream. "I think working from home is maybe the new normal for a lot of employees — so how do we enable this?"

Gill and his colleague, Chris Elmore, senior sales performance director at AvidXchange, joined Joey Sanchez of HX for the talk about the acquisition, the pandemic, and growth for the company. If you missed it or don't have time to stream the whole conversation, here are some impactful moments of the chat.

“Economic downturns have a tendency to put a very bright light on a feature set or a product or a service that’s underperforming."

— Elmore says on how the pandemic affects innovation and startups. "My hope is that entrepreneurs will see this as a real time to get focused on their business — what's working well and what's not working well — and my hope is that they'll say, 'I need to fix that,' not 'I wish this was better,'" he says.

“For a young entrepreneur looking to build a business, make sure you’re looking for the people who are germane to your business.”

— Gill says about starting his business in Houston. At first, he was trying to find investors in oil and gas, but he found more success working with companies with a background in finance technology. "Houston has a history and density in fintech — I just had to find it."

“The fact that Strongroom owned the automated payment process in HOA that made them so attractive to AvidXchange because we didn’t.”

— Elmore says on the 2015 acquisition. He explains that AvidXchange had set up a presence in multifamily and commercial real estate, while Strongroom had a hold on homeowner's association, or HOA, business. The two companies competed for a while, and if Strongroom hadn't had their HOA specialty that made the company ideal for acquisition, Elmore says the two companies would still be competing today.

“When Strongroom was added to AvidXchange, our culture improved. By the way, we went from 40 employees to 1,000 within 14 months, and Strongroom was right at the beginning of that.”

— Elmore says on growth following the acquisition. The company now has 1,500 employees across seven offices and just closed a $128 million round of fundraising in April.

“Customers don’t care how big you get or how much money you raise from investors. They care about if your service is still doing the things they need to operate their business.”

— Gill says, reminding entrepreneurs to always prioritize and be focused on the client experience — through mergers or acquisitions, fundraising rounds, growth, etc.

“When you replace human interaction with technology, what you have to do, is to now move that person on to something more impactful and more important for the business. I don’t like tech for tech’s sake.”

— Elmore says on the importance of automation. "When you automate something, the output of automation is time," he adds.

“Houston couldn’t be a better place to build a business — I found great investors and employees here. It’s a city that’s used to risk. But it’s got to be you, the entrepreneur, that’s got something festering — that’s how you know it’s a great idea.”

— Gill says on inspiring future innovators. "What kept me motivated was I wanted to win. I felt like we had a great product, and we had a big market to serve. … I wanted to build something lasting and build a great team."

“We continue to be a great Houston story — some of my angel investors in Houston are still benefiting."

— Gill says on AvidXchange's presence in Houston. He adds that he's proud of how his former Strongroom team members have risen through the ranks of the company following the acquisition and that he sees the company, which is still privately held, moving toward IPO.

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