The rodeo has shut down prematurely due to the rising threat of coronavirus. Photo courtesy of Rodeo Houston

As the coronavirus continues to march across the country, the City of Houston and the Houston Health Department on March 11 ordered the shutdown of this year's Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. This stems from Houston and Harris County declaring at least a seven-day health emergency in response to a potential community-spread case of the virus in Montgomery County.

The premature halt to this year's rodeo promises to ripple through the Houston economy. The 2019 version created a local economic impact of $227 million, according to a study commissioned by the rodeo. By comparison, Austin's annual music, film, and tech event — SXSW — generated an economic impact of $355.9 million in 2019. On March 6, the City of Austin ordered cancelation of this year's SXSW, set for March 13 to 22.

The Houston Rodeo and Livestock Show joins a rapidly growing list of events around the world that have been canceled or postponed.

Ed Hirs, an economics lecturer at the University of Houston, says it's hard to gauge the economic damage from the rodeo cutback, but he guesses it could range from $50 million to $100 million. Among those who will feel the pain are rodeo vendors, Uber and Lyft drivers, waiters and waitresses, and hotel employees, he says.

"We can't replace the income that the workers have lost," Hirs says.

The loss of rodeo revenue comes at a particularly inopportune time for Houston.

The earlier coronavirus-related cancelation of CERAWeek, the major energy conference, likely will cost the Houston economy millions of dollars. Last year, CERAWeek hosted 5,500 attendees. Cancelation of other local events could inflict even more financial harm.

Meanwhile, the Houston energy sector is coping with a huge drop in oil prices. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) oil cartel now projects near-zero growth in oil demand this year, according to OilPrice.com.

Hirs says that as early as the end of this week, some energy employers in Houston could begin layoffs. On March 11, Houston-based Occidental Petroleum Corp. hinted at impending layoffs. The oil and gas exploration and production company said it was slashing capital spending for 2020 from a range of $5.2 billion to $5.4 billion to a range of $3.5 billion to $3.7 billion. In addition, Occidental said it would carry out "additional operating and corporate cost reductions."

Occidental's market value has plummeted to $11 billion, triggering speculation that billionaire Warren Buffett might weigh a buyout of the company. In August, Occidental wrapped up its $55 billion purchase of Anadarko Petroleum Corp., based in The Woodlands.

According to the Greater Houston Partnership, the Houston area is home to more than 600 energy exploration and production companies, 1,100 oilfield services companies, and more than 180 pipeline transportation establishments. In all, the energy industry employs more than 237,000 people in the region.

The combination of the oil slump, the coronavirus pandemic, the ongoing trade war, and other economic drawbacks could push Houston closer to a recession, Hirs says.

"We were heading toward a recession anyway," he says of Houston and the entire country. "I think the coronavirus has tipped it over the edge."

For now, the most immediate economic blow comes from the rodeo shutdown.

In a March 11 statement, the rodeo indicates it's "respectfully and dutifully" following the city's order. The rodeo began March 3 at NRG Stadium and was supposed to end March 22. Last February 21 to March 17, rodeo activities attracted more than 2.5 million visitors.

Rodeo officials say they're working on a process for refunding tickets.

Government officials say an apparent case of coronavirus in Montgomery County prompted cancelation of the rodeo. In this case, the person — who reportedly attended a rodeo-sponsored barbecue cook off February 28 — seems to have contracted coronavirus somewhere in the community rather than as a result of international travel.

In a statement, Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, says the organization supports the declaration of a health emergency and the subsequent decision to end the rodeo early.

"It is important that we, as a community, take extra precautions and minimize opportunities for exposure as much as possible to slow the growth in the number of coronavirus cases," Harvey says.

Harvey praises the closure of the rodeo as "the right thing to do."

"As Houston's largest annual event, the Rodeo is a point of pride for our region. We regret the impact this necessary step will have on Rodeo exhibitors, guests, and participants," he says. "But the health and safety of our community must come first."

As of March 11, officials reported 14 cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus in the Houston area.

The rodeo says it's "deeply saddened" by the shutdown. However, it adds, "the safety and well-being of our guests and our community is our top priority."

Among the major musical acts whose rodeo performances are now canceled include Lizzo, Dierks Bentley, Keith Urban, Gwen Stefani, Khalid, Chris Stapleton, Brad Paisley, and Luke Bryan.

"We look forward to the 2021 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo to continue to promote agriculture, education, entertainment, and Western heritage," according to the rodeo's statement.

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

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

rodeo ready

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."

A Houston startup just got a huge new client: The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Photo courtesy of sEATz

Houston in-seat ordering app gets rodeo ready, prepares for busy XFL season

dining delivered

A Houston startup isn't afraid to take on the 21-day Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo with its in-seat ordering technology.

Houston-based sEATz, through its partnership with Aramark and NRG Stadium, will be serving up stadium food to rodeo goers this year every single night of the show. Rather than be intimidated the size and scale of Rodeo Houston, sEATz, equipped with a recently upgraded app, is ready for the challenge.

"Twenty-one nights in a row for us is great — that just shows the flexibility and scalability of our model," says CEO and co-founder Aaron Knape.

For those headed out to the rodeo with tickets in the 100s — the lower section — sEATz will have in-seat delivery and pickup lanes. Users can download the app, plug in their seat information, order, pay, and hang tight for a delivery. SEATz will be available every night of the rodeo — from the start of the show to the concert.

The sEATz app has been freshly updated and is ready to rodeo. Photo courtesy of sEATz

Knape and co-founder and COO Marshall Law founded sEATz in 2018 after an idea Law had when he missed a key play at an Astros 2017 World Series game. Now, SEATz is active in 10 different venues and plans to roll out in 15 more this year, Knape says. The app has served fans at football and soccer games — and even delivered during the Rolling Stones concert at NRG Stadium last year.

"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," Knape says. "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."

SEATz had a busy football season, servicing the likes of The Texans, the University of Houston Cougars, and more, but turns out, football is not over. Through its partnership with Delaware North, the food and beverage provider for UH's TDECU Stadium, sEATz has added the XFL's Houston Roughnecks fans to its roster of users.

The team's first game on February 8 had over 17,000 in attendance, according to news reports. The team won 37 to 17 against the Los Angeles Wildcats. The second game for the Roughnecks is on Sunday, February 16, and the league recently announced the final championship game will be hosted in Houston.

"I think those fans came to have a really good time," Knape says of last weekend's game. "We're actually going to be quadrupling staff for Sunday's game."

SEATz, which closed is seed round last fall with $1.3 million raised, plans to raise another round early this year. The company is also actively recruiting teams and venues ahead of the baseball season, Knape says.

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Houston investors back new platform for retail traders looking to follow financial influencers

making a splash

As anyone who witnessed the impact Gamestop's meme stock had on the country already realizes, influential investors can drive momentum within the financial sector. And one company with fresh funding from a Houston firm is betting on that exactly.

CashPool is a new mobile platform that gives everyday investors the opportunity to derive influence from the investment strategies and trades made by trusted and influential stock traders who have built substantial followings on social media platforms. By allowing retail traders the chance to join social media influencers’ various “pools” on its platform, CashPool is primed to change the way the masses acquire wealth.

This is the kind of algorithmic trading aimed at a new generation of investors that gets the attention of early-stage venture capital funds like Houston-based Ten X Labs, a pre-seed angel fund that recently invested in CashPool to help the trading platform continue its mission of transforming the investment landscape.

"We are thrilled to receive funding from Ten X Labs, as it validates our innovative approach to trading and investing," CashPool Founder and CEO Averett Barksdale says in a news release. "This investment will enable us to further enhance our platform, expand our user base and continue to revolutionize the industry. We believe that everyone should have transparent, governed access to profitable trading and investment opportunities, and through CashPool we are making that vision a reality."

Connecting the dots

CashPool is broker agnostic connector, allowing its users to keep their current brokers like Robinhood, Coinbase, Charles Schwab, Acorns, Fidelity, ETRADE, Stash, Sofi and Betterment and creates a seamless investment experience.

“We are that middle piece,” says Barksdale. “So your money stays on whatever brokerage you’ve connected to the platform, and we just execute the trades on your brokerage for you.”

Considering that users’ money remains with their original brokerage, how does CashPool monetize its platform?

“We don’t charge users to execute trades,” says Barksdale. “We charge per pool you join. So, on our platform, strategies are called pools and a user can join as many strategies as they want.”

Financial influencers set the strategies. These are profitable traders who have become influencers on various social media platforms and built-up followings comprised of people who are or are desiring to be retail traders themselves.

“There are a ton of people out there who actually are profitable traders,” says Barksdale. “Same as what we saw happen with GameStop and the whole Reddit situation. That was a financial influencer, right? It just so happens that he had a strategy that he thought would work and it turned out for a while it did work, right?

“We want to not only empower the retail trader, but empower these financial influencers who are profitable as well. Just because it's a whole marketplace out there for it. But a lot of times the retail trader doesn't quite understand who to go with. On our platform, you could see the results of these financial influencers right before your eyes on our platform. So you can see if they're profitable or not, or if someone's just on Instagram or whatever, social media platform posting screenshots but aren’t actually executing those trades.”

Increasing transparency

With trading, past success can be an arbiter for future performance, so with CashPool, users can choose to join the pools of influencers who have documented success as a trader on the platform.

“On our platform you can't hide,” says Barksdale. “We're connected to their brokerage account, so we see what trades they're making in real time. We also see their performance in real time, and we display that on the platform. That's something that you really can't get around. So if someone on Instagram says they traded this stock, then I made X amount of dollars and had this percentage of return, then you go to the platform and look at your pool and see they didn't do that and were lying the whole time, it’s literally just putting everything out there in the open. We have the kind of transparency that doesn't exist currently right now in the space.”

Broadcasting one’s successes is easy, but what about the losses?

“I thought it was going to be a lot more difficult just thinking, do people really want to show what they're doing?” says Barksdale. “But the thing that I've seen is a lot of these traders are a whole lot more competitive. And the traders who are doing it, they're constantly talking out against people who aren't actually doing it in real life.

“A lot of the traders who are actually profitable, they do live trades every day. But how do users if they should pay to get into a specific trader’s live trading session? Like, how do they know they're profitable already?

“On CashPool, users can see an actual influencer's win rate and say, 'Okay, 86 percent of the time they are profitable, and I could see how many trades they've made in total.' From that standpoint, users can make an educated decision on what pools to join and pay for.”

CashPool users can join as many pools as they see fit, but the cost of each pool’s membership may vary due to the popularity or success percentage rate of the financial influencer.

“You can join as many pools as you want, but what we suggest is you start by joining the pools of influencers that you already follow and trust, that you're already following like on Twitter or YouTube or Instagram or whatever it may be,” says Barksdale. “We are suggesting that you follow them first and you join their pools first. What we do is on the monetization side is we allow the creators on our platform who are the influencers to set their own price for their pool.”

Building a secure network

Outside of who or what to follow, information security is likely a concern for potential users. Financial influencers’ trade information is readily available (win percentages and number of trades, not dollar amounts), but users’ won’t be able to see other users’ information on the platform.

“Currently, we have a list of 10 brokerages who are on board, and then we're working to onboard more as we keep going on,” says Barksdale. “So, we have like your Interactive brokerages, and we also have a few other ones that are UK specific and Canada specific. We would love to have every single brokerage on the platform, but unfortunately, there are a couple that are still kind of playing hard to get, so to speak.”

The first rollout of CashPool is set, but version two will likely include content creation from the financial influencers.

Barksdale, who has a background in product development and experience working at companies like Charles Schwab and Fidelity, is mostly excited about the prospect of CashPool unlocking expert financial strategies for everyone, not just the financial advisors behind the closed doors of Wall Street.

“Yes, my philosophy is that financial health and financial growth should be accessible for all,” says Barksdale. “The thing that gets me is it needs to be responsible. So, for example, RobinHood is a platform that doesn't necessarily care if you are making responsible decisions, they just care that you're trading on that platform.

“Our platform is strictly focused on actually being the place where these retail traders can make responsible decisions centered around investing and trading.”

Tech companies contribute to recovery fund for those affected by Houston storm

helping hands

The past month in Houston has been marked by severe flooding and a sudden storm that left nearly a million residents without power. The Houston Disaster Alliance has established the Severe Weather and Derecho Recovery Fund to help those impacted by the weather.

“The Greater Houston Disaster Alliance was formed so that in times of crisis, there is a swift and efficient response to help those severely impacted begin the process of recovery,” said Stephen Maislin, president and CEO, Greater Houston Community Foundation. “When disaster strikes, it requires a collaborative and coordinated response from the nonprofit, for-profit, public sector, and philanthropic community to ensure the most vulnerable in our region get the help they need to start the recovery and rebuilding process.”

At least a million dollars has been donated to the fund, courtesy of $500,000 from the CenterPoint Energy Foundation and another $500,000 from Comcast. With Houston now a federally declared disaster area by President Joe Biden, impacted residents are able to apply for various grants and aid.

Those still struggling from the weather events should call the 211 Texas/United Way HELPLINE. Assistance is available for housing, utilities, food, elder assistance, and other areas. Crisis counseling is also available.

“Outside of times of disaster, we know that 14 percent of households in our region are struggling on income below the federal poverty line and 31 percent of households in our region are working hard but struggling to make ends meet. It’s these neighbors who are disproportionately impacted when disaster strikes,” said Amanda McMillian, president and CEO, United Way of Greater Houston. “This fund allows us to lift up the most vulnerable who have been impacted by recent weather events to ensure they can not only recover from the immediate crisis, but also prepare themselves for future disasters.”

The derecho storm that hit Houston on Thursday, May 16 had wind gusts up to 100mph. Nearly a million people in the Houston area were left without power, and as of Wednesday CenterPoint was still working to restore electricity to more than 60,000 people. Photos showed that the storm toppled massive power pylons, took down trees, and even ripped the sides off buildings. Miniature tornadoes touched down in parts of the city, adding to the devastation.

The Houston Disaster Alliance was launched in 2023 as a joint effort between the Greater Houston Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Houston to help mitigate the damage of weather crises year-round. This has become increasingly necessary as Houston's weather has become more unpredictable than ever.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.