February 12, 2004
Yvonne Dodson, Director, Commercial Exhibits
HoustonLivestock Show and Rodeo
Dear Ms. Dodson:
In your letter of October, 2003, inviting us to return for the 2004 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, you asked us to share our comments so that you might continue to improve; you also stated that our success is your success. Ongoing contract demands make success impossible for us. We have rented space at the HLSR for some 19 years, and have tremendous respect for that organization and its overall goals. But like any other business, a profit must be made in order to continue.
“Ralph Fisher’s Photo Animals” has appeared as goodwill ambassador and prime example of “Texas” animals on David Letterman and Jay Leno; at the Black Tie and Boots Inaugural Ball in Washington D.C.; at the World Economic Summit; in movies, documentaries, promotions, corporate and private events; and at fairs and rodeos for some 42 years. We were recently chosen to provide Texas Longhorns and armadillos for the new IMAX film, “Texas, The Big Picture”, and to supply Texas animals for the Super Bowl XXXVIII NFL Tailgate pre-game show. We are members or affiliated with the Houston, Austin and San Antonio convention and visitors’ bureaus. Our perfectly tame and beautiful animals’ photos remain on the desks, mantles and walls or in albums, of tens of thousands of homes and offices, each photo holding current or past memories of loved ones or special events. We have taken more photos of folks sitting on Texas Longhorns and Brahmans than anyone else in the world! Many HLSR committees have relied on us to bring a steer over at no charge during the Show, to promote their agenda. We offered discounted photos to all International Guests for years. We rode steers in the rodeo parade for years, and trained steers for use in the rodeo grand entry. We own, and exhibited FREE to the Show for four years, Texas’ first beef clone, Second Chance, cloned from one of our past photo steers. Chance was at the HLSR for thirteen years prior to his death in 1998.
Prior to 1994, we were charged a flat fee for our space as most booths still pay (currently $13/sq. ft.). At that time, some of us were singled out, including food booths and photography-related booths, and another fee was added. That fee was a percentage (18% for food booths; 25% for we designated as “attractions”) above the basic per square foot cost. Therefore, we pay $13 per sq. ft. or 25% of gross sales excluding sales tax, whichever is greater. Our quest to get an explanation of this excessive charge has fallen on deaf ears over the years, and no one of the several commercial exhibits chairmen past or present, has ever given us an answer to the questions: Why do ‘attractions’ pay the highest percentage; and why do most booths pay only a square foot fee? Why are “attractions” given fewer employee badges than food exhibitors? Is not an “attraction” good for the Show? What benefits do we receive by this designation? Is it because we are popular, and some at HLSR think we can be squeezed a little more? Most vendors honestly consider HLSR as greedy and too demanding, although few admit it publicly in fear of losing their booth space.
Our business of taking photos of people sitting on or standing by beautiful tame Texas Longhorn and Brahman cattle, or photo ponies, requires more care and employees trained in this specific endeavor, than most vendors. The booth requires approximately six weekday employees per shift, and twelve weekend employees per shift, to manage this unusual booth efficiently and safely. Also present, but behind the scenes, are six to ten other animals on standby for humane rotation of photo animals. Those animals must all be kept safely and continuously cleaned and fed. We also feed and care for many trained animals year round to assure adequate numbers for our booth. High-tech. photo equipment insures a beautiful finished product; we had the first digital photo equipment at HLSR. We buy all feed and hay from HLSR, pay tie-out spaces for the cattle, pay parking and additional entry badges for employees, pay supply trailer parking space, and pay for additional electrical and telephone hook-ups. Food, hotel, banking, security, fuel, laundry, consumable supplies, labor, other booth costs and annual changes in the booth construction, liability insurance, tips and transportation expenses all benefit either HLSR or Houstonbusinesses. Most of our proceeds either go to HLSR or remain in Houston.
Considering all those additional expenses inherent to doing live animal photos, and the fact that most other booths do not have to pay any percentage of income, or that food vendors do not pay as much as our 25%, we feel we are being treated unfairly. It is our contention that we are being singled out because it appears that we just make too much profit.
In 2003, the 25% additional fee was left out of “attractions” contracts, and we thought that years of protesting had finally been effective. But that appears not to be the case, as it was re-inserted in the 2004 contracts. In 2003, we made an adequate profit for the first time in years, and still paid HLSR $5200 for the 20’x 20’ space rented. Since 1994, we have paid $122,681 in booth rental and percentage of gross. Other vendors simply renting the same size space would have paid $52,000; a difference of $70,681 over 10 years!
Our designation as an “attraction” has never guaranteed us a prime location, only prime costs. We fought every year for desirable locations, and were often put in really bad spots, one year with a support column in the middle of our photo booth! We have asked for a separate pony photo booth for 15 years, and were promised such a booth several times by different Commercial Exhibits chairmen. BUT, we have been given every excuse known to man for not renting us a 10’x 10’ space, while other vendor spaces grew by hundreds of square feet. Then suddenly, in 2002, Petting Zoos of America, sponsored by Kroger, began selling pony photos. They were even allowed to place the cashier and photo equipment out in the traffic walkway: a definite breach of codes. Our most recent request for such a booth was answered by your Commercial Exhibits office as “Oh no, we already have a pony photo vendor.” Big business always wins over individuals at HLSR. For several years, Dodge Trucks (another corporate sponsor) has been allowed to give away FREE photos with a stuffed bull, directly affecting our sales! We strongly objected, but our complaints were ignored. In two of those years, we PAID HLSR almost $27,000 to SELL photos with a bull; Dodge Trucks gave away FREE photos with a bull. Big business rules again at Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
We have offered free photos daily to all physically or mentally handicapped persons of any age, sex or race for ALL of our nineteen years at the Show. Those free photos number in the thousands, and are verified by the hundreds of letters-of-thanks to HLSR and us. We made the photo of a lifetime available, without any charge, to those less fortunate.
In addition to these free photos, this year, 2004, we offered HLSR TWO of the twenty days at the Show, to give the handicapped and mentally challenged visitors, the use of our animals and staff for petting and FREE photos in our booth. Those days could be promoted in media prior to the rodeo, and would show the citizens how wonderfully generous and caring HLSR really is. Even better than the “hard luck” calf at the calf scramble each night; this would have given a “warm and fuzzy” feeling towards HLSR. The only stipulation was that Ralph Fisher’s Photo Animals would receive some financial relief (undetermined) from the added 25%. After weeks of waiting for a reply, we received this negative answer from your office, “This has gone all the way to the top, and the answer is ‘NO’!” HLSR, or those making that decision, have traded a wonderful opportunity to promote goodwill by giving something FREE to the underprivileged, for their appetite of extracting as much from vendors as possible. Any effort towards “goodwill” has become a novelty at today’s Show.
In addition to all the normal costs of doing business, you have added the burden of excessive expenses and percentages. Due to these conditions and contract demands, we are forced to withdraw our application to attend the 2004 Show as a vendor. Our consideration to return in the future will be determined by the answers to the many questions and concerns raised in this letter.
It presents a heavy burden of sadness on my entire organization and family to give up my photo booth for the 2004 HLSR, since we have been there for nineteen years, always looking good, and providing a safe enjoyable experience to so many. We were among the vendors who “stuck with HLSR” during the construction years when crowds were down, and conditions were bleak. The Rodeo’s desire for higher and higher profits, at the expense of the businesses that make the Show great, is a disturbing trend. Our experience of increasing expenses and higher costs is not unique among HLSR vendors; it will eventually affect the overall success of the Show as more and more decide not to return.
Houston Rodeo…..”Who’s looking out for you?”
Cc: Chairman of the Board, President/C.E.O., Chief Operating Officer, Vice Presidents, Executive Committee members, Lifetime Members of the Executive Committee, Executive Project Manager