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Houston First Acting CEO Michael Heckman Is Working To Bring Events Back To Houston

Houston First Acting President and CEO Michael Heckman speaking at the World Petroleum Council meetings in Astana, Kazakhstan, in October 2018.

Marketing Houston as a destination for conventions, business travel and tourism activity has become particularly difficult since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s the task facing Michael Heckman, the new acting president and CEO of Houston First Corp. The local government organization manages the operation of the George R. Brown Convention Center, as well as a host of other theater and performance venues in Houston.

Houston First also owns the Hilton Americas-Houston Hotel, one of the key hotels next to the convention center. Like much of the hospitality industry in Downtown Houston, the hotel has been heavily affected by the cancellation of conventions and events.

“As a destination management organization, our job is to help promote our attractions, our hotels, our restaurants, to the best that we can. Obviously that's been a huge challenge as of late,” Heckman told Bisnow.

Houston First began to change its strategy in April, recognizing that the pandemic was going to have a serious effect on business travel and tourism in the near future. The organization typically markets Houston as a convention destination to national and international clients. Since the pandemic broke out, Houston First has ramped down its spending on those efforts because of the difficulty surrounding travel.

“Houston really competes on an international stage. And there's just no sense right now in marketing when you're not even able to get on a plane and be able to come to the United States,” Heckman said.

Instead, the organization began working with several hotels in Houston to promote “staycation” packages for local residents, a significant pivot from its usual target demographic. 

“Folks just aren't willing to travel much more than they're able to drive right now. So our focus is certainly on local and regional,” Heckman said.

Houston First has been trying to keep conference agreements in place, despite widespread cancellations. Many trade associations and similar groups have conferences that take place across the U.S. on a rotational basis and have already committed to other conference locations in 2021 or 2022.

“What we've been able to do is, we've been able to work with these organizers, where we're asking them to rebook Houston,” Heckman said. “They want to rebook Houston, but they say, OK, ‘21 and ’22, I'm already committed. And so they're looking at us for the next available year.”

The World Petroleum Congress, a major international conference that occurs once every three years and was slated for Houston this year, has already rebooked for early December 2021, Heckman noted.

The George R. Brown Convention Center in Downtown Houston

Former Houston First CEO Brenda Bazan announced her retirement in July, prompting the organization to select an interim leader. Heckman took the helm on Aug. 6, appointed by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. Prior to his appointment, Heckman was serving as chief operating officer of strategic initiatives, and before that, senior vice president of partnerships and event development.

Houston First has taken a financial hit and is looking at a deficit of about $30M in 2020, according to Heckman. The organization is grappling with a lack of revenue from its managed facilities, as well as minimal hotel occupancy tax revenue from Hilton Americas-Houston.

To try and generate some activity in hard-hit Downtown Houston, Houston First is looking into the possibility of holding a series of live events, which might be able to support its local hotel partners. Such events could be outside to allow for social distancing, but facilitate interaction.

“Crises present you with challenges, but they also present you with opportunities. And that's what we're working on is as quickly as we can,” Heckman said.

Most conferences in 2020 have been canceled, and without a vaccine, there is little certainty around what the next year could hold. Heckman said Houston First is planning for multiple scenarios, with the worst-case scenario extending through the end of 2021.

“There's no silver bullet to it, there really isn't. And that's why we're looking across the spectrum on so many different fronts of how we can do this.”