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Despite Rain and Cold, Houston Livestock and Rodeo Sets Records

4/15/2015

By Timothy Herrick

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Bad weather but good fair? 

Maybe only in Houston Texas - where much of the population shares an unabashed enthusiasm for the traditional, agricultural-based celebration of everything Americana - can such a phenomena occur. 

Or, maybe it's more that the 20-day Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo - which ran February 26th to March 23rd has established itself as a premier Lone Star State event with an intensely loyal following and a reputation for entertainment presentation.

In fact, Joel Cowley, who has been with the Houston event for 11 years but this year was his first in the captain's chair as President and CEO, said "it was probably the worst weather year I've had since I've joined the show."

But ironically, 2015 goes down in the record books as one of most successful events, one of the premier annual showcases of the states livestock and agricultural industry, which generates an estimated $100 billion to the Texas economy. " The industry is vitally important to Texas, and we up in many categories," he said.

2nd Place Attendance
 Total attendance reached 2,483,193, making it the 2nd best attended for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo for a 20-day-run. Rodeo/concert paid attendance reached a record 1,377,477 fans, breaking the previous record set in 2014 with 1,377,416 in paid rodeo/concert attendance. In addition, when the weather cleared, outdoor business was brisk -March 14th had 181,882 attendees, another record day. 

There were several days of rain and at lest "five days of cold and windy weather, below 50 degrees which is not very pleasant," he said. Cowley pointed out that aside from the midway, many of the attractions are indoors, including the wine garden and shopping pavilions. "We essentially were able to hold our own." He said. 

Although operating a fair during the school year can challenging, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo offers several school tour programs (approximately 61,000 students participated in 2015), and its 20 days of operations means the event overlapped with two spring break periods in the Houston area. Total grounds attendance - including both midway and the Rode and Livestock show, which concluded with a concert featuring a nationally known act - reached 2,483,193, reportedly about 3,000 fewer than in 2014. However, a new record was set with 1,377,477 tickets sold to the rodeo and concert series in NRG Stadium.

Hispanic Heritage
The highest attended - and record setting all-time paid rodeo attendance recorded - was Sunday, March 15, featuring La Arrolladora Banda El Limon and La Maquinaria Nortena - 75,357 tickets sold. Seven of the 20 RODEOHOUSTON performances (including Go Tejano Day) are including in the list of the Show's top 20 paid rodeo/concert attendance records. "Our Go Tejano Day performance is annually very popular," said Cowley. "The name is a play on our Go Texan programs. With the updates from the 2015 Show, three of our top five all-time paid rodeo attendance records are for Go Tejano Day performances. We also featured a Mariachi band contest that has become very popular." 

The Houston Livestock and Rodeo has a "Go Tejano Committee," with the main impetus of working towards both Hispanic inclusion and success of the Hispanic content. "The committee is active all year building awareness of or the fair, and promoting Hispanic heritage," said Cowley. "Most of our marketing is bilingual, and it is something we have worked very hard at and we are seeing 2nd and 3rd generations of Hispanic families coming to the fair.

The La Arrolladora Banda El Limon and La Maquinaria Nortena night may have been a record breaker in terms of sold tickets, but it was one of seven shows in 2015 whose ticket sales ranked among the 20 highest selling shows in the history of the Houston event. Other 2015 record breakers included Brad Paisley - 75,167; Ariana Grande - 75,068; Blake Shelton - 75,016; Florida Georgia Line - 75,015; Pitbull - 75,013 and Luke Bryan - 75,0000. 

Booking Challenges
With this sort of track record, Cowley admits he is pleased with the entertainment at this year's Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, but admits, "routing becomes a challenge and there are other challenges with competition. It was more difficult to book acts this year."

Cowley explained that are two full time talent buyers dedicate to creating the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo concert line up, and even before any acts are booked, extensive market surveys are conducted to ascertain what artists are in demand by regional residents. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo has established itself as a premier, annual concert stage - a unique event with 20 concerts -  with a stage that has its own sound and lightening, which Cowley adds "can be an inherent challenge, because a lot of acts want to use their own stage," he said. 

 But most challenges have been created by the drastic upheavals in the music industry. "Touring is more expensive, and acts are more expensive, because it is not like in the old days, where artists toured to sell records, now they are touring to make money and prices have increased," he said. 

The rule of thumb in terms of talent buying is to get the big names first. "They will anchor the line up, so if you can get them early and promote their shows, filling in the other slots becomes easier." 

Houston Unplugged
In addition, social media has become more critical in terms of last-minute marketing. "If ticket sales are slow, we can push ticket sales for the concerts closer to the date of the show, and that has been great. The results are more instantaneous." The social media presence of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo has grown to 118,131 Twitter followers and 464,403 Facebook fans. 

In fact, social media overall had a larger role to play in this year's marketing of the event, especially the rodeo. "Rodeo is a great sport, and fans love the action," he said. "Anything we can do to personalize the athletes and the product is important."

Cowley launched a Houston Rodeo Unplugged YouTube series, featuring interviews with Rode Stars as well as a tongue-in-cheek interview with himself, where he conducts an amusing tour of the grounds and backstage areas, touching on the ironic, self-deprecating humor that is the current zeitgeist. "It was a lot fun and got great feedback," he said. 

Midway Flat
However, inclement weather most noticeably impacted the carnival, which had  ride, game and food gross revenue, according to event organizers, of upwards of $16 million, which though still considerable was described as flat by said Tony Fiori, Vice President of Marketing, Ray Cammack Shows (RCS). RCS has been providing the midway at the Houston Livestock Show and Rode since 1994, and this year showcased 77 rides and 43 games.  

"We had some bad weather, but it is a great fair and organization," said Fiori. "It is such a long event, that while there are always rainy days, you have a better chance of making up for those losses." 

Another unique-to-Houston and Texas was that this year's decline in gasoline prices and other fuel costs caused some apprehension. Many energy companies are headquartered in Texas, and are reliable sponsors and supporters of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Lower prices might delight consumers, but can cut into profitability of these companies. But the opposite turned out to be the case. "We set records or came close to records for all our auctions, and the local energy companies are always strong bidders and this year was no exception."

And on the fairgoer side? "The lower gas prices give our customers more disposable income. There was a feeling that there is more money to spend. Given that the sun was not always shining, maybe having that extra money made them more likely to come to the Rodeo anyway." 


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