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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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston startups raise funding, secure partnerships across space, health, and sports tech

short stories

It's been a new month and a few Houston startup wrapped up November with news you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, three Houston startups across health care, space, and sports tech have some news they announced recently.

Houston digital health company launches new collaboration

Koda Health has a new partner. Image via kodahealthcare.com

Houston-based Koda Health announced a new partnership with data analytics company, CareJourney.

"This collaboration will aim to develop benchmarking data for advance care planning and end-of-life metrics," the company wrote on LinkedIn. "Koda will provide clinical and practice-based expertise to guide the construction of toolkits, dashboards, and benchmarks that improve ACP programs and end-of-life outcomes."

Koda Health announced the partnership in November..

“Beyond the checkbox of a billing code or completed advance directive, it’s important to build and measure a process that promotes thoughtful planning among patients, their care team, and their loved ones,” says Desh Mohan, MD, Koda's chief medical officer, in the post.

CareJourney was founded in 2014 in Arlington, Virginia.

"I'm hopeful next-generation quality measures will honor the patient’s voice in defining what it means to deliver high quality care, and our commitment is to measure progress on that important endeavor," noted Aneesh Chopra, CareJourney's co-founder and president.

Sports tech startup raises $500,000 pre-seed investment

BeONE Sports has created a technology to enhance athletic training. Photo via beonesports.com

Houston-founded BeONE Sports, an athlete training technology company, announced last month that it closed an oversubscribed round of pre-seed funding. The company announced the raise on its social media pages that the round included $500,000 invested.

Earlier in November, BeONE Sports completed its participation in CodeLaunch DFW 2022. The company was one of six finalists in the program, which concluded with a pitch event on November 16.

Space tech company snags government contracts

Graphic via cognitive space.com

The U.S. Air Force has extended Houston-based Cognitive Space’s contract under a new TACFI, Tactical Funding Increase, award. According to the release, the contract "builds on Cognitive Space’s work to develop a tailored version of CNTIENT for AFRL to achieve ultimate responsiveness and optimized dynamic satellite scheduling via a cloud-based API.

The $1.2 million award follows a $1.5 million U.S. Air Force Small Business Innovation Research award that the company won in 2020 to integrate CNTIENT with commercial ground station providers in support of AFRL’s Hybrid Architecture Demonstration program.

“The TACFI award allows Cognitive Space to continue supporting AFRL’s vitally important HAD program to help deliver commercial space data to the warfighter,” says Guy de Carufel, the company’s founder and CEO, in the releasee. “CNTIENT’s tailored analytics platform will enable HAD and the GLUE platform to integrate modern statistical approaches to optimize mission planning, data collection, and latency estimation.”

Houston airport powers up new gaming lounge for bored and weary travelers

game on and wheels down

Local gamers now have a new option to while away those flight delays and passenger pickup waits at Hobby Airport.

Houston's William P. Hobby Airport is now one the first airports in the country to offer what's dubbed as the "ultimate gaming experience for travelers." The airport has launched a premium video game lounge inside the international terminal called Gameway.

That means weary, bored, or early travelers can chill in the lounge and plug into15 top-of-the-line, luxury gaming stations: six Xbox stations, five Playstation stations, four PC stations, all with the newest games on each platform. Aficionados will surely appreciate the Razer's Iskur Gaming Chairs and Kraken Headsets, along with dedicated high speed internet at each PC station.

The Gameway lounge pays homage to gaming characters, with wall accents that hark to motherboard circuits Crucial for any real gamer: plenty of sweet and savory snacks are available for purchase to fuel up on those fantasy, battle, or sporting endeavors. As for the gaming console stations, players can expect high definition screens, comfortable seating, and plenty of space for belongings.

Make video games a part of your pre-flight ritual. Photo courtesy of Gameway

This gaming addition comes just in time for the holiday rush, when travelers can expect long lines, delays, and are already planning for extended time for trips. As CultureMap previously reported, Hobby will see a big boost in travelers this season — the largest since 2019. Now, those on a long journey can plug in, decompress, and venture on virtual journeys of their own.

Texan travelers may be familiar with Gameway; the company opened its first two locations at Dallas Fort-Worth Airport. The buzzy lounge an industry wave of acclaim: Gameway was awarded Best Traveler Amenity in 2019 at the ACI-NA Awards and in 2020, voted “Most Innovative Customer Experience” at the Airport Experience Traveler Awards, per press materials.

Two new locations followed in 2021: LAX Terminal 6 and Charlotte Douglas International Airport. The first of Gameway's Ultra lounge brand opened in September at Delta's Terminal 3 in LAX.

Gaming culture is a way of life in the Bayou City , which hosts Comicpalooza, the largest pop culture festival in Texas, and is home to several e-sports teams, including the pro esports squad, the Houston Outlaws.

A delayed flight never seemed so ideal for gamers flying out of Hobby. Photo courtesy of Gameway

“Gameway is the real reason to get to the airport early,” said Co-Founder Jordan Walbridge in a statement. “Our mission is to upgrade the typical wait-at-the-gate experience with a new stimulating, entertaining option for travelers of all ages.”

Here's guessing Hobby might just see an increase in missed or late flight arrivals — as travelers simply must beat those big bosses, solve puzzles, or win sports matches in the lounge.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.