Tech-savvy marketing, special promotions targeting key demographics and a stellar line-up of headline entertainment all contribute to making the 20-day Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo a record breaking success, but for Leroy Shafer, Chief Operating Officer (COO), the city itself has turned this fair around.
"Houston is hot," he said, quoting a recent headline in the Houston Chronicle. A revived domestic oil industry, coupled with job-creation that pumped up tech and healthcare industries, has meant that the city recovered faster from the great recession than much of the nation. "The city is growing in population and Harris County is one of the fastest growing areas in the country. The fair is affordable fun that both long time residents and newcomers love."
While exact revenue figures are not yet available, the 2014 edition of the fair had an operations budget of $128 million, "we are well north of $130 million in what we took in," said Shafer.
2013: Hard to Beat
Attendance reached 2,485,721, breaking last year's attendance by 4.9 percent, or about 20,000. But, as Shafer points out, that milestone is qualified by an asterisk. Last year's overall attendance was higher, but the rodeo ran 21 days instead of 20 in order to accommodate a special show of the retirement tour of country music legend George Strait, his final concert in south Texas. However, if the Strait show is removed from equation and the comparison is based on the equivalent days, "we are up, which exceeded our expectations. We had three full rain days. There was no way we were going to beat last year with George Strait, but we never thought we would be up this year for the 20 days."
The robust economy and growing population of Houston only partially explains the appeal of this 2-day, late winter fair. Few cities support their fair with the committed fervor that Houston exhibits for its Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which is held on Reliant Park, a 350-acre complex, whose grounds encompass the fair's carnival and also includes the 1.4 million-square-foot Reliant Center, which features the live-stock show and the 349,000-square-foot Reliant Arena, which hosts equestrian events and Reliant Stadium, which hosts the fair's dual main attractions - the Rodeo and evening block-buster concerts. Enthusiasm begins pre-fair with Go Texan Day, where Houston residents are encouraged to dress up in cowboy garb, the Downtown Rodeo parade, and the World's Championship Bar-B-Que Contest, held the days immediately prior to the fair. "We have 28,000 volunteers," said Shafer, who added that in the stadium, which can seats upwards of 75,000 - including standing room and suites - 42,000 seats are season ticket holders. "So, we already have a built-in audience."
The fair received more than $37 million in donations and contributions through sponsorships. "In kind was $18 Million and pure cash, $16 million. "It was our best show ever for sponsorships. We are also a member organizations and we now have more than 35,000 members, which is also a record."
In addition, there were nearly 1.4 million paid tickets - meaning the attendees are allowed on the grounds with either a reserve or standing seat in the Rodeo Concert presentations - a 5.3 percent increase over last year.
The Winter fairs held in the most southern reaches of the continental U.S. - whose near tropical climates make summertime outdoor events infeasible - face the challenge of trying to increase attendance while schools are in session. Not only does the Houston offer educational and student outreach programs, including School Tours and Field Trips that create group sales opportunities, the fair usually falls during spring break for local systems. In fact, a lucky quirk in this year's school calendar resulted in a two-week spring break, coinciding with the Houston Live- stock Show & Rodeo.
In addition to twice as many spring break days coinciding with the 20-day fair, spending at least one Spring Break night at the fair has become a recent tradition for area college kids. Houston's economic recovery may have been quicker and more robust than much of the nation, in 2008 when the economic downturn begun spiraling downward, Houston was not immune to this negative impact. According to Shafer, marketing the rodeo to younger adults proved to be the rare upside to the Great Recession's onslaught. College kids, usually headed to Cancun or Fort Lauderdale for Spring Break, started taking their version of the more economical "staycation" at the rodeo. "The kids started staying home and we had started expanding how we target them with our marketing and programming," said Shafer. "There's been a growing continuation of that since then."
Shafer has always insisted on constant change when it comes to media messaging. "You need to continue to continue to change your product and its presentation to meet a changing demographic," said Shafer. Party With Your Boots on Houston - this year's marketing tagline, exemplifies the fun and excitement of the event, while also reinforcing the rodeo's relationship with the host city, making the Houston Live Stock Show & Rode as identifiable with Houston as Mardi Gras festivities are with New Orleans.
Changing the presentation has meant shifts in the advertising media mix. "We are using less conventional television, radio and print and more unconventional in broadband delivered content," said Shafer.
Not only did this mean an increase in online advertising for the fair, but seeking "old media" advertising partners with significant online presences. Navigating this ever-changing media landscape remains a constant challenge. "It seems 50 percent of the old media is adapting and the other 50 percent is not," said Shafer.
The growth of internet-based and other wireless components has made year-round promotions easier for the Rodeo. "We're constantly in the ear bud or on their screen," said Shafer.
One program, "Text to Win," promotes the fair year round with contests and prizes, reaching the smart phones of more than 60,000 "Mobile Club" subscribers. Rodeo Houston's E-newsletter subscribers number more than 83,500. In addition, show sponsors tag #rodeohouston on their media newsfeeds, further augmenting the marketing.
Social Media Strategies
"The Show uses social media as not only a way to promote Rodeo Houston's concerts, ticket sales, etc., but also as a way to engage with a wide-variety of fans in an instant," said Shafer. "We want our fans to have the best experience possible with our social outlets, therefore we make sure to stay on top of their questions and concerns, share their thoughts and excitements, as well as help them create new memories by entering contests hosted on our outlets. The overall strategy is to keep our fans engaged with the Show throughout the year. "
With social media, the marketing strategy is long-term brand building, but also building up interest and demand as the opening day of the fair gets closer. RodeoHouston currnet social media followers are: Facebook -402,612; Twitter - 60,981; and Instagram - 18,502 - but those numbers for the six months leading up to the fair were: Facebook - 82,649; Twitter -30,745; Instagram - 12,125
The online presence was further expanded in 2014 with #RODEOHOUSTON Unplugged - a new YouTube series ( www.youtube.com/RODEOHOUSTON) which features a total of 36 videos and garnered 101,966 total views by the closing of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. The most viewed were Maroon 5 "Moves Like Jagger" - 27,944 total views and Selena Gomez "Meet & Tweet" - 20,284 total views.
As their YouTube presence indicates, Shafer's successful targeting of the youth market seemed most evident in the booking of the headline concerts. The stage included what might be considered prime bookings for at a rodeo-centric fair, such as country music stalwarts Keith Urban and Reba Macintyre, and newer country stars like Brad Paisley and Jason Aldean, but the 2014 line-up included Selena Gomez, Usher and Maroon 5, each of whom sold more than 75,000 tickets, essentially filling the stadium to capacity.
"That was the only fair stage Maroon 5 played this year and they are the hottest thing," said Shafer. "We were able to partner with their marketing for the show and it turned out great. We want to hit the traditional demographic for fairs, but we are constantly looking for the younger crowds and they are coming to the fair."
Besides an emphasis on diversity and catering to the Gen Y/Millennial demographic with the headline shows, Shafer's other booking philosophy is do not under-sell weekdays. With the potential of drawing spring breakers, top youth-market stars such as Jason Aldean and Robin Thicke played to near sell-out crowds on Tuesday Nights, typically one of the weakest nights of any fair. "The weekends will take care of themselves, we go right after the kids on spring break with our weekday bookings on what would normally be a slow night," said Shafer.
Midway Muscles Up
"Our carnival pre-sale tickets were massive, and we sold 286,650 Fast Pass tickets, the most we ever sold," said Shafer, referring to the premium elite Midway ticket program. Ray Cammack Shows (RCS), the Rodeo's midway provider since 1994, marked its 20th anniversary in Houston with 80 rides, 54 games and 37 food booths. According to Shafer, "more than 2.4 million total riders enjoyed the rides and more than 1.5 million total players took their chances at the carnival games… Sixty-two 18-wheelers full of stuffed animals were awarded at the carnival."
Shafer stated that 75,000 rode RCS's famed La Grande Ferris Wheel with other top ride contenders being the Sky Ride, Windstorm and Euroslide.
According to Shafer, numbers were up for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, despite needing to compete with last year's 21-day blockbuster and not always cooperative weather patterns.
"We had a few days of colder than normal and rainy weather but overall we saw good crowds on all days," said Shafer, who celebrated a milestone of his 40th Show on the Show's management team. It was reported in the local press that Shafer will soon move to an "emeritus" position with the fair. What he feels best about is strengthening the bond between area residents and the winter fair they call their own. "We had a tremendous fair this year and tremendous support from the community."
Advice to other fair managers from this veteran marketer? The Houston Livestock and Rodeo Show is not just an annual event, or a stop on the professional rodeo circuit and a quasi-trade show for the regional livestock industry, but part of the fabric of what it means to live in this part of the Lone Star State. "It is not age, it is not gender, you market to," said Shafer. "It is lifestyle."