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.

Alex Robart, Lindsay Huelse, and Joel Cowley are this week's Houston innovators to know. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators couldn't be more varied. Among the movers and shakers in tech in Houston are a serial energy tech entrepreneur, a fitness leader taking her empire mobile, and the leader of a decades old organization looking for the technology of the future.

Alex Robart, CEO of Ambyint

Photo courtesy of Ambyint

Alex Robart was on the lookout for a new tech startup to get involved with when he found Canada-based Ambyint a few years ago. He saw the potential of the artificial intelligence software had on optimizing oil and gas rigs. Now, he's lead the company as CEO and recently oversaw the startup's $15 million series B round.

"We're seeing our customers spend a little more time understanding AI," Robart says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "More and more boards of mid-sized [exploration and production companies] are challenging their executive teams to do something with AI."

Click here to read more and to listen to the episode.

Lindsay Huelse, founder of The FITT Cycle

Photo courtesy of The FITT Cycle

Houstonian Lindsay Huelse has created a all-in-one approach to fitness and health within her new mobile app, The FITT Cycle , which incorporates fitness routines, nutrition plans, accountability, community, and entrepreneurship.

"Historically, fitness apps are great for memberships," Huelse tells CultureMap. "I wanted to create a platform for returning clients where they could have stability and ditch the diets."

Since its launch in December 2019, Huelse says she has seen a membership growth of almost 2,000 percent, noting that there is no other app with The FITT Cycle's features. She calls it a hybrid of My Fitness Pal, the Peloton App, Facebook communities, and more.

Click here to read more about Huelse and her app.

Joel Cowley, CEO of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo

Image via rodeohouston.com

Joel Cowley, CEO of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, speaks very candidly about the rodeo's future technology upgrades. He realizes that there are rodeo goers who won't appreciate the digitization of tickets, carnival passes, etc. or the temporary inconvenience the transition might bring. But he also knows it's necessary and will be worth it to patrons.

"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."

Click here to read more about new tech coming to the rodeo.

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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Exclusive: Houston logistics SaaS startup raises $2.5M seed round

money moves

A Houston company that's providing software solutions for middle-mile logistics challenges has raised fresh funding.

Velostics Inc., which has an enterprise software-as-a-service model that specializes in automating inbound logistics at industrial facilities — like terminals and warehouses — announced it has raised $2.5 million. The seed round was led by Kansas-based Flyover Capital with participation from Small Ventures USA, Cultivation Capital, Starboard Star, Congress Avenue Ventures and BioUrja Ventures.

Founded by Gaurav Khandewal, Velostics targets the $37 billion inbound logistics management market, a so-called "log jam" for businesses that the company's software strives to make flow a lot more optimally.

“Flyover is incredibly excited to support the Velostics team in their mission to transform inbound logistics,” says Keith Molzer, managing partner at Flyover Capital. “This segment of the supply chain is ripe for better technology to address challenges of congestion, driver labor shortages, and the growing demands of ecommerce. Gaurav and team are an exceptional group of entrepreneurs ready to drive efficiency and a better customer experience at industrial facilities.”

The fresh funding will go toward recruiting top talent for Velostics's team, particularly in its account management, inside sales, and marketing departments, as well as continuing to develop the AI-driven product, which has an impact for both its users and the environment.

“Idling trucks waiting outside facilities emit over 42 million tons of CO2 annually — eight times the US national average. By orchestrating the movement of trucks in and out of facilities, not only do we provide tremendous supply chain benefits, we also help the environment," Khandewal says in the release. "We’re excited to partner with our customers and our investors to solve global congestion.”

Flyover Capital was founded in 2014 and has a keen interest in the Houston market, Dan Kerr, principal at the firm, previously told InnovationMap.

Houston is "one of the cities among those that fall in our region where we plan to spend a significant amount of time," Kerr said in May of last year. "We cover a lot of ground, but there are certain cities were we try to get there quarterly. Houston is definitely one of those places."

In September, Khandewal joined the Houston Innovators Podcast and discussed how he has been a champion of Houston innovation since he started ChaiOne in 2009. He shared how he thinks the city has a great opportunity to be a leader in logistics technology.

"I think that there are some trends in Houston that I'm seeing as a founder, and one of them is logistics," Khandewal says on the show.

Gaurav Khandelwal, CEO and founder of ChaiOne and Velostics Gaurav Khandelwal is the CEO and founder of Velostics. Photo courtesy

Houston VC-backed tech founder on reinventing a sales team and supporting financial independence

Houston innovators podcast episode 112

Four years ago, Samantha Ettus found herself as a keynote speaker in a room with thousands of ambitious and talented women. It was a conference for multi-level marketing sales associates and, as Ettus found out later, most of them — despite their talent and passion — were losing money on whatever product they were selling.

"I realized there was a problem. There obviously was a need — all of these people want to be doing something outside of their families that gives them fulfillment and meaning and has goals associated with it — but they also want to be earning money," Ettus says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "And the first part was being fulfilled — but the second part wasn't."

Ettus created an alternative to check both of those boxes. Park Place Payments is a fintech startup founded in 2018 in California. Houston was one of the initial six test market for the business model, and the company now has over 1,000 account executives across all 50 states. Sales team members are trained for free on how to sell Park Place's payment processor service to local businesses.

Ettus says the payment processor industry is competitive and most small business owners are very disappointed with the customer service they receive. The average business changes payment processors every three years, Ettus says, and Park Place wants to change that.

"Payments is an industry where something always goes wrong," Ettus says. "As a small business owner, if you can't reach someone — that's really important for the livelihood of your business. ... We really think of ourselves as an outsourced payment partner for small businesses."

This past year has been one for growth for Park Place, Ettus says, and earlier this year, she closed on the company's seed round, which was supported by Curate Capital, founded by Houstonian Carrie Colbert. Now the company is focused on its tech team, including hiring a CTO. Early next year, Ettus hopes to close a Series A round, again with support — financially and otherwise — from Colbert.

"I feel so lucky because a lot of people pointed us to traditional Silicon Valley VCs in the beginning, and I had a lot of conversations. I didn't feel some of those firms had the patience to grow with us," Ettus says.

The company has been tied to Houston from its early days, from testing the business in town to a Houston-based early hire, Nancy Decker Lent, who is a founding member of the team and head of product for Park Place.

Ettus shares more on her passion for supporting financial independence for women and how she plans to grow her company on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

New Houston-based specialty pet supply company aims to pamper your pooch

good dog

Considering that Americans will reportedly spend $109.6 billion on pets this year, according to new data, it really pays to be discerning when buying. Now, Houston dog owners can stay local when shopping for their fur babies.

Houstonians Brad Madrid and Bobby Dwyer have launched Fido, a new e-commerce pet wellness brand. Available all over Houston, Texas, and indeed, the nation,

Fido products will initially start with Chill Chews and Clear Ears, both of which are scientifically formulated and aim to provide relief and comfort, per a press release. Products are lab-tested and veterinarian-approved, per the company.

Anxious pups may benefit from Chill Chews, which make training, traveling, and everyday life smoother and are said to help pets relax. The Clear Ears, meanwhile, is composed of natural ingredients such as eucalyptus and aloe and is meant to keep pets’ ears clean and clear of any wax, debris, fungus, and bacteria.

“As a professional dog trainer and breeder, I’ve worked with hundreds of dogs which has allowed me to develop a deep understanding of how dogs think and function,” said Dwyer in a statement. “Through my profession, I’ve discovered a need for products to ensure canines’ health and wellness, and it’s our mission to provide great products to make good boys even better.”

Brad Madrid and Bobby Dwyer have launched Fido, a new e-commerce pet wellness brand. Photo courtesy of Fido

Madrid and Dwyer aren’t just business partners but also brothers-in-law. Bringing science to Fido, Madrid boasts a background in pharmaceuticals, while Dwyer brings canine know-how with his experience as a dog trainer.

Both hope to see their business grow by leaps and bounds. Products are available for purchase on the website and shipping is available nationwide. Plans for products to be sold in local pet stores, as with international shipping available in the future.

If current data is any indication, Madrid and Dwyer are in the right business. A survey of 2,000 dog and cat owners found that 52 percent of respondents said they spend more money on their pets than they do on themselves each year, per GoBankingRates.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.