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Mario Ariza Takes Final Bow as Head of Houston First Theater District

Mario Ariza head shot

A legacy of dedicated leadership and service  

After two decades as head of Houston First Corporation’s Theater District, Mario Ariza is exiting stage left. He will serve his final month as chief operating officer of the Theater Division when he retires in August. Mario has been responsible for the operations and supervised the management teams at some of Houston’s most recognizable performance venues, including Wortham Theater Center, Jones Hall, Miller Outdoor Theatre, Talento Bilingue de Houston and the Theater District Parking Garages.

Mario & Dawn

When it comes to operating performance venues, Mario has done it all. He started working for the city of Houston in 1991 as a maintenance supervisor at the Wortham. Before being promoted to manager at the now-defunct Music Hall, Mario held positions as an event coordinator, booking supervisor and assistant facility manager. Then in 1997, he was tapped to oversee all of the city’s Theater District properties.   

One of the highlights of his career was his role in the city’s recovery after Tropical Storm Allison in 2001. In response to floodwaters that decimated numerous buildings downtown, Mario and his team were able to relocate displaced downtown commuters to satellite parking facilities within one week and fully restored the ravaged Theater District parking operations within three months. He also oversaw a $10 million flood recovery effort at the Wortham and Jones Hall with virtually no disruption to the performance schedules. 

Here’s a brief excerpt from a recent interview with Mario, where he shares more about his dreams for the future of the theater district, his legacy and retirement. 
Q – Houston First:  Can you share one of your most memorable accomplishments as head of the Theater District?
A – Mario:  “I think it’s working with people, being able to finally create that cohesiveness in the art groups, with all the major organizations. That was, I think one of the most challenging areas as well, but at the end we saw it was very rewarding for all of us. I truly believe I was able to earn their trust and vice versa to the point that we can probably almost communicate by just looking at each other.”

Q - Houston First:  What would you like your legacy to be? 
A – Mario:  “Delivering the best customer service we can possibly have; providing quality and maintaining the facilities, so that all Houstonians, everybody who comes to the theater can have a wonderful experience and keep coming back. That’s why years ago, I introduced the mystery shopper in the theater district to see how well we were doing, to see how my employees were performing and to see how the parking operation was functioning because when patrons come to our venues, we can either enhance their day or destroy the evening for them. If they start with a bad experience, just by coming into our parking garage, they’re not going to enjoy the show.”

Q – Houston First:  What advice do you have for the person who takes your place?
A – Mario:  “First they need to like what they’re doing; they need to enjoy it and have fun with it. They need to listen to their employees, listen to even the lowest tier employee, because they’re the ones who are going to do the job for you and make it a lot easier for you. You’d be surprised at how many good ideas will come from them.  Treat everybody the way you’d want to be treated, listen to them, be kind to them, and empower them to do their job.  Make sure you work very close with the art groups, resident companies, clients, customers, patrons, and listen to the patrons because that’s how we can improve and we always have room to improve.”

Mario Ariza B-day Group3

Q - Houston First:  What dreams do you have for the future of Houston’s theater district?
A – Mario:  “I hope the theater district becomes a destination for Houston. It’s one of the largest theater districts or cultural districts that we have in the nation, so I wish that it becomes a destination and I know we are working very hard to accomplish that. It’s not going to be easy to get there, but it’s not impossible, everybody just needs to work together to make it happen.”

Q – Houston First:  What plans do you have for retirement?
A – Mario:  “Well, when I figure it out I will let you know. I know there’s another life after work and I think retirement is actually a good life. I’m looking forward to every day being Saturday and not getting up in the morning. I know I want to spend time with my 88-year old mother in Columbia, and I will be busy at home taking care of a very long list of honey-do’s.”

Mario started his career in hospitality shortly after coming to Houston from his native Columbia to study English at Rice University. He and his wife, Kyle have two children. 

Although he won’t be center stage anymore as head of the theater district, Mario said what he will miss most is his colleagues, but he'll be cheering them on from the sidelines.

Look for more of Mario’s interview in the upcoming Houston First News video.  


NOTE: We will have information on Hurricane Harvey and the GRB and the Theater District in an upcoming Leadership Update.

Enterprise Development
Partnership & Events

No updates this month.

Strategic Planning

Planning continues for the upcoming innovative retreats for the GHCVB Executive Committee and the HFC Board of Directors in September.
The processes are underway for the departments to draft 2018 capital plans and 2018-2019 business plans.

Avenida Houston Shop

Avenida Houston Shop continues to expand its selection of merchandise to better serve Hilton and GRB guests. The men's department has grown to include items such as ties, dress socks, belts and handmade shaving kits. The shop also geared up for the summer with pool necessities; guests can find swimsuits, swim trunks, sandals and the trendy round beach towels. 

State Line Designs, a successful LAUNCH vendor, is now available at both Flight and Avenida Houston Shop.

Hilton Americas-Houston

No updates this month.

Avenida Houston

No updates this month.

Cultural Development

Intern and mural1

With the help of summer intern, Kennedy Hayes, Cultural Programs repurposed a mural created during Houston LIVE at Super Bowl LI. The paper mural has been temporarily relocated to the Level 2 elevator lobby of Partnership Tower. The mural’s first life was created over eight days, when families and fans came together to replicate Gonzo247’s now iconic mural "Houston Is Inspired" using nothing more than dot stickers.

Mural level 2 elevator

The mosaic making activity reflected the true team spirit of Houston residents and Houstonians at heart. The new installation for the mural has already been popping up on social media as a favorite place for visitors to the Avenida to take a selfie.

Cultural Facilities

NOTE:  We will have more on recovery and repairs in the Theater District after Hurricane Harvey in an upcoming Leadership Update. 

Sales and Marketing

The Theater District sales team booked the following new shows since the last report:

  • Texas Parks & Wildlife Foundation: The Wild Texas Film Tour – September 27, 2017, Wortham Center
  • Gabriel Couisnard: FUNTOBERFEST – October 7, 2017, Jones Plaza
  • Shawna Letcher: Roots Reggae Houston Music Festival – October 8, 2017, Jones Plaza
  • Brilliant Lecture Series: An Evening with Former Secretaries of State – October 10, 2017, Jones Hall
  • Texas Women's Empowerment Foundation: TWEF Family Celebration – October 13-14, 2017, Jones Plaza
  • Flamart: Houston Latin Fest – October 15, 2017, Jones Plaza
  • Voss Events: RuPaul’s Drag Race – October 20, 2017, Wortham Center
  • Teco Theatrical: Momma’s Boy – October 24-29, 2017, Wortham Center
  • Indo-American Assn: Gaata Rahe Mera Dil – November 11, 2017, Wortham Center
  • Southern US Falun Dafa Assn: Shen Yun – December 22-27, 2017, Jones Hall

Tickets for the following shows have gone on sale since the last report:

  • Whispers from India – September 17, 2017, Wortham Center
  • The Wild Texas Film Tour – September 27, 2017, Wortham Center
  • Luis de Alba – September 30, 2017, Wortham Center
  • Martha Graham Dance Company – October 1, 2017, Wortham Center
  • An Evening with Former Secretaries of State – October 10, 2017, Jones Hall
  • RuPaul’s Drag Race – October 20, 2017, Wortham Center
  • Momma’s Boy – October 24-29, 2017, Wortham Center
  • Shen Yun – December 22-27, 2017, Jones Hall
Jones Hall/Plaza/Outdoors

July was a quiet month at Jones Hall and Jones Plaza. The season is over for our resident companies – Houston Symphony and Society for the Performing Arts. The symphony hosted a few special events, including The Music of Prince and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with live orchestral accompaniment. The overall attendance for the hall was 14,221. The Plaza had one event this month, Big Freedia, with attendance totaling 1,600. According to reliable sources, the Butter Beer served during the Harry Potter event was delicious!

Miller Outdoor Theatre

No updates this month.

Talento Bilingue de Houston

The children participating in the Talento Bilingue Summer Arts Program have benefitted from the activities provided to them by The Museum of Fine Arts, The Houston Ballet and Rice University. Activities included tours of the MFA, hip-hop to modern dance classes and from Rice University, the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program. TBH is working with Rice in hopes of developing STEM into STEAM by including the arts.

Raymond Orga, an up-and-coming Mexican-American comedian from the Texas Valley, performed to a full house of fans.

Theater District Parking

The installation of 894 individual space parking guidance systems on the first level of the Blue, Yellow and Green garages was substantially completed on August 10. This will enhance the customer experience in finding parking in all three of the garages.

Wortham Theater Center

July brought 6,748 patrons to the Wortham Theater Center to enjoy events, including the second visit from Talcon Ways Dr. Caesar Lozano, and SPA presented Neil Gaiman. The Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Houston annual presentation this year was The Gondoliers.

Convention Facilities

NOTE:  We will have more on Hurricane Harvey and the GRB in an upcoming Leadership Update.

George R. Brown/Avenida Houston Plaza

GRB Right AngleThe George R. Brown Convention Center hosted four major conventions in July; we were pleased to welcome the Texas High School Coaches Association, Texas Parent Teachers Association, Texas Association of Sport Officials and Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston Annual Youth Conference. Additionally, we hosted six non-convention events which included: Bridal Extravaganza, High Caliber Gun & Knife Show, 2017 Juvenile Arthritis Conference, Hess Town Hall Meeting and the Tiger-Rock Martial Arts World Championship.

The Convention & Facilities Services Department also conducted nine site visits in addition to managing each of the convention and non-convention events with attendance totaling 39,809. 


GRB Sustainability

GRB Donates to the Houston Food Bank

The George R. Brown Convention Center continues to look for innovative ways to donate and give back to the community. The GRB's food recovery initiative is one of the ways the convention center gives back. By connecting with local non-profit organizations to build partnerships and streams to divert recyclables, and by continuing to work with its food vendors, the GRB is able to make a difference.

Houston Food Bank stops by GRB

In July, we were able to donate food to the Houston Food Bank that was collected after one of our events at the GRB. This is food that might have otherwise been thrown away, but instead went to help feed those in need. Wanda Adams, sustainability manager, partnered with GRB convention managers to collect the items to be donated. 

In June, the GRB team diverted over 6.94 tons of waste from the landfill and donated 1,120 pounds to local charities. At the George R. Brown Convention Center, the goal is to continue to lead Houston First in sustainability innovation, while giving back to local non-profit organizations.

Avenida Parking

In July, visitors, events and meetings at the GRB utilized 56,605 parking spaces.
Avenida Central Garage: 7,889 cars
Avenida South Garage: 19,079 cars
Avenida North Garage: 21,002 cars
Tundra Garage: 8,635 cars

Additionally, for event drop-off and pick-up, HISD utilized the South Transit Center for the Texas High School Coaches Association.


In July, the citywide team generated over 77,400 possible room nights with conferences, utilizing one of our convention facilities, while the non-citywide team added over 80,000 tentative room nights for conventions for future years.

Additionally, members of the sales team attended the Council of Engineering Scientific Society Executives Annual Meeting, which featured executives who plan significant meetings in the corporate, association and specialty markets. 

Client Services

Client Services conducted nine planning site visits for upcoming conventions: International Facility Management Association (October 2017), Experient e4 Conference (July 2017), National Apostolate of Maronites (July 2018), Adventist-Laymen’s Services & Industries (August 2017), Breakbulk Americas (October 2017), Walmart Stores (February 2018), ACPA-College Student Educators International (March 2018), Conference for the Advancement of Mathematics Teaching (July 2018), and Project Management Institute (November 2017).

Client Services travelled to: St. Louis, MO, to preview details of Herbalife Extravaganza (tentative July 2018); Fort Worth, TX, for attendance promotion for Conference for the Advancement of Mathematics Teaching (July 2018), and Gaylord National Harbor, MD, for attendance promotion for National Association of Drug Court Professionals (May/June 2018).

Event Services

Events Services assisted with six events in July: Matching Grants Seminar, Helmsbriscoe FAM, Smithsonian's Houston Business Leaders Breakfast, Manchester United Soccer Game, CESSE Annual Meeting in Quebec and Experient's e4 Annual Conference in Houston.

Corporate Culture

Corporate Culture assisted with four events in July: two health seminars, 10 Reasons to Exercise, July 11 and Dining Out in Houston, July 25. The team also held an HRA Training and Fruit Friday each week in July where employees could enjoy a healthy snack.

General Counsel

HFC Summer Internship Program
General Counsel would like to wish our summer intern, Jasmine Jordan, good luck as he returns back to school. He has done a great job and we will certainly miss him and his smile!

General Counsel received a total of eight proposals for the Audio-Visual and Rigging Services Request for Proposals, which will be evaluated by our Procurement Department. General Counsel has prepared the Jones Plaza Re-Design Project Request for Qualifications, due September 5, 2017, and is currently preparing a solicitation for Hotel Asset Management at the Hilton Americas Hotel.

Professional Development
Our department often seeks opportunities to advance the personal and professional development of the legal team through continuing legal education (CLE) courses and leadership seminars. In July, Assistant General Counsel, Mark Goldberg attended the Texas Bar College 19th Annual Summer School CLE in Galveston, TX.  The Texas Bar College is an essential seminar for general practitioners with new topics and updates in a variety of practice areas that range from intellectual property to labor and employment law. Staff Attorney, Raenesha Jackson, attended the 29th Annual Advanced Government Law seminar and Government Law Boot Camp in Austin, TX.  Raenesha learned from and networked with some of Texas’ best and brightest attorneys representing firms and agencies throughout the state, including the Office of the Attorney General, City of Houston, Texas Department of Transportation, and Texas Municipal League.


Visit Houston Says Hola in Europe and Mexico City

Visit Houston conducted two successful sales missions in July with the objective of attracting more international visitors from top international markets, in the United Kingdom, Germany and Mexico. 

London cabbie interior
Lunch & Learn Memorial Park1

In Europe, Visit Houston took over London the week of July 10, during Mayor Sylvester Turner’s official visit, making a real splash by ‘dressing’ two of the traditional cabbies with Visit Houston colors and logo. These cabbies were then used to drive around the city conducting sales calls with travel trade    professionals to promote Houston’s attractions and attributes that make our city a premier travel destination.

In Frankfurt, Germany, Visit Houston organized a round table discussion for Mayor Turner and the Houston delegation with five top media representatives. Then a successful media breakfast was held in Munich with the Houston Symphony that received positive responses from the German media with 12 journalists in attendance. Visit Houston also conducted sales calls and destination trainings in both German cities.

Jorge at Mexico event with Xmas treeThe Mexico mission, the week of July 24, brought in media and travel trade to celebrate our city’s culture, gastronomy and a special annual Christmas in July event. The Hola Houston campaign was live in all activations in Mexico City, which included a mural by Houston artist, GONZO247, and a culinary tasting by Chef Ryan Pera (Revival Market and Coltivare). Visit Houston was also joined by local partners representing CityPASS, River Oaks District, Westin Galleria and Westin Oaks hotels, and worked closely with the World Corporate Games to promote the upcoming event in Mexico City.

Mexico is Houston’s number one international market, followed by Canada, UK and Germany. In 2015, 3.2 million international visitors arrived in Houston having a direct economic impact of $2.9 billion for our city.

Ongoing Local Initiatives:

  • Houston Marketplace – online at –continues to expand the offer of things to do in Houston.
  • Tourism Incentive Program (TIP) – launched third year of annual program, currently accepting letters of intent.
  • New Visitor Center at Hobby Airport – scheduled to open in the fall.

International PR:

  • International PR organized two individual Media FAMs, one for a German online TV magazine called “Check-in,” hosted by local artist GONZO247; and another for a reporter from Glamour magazine Mexico.
  • International publicity value for July: $519,890; Total worldwide impressions: 16 million. 

New members in July were: College Nannies Sitters & Tutors of Katy/Bellaire, Perfect Wedding Guide, Thompson & Co. Public Relations, Ristorante Cavour, State of Grace, Local Foods - Downtown, Chef Liu Restaurant, Yauatcha The Galleria, Line & Lariat, Monarch Bistro, The Lounge - The Magnolia Houston, Bar Malatesta, Il Giardino.

Corporate Affairs

The Houston First community relations team along with board members, stakeholders and Houston First staff, participated in the following community investment events during the month of July:

  • Houston Minority Business Development Agency 3rd Annual Salute to Minorities in Construction luncheon
  • Hotel Lodging Association of Greater Houston luncheon
Public Affairs    

The Public Affairs team, in conjunction with our partners, Texas Travel Industry Association and Texas Hotel Lodging Association have actively monitored the State of Texas' Special Legislative Session at the Capitol. We continuously communicate our opposition to our legislators regarding any legislation affecting Houston's welcoming image such as "Bathroom Bills." We continue to work with U.S. Travel Association and National Tour Association to monitor Congressional hearings on topics directly impacting travel and tourism, such as the Visa Waiver program, airport modernization, Brand USA funding, travel bans and TSA. Congress has recessed for the month of August and will reconvene in September.   

Marketing and Communications

In July, Visit Houston's network of websites generated nearly 500,000 visits. Media value was $4 million with a national audience of over 18 million people.

Public relations pitches and activity resulted in several stories in the media. Houston First Corp. initiatives and meetings also received coverage. Pieces were included in: Southern Living,, MSN, Forbes Travel Guide, Houston Life, Pink Mama’s Place, Singletracks, Events in America, KHOU’s Great Day Houston, On a Dime Destinations, Accessible Go here and here, Texas Architects Magazine, FlipKey, Prevue Magazine, PCMA Convene, Meetings + Events, Prevue Magazine, Houston Chronicle here and here, Glasstire, CultureMap, My San Antonio, LAUNCH Houston Style Setter - Sydney Dao, Business Traveler, Smart Meetings, Connect Assoc. Magazine.

In partnership with KHOU’s Great Day Houston, the marketing department’s Pack Your Bag Challenge wrapped up this month. To end this summer's season of staycation promotions, we visited Viet Ho, Ninfa’s in EaDo, Harwin, 8th Wonder Brewery, and Lake Houston Wilderness Park.

The team conducted one interview promoting Houston and hosted three journalists who visited Houston. This included freelancers with On a Dime Destinations, Punch Drink and Hayden Cohen.

Film Commission

During July, Houston hosted 21 film and video productions resulting in 106 filming days with direct expenditures of $1,501,500 and an economic impact of more than $4,504,500. 

Some of these projects include:

Commercials: Dick’s Sporting Goods, Texaco, Aegis Security, Major League Baseball, Papa John’s and HEB.
Feature Film: Dusty Mesa “untitled.”
Television Series/Cable Series: My 600 LB. Life, Matador Content “untitled,” Texas Metal, The Vet Life, Monster Food, Countdown To Murder, True Crime and Manny.
Documentary/Industrials: British Petroleum, Apache Corporation and National Geographic.
Still Photography: Ford Expedition Catalogue shoot.
Music Video/Corporate Video: We Up To Something and Houston Eye Associates.

The Houston Film Commission hosted the following informational presentations:

  • The Houston Film Commission was guest speaker at 14 Pews Teen Filmmaking Workshop on July 25.
  • The Film Commission served as a panelist and moderator during QFest Film Festival closing night on July 31.
Regional Product Development

Freeway corridor enhancements - Installations to enhance eight bridge fence crossings over I-69 from Tuam Street to Bell Street is complete and due to its popularity, Houston First is adding the Elgin Street crossing to the project! Expect to see work on Elgin in late September. The enhancements consist of weaving colorful strips of high-density vinyl into the existing chain link fences. The strips are pre-printed with color on both sides and depict pixilated images based on photographs by children compiled as part of the publication “In the eyes of Our Children: Houston, an American City”. Enjoy the time-lapse video here. (video credit: Nick de la Torre)

Jones Plaza – The programming work for re-imagining Jones Plaza is complete. The architectural design team selection is underway with selection expected to be complete by the end of the year.  

A new attraction for Houston – Work continues on a market analysis and feasibility study for a new iconic attraction for Houston.  A working group has been formed and meetings with the group, various leaders–including Mayor Turner--and existing attraction operators are complete.

Potential public market – Exploration of potential sites for the establishment of a public market continues with a focus on East Downtown. 

Airport corridor enhancements – As part of our efforts to enhance and better maintain our region’s freeway corridors, Houston First has convened a group of 15 stakeholders who are diligently working on beautification and enhanced maintenance along the “airport corridors.” Discussions are underway with TxDOT to determine how best to implement enhanced maintenance standards.

Finance & Administration

Community Outreach / July 2017: Greater Houston Business Procurement Forum, Greater Houston Black Chamber Luncheon, Houston MBDA – Salute to Minorities in Construction, Camara de Empresarios Latinos de Houston monthly breakfast, Houston Minority Supplier Development Council Panel Discussion, HISD Procurement Networking, and Houston Minority Supplier Development Council Scholarship Luncheon.

Technical Outreach / July 2017: Comfort Systems USA, American Air Conditioning, Short Street Strategic Solutions, Bradlink Inc., K Staffing, Keystone Resources, and Brand IQ Inc.

The full financial management and accountability report can be found here.

Information Technology 

Enterprise Business Applications and Database Management

IT has partnered with Finance to review reporting software for better finance reporting and transparency; we are jointly evaluating available reporting options. IT is continuing work on the creation of the reporting model for financial and budgetary data. Preparation of the Budget Maestro software for 2018 budget season has begun.

The IT department trained the Sales and Events Services team on the use of applications available in the Ungerboeck System Applications. IT is in the process of testing the upgrade of the current version of the Ungerboeck Application.

A new disaster recovery backup site for Houston First is about 89% completed to a cloud base repository.

Enterprise Infrastructure & Network

IT installed LoJack software on 98% of HFC users' laptops and tablets. LoJack is used for better tracking/recovery of lost or stolen IT equipment.

Continued maintenance on the email Active Directory is in process in order to provide better tracking on IT equipment on the network, and active users in the global address book.

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