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A different case for canceling SXSW in Austin

(EDITORIAL) SXSW is a massive conference that draws an international crowd, but one mega-population won’t attend amidst coronavirus fears. Time to cancel.

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Internationally, the coronavirus is forcing everyone to adjust their plans – how often they interact in public, and most definitely whether or not they go to crowded places.

Major conferences are being cancelled, the NCAA basketball tournament could be audience-free and televised only, and there are talks regarding whether or not to allow viewers to attend the olympics or if they should be cancelled altogether.

And from March 13-22, there’s SXSW in Austin, Texas where we are headquartered. The organizers have publicly stated, even up to today, that plans will move forward, despite a “handful” of speaker cancellations (including Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey).

A petition to cancel SXSW has spread, garnering over 15K signatures so far. That list of names is snowballing as people are asking their bosses if they can work remotely, buying frozen food in bulk, and worrying about the endless unknowns about the coronavirus (incubation periods, treatments, vaccines, recurring cases).

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But is a petition and fear enough to cancel an international conference that boosts a city’s bottom line (and pours billions of dollars into a dependent ecosystem) enough to shut down SXSW? Are we simply overreacting?

Maybe.

Regardless, SXSW is still announcing new featured speakers like Adam Schiff, Beto O’Rourke, and Hillary Clinton. Ignore the theme of that list, and focus on the point that this film, tech, and music mega-conference has done little to assuage fears aside from updating their “safety resources” page to encourage folks to take “precautions” recommended by the World Health Organization.

“SXSW is working closely on a daily basis with local, state, and federal agencies to plan for a safe event,” organizers said in a statement yesterday. “As a result of this dialogue and the recommendations of Austin Public Health [available here], the 2020 event is proceeding with safety as a top priority.”

The conference organizers added, “At this time, no health departments in the state have requested the cancellation of any gatherings as the current risk of person-to-person spread in their jurisdictions remains low. Historically, March is not a peak international travel month in Austin, but we will continue to monitor. Information and practices are changing during this rapidly evolving situation and we will continue to follow national guidelines. This being said, there are no imminent plans to postpone any current events.”

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As an event organizer myself, I can tell you that there’s nothing more terrifying than a threat, be it health or otherwise. Peoples’ livelihoods depend on this event, and I promise there is fear and frustration at the SXSW corporate offices. I still think there is a chance the event will be pared back, but at this point, it doesn’t look like a cancellation is likely.

What will be different this year (besides fear and the fact that coronavirus will be part of every single in-person discussion), is that for the first time since it’s inception, the festival will likely be absent of locals which typically accounts for a huge portion of attendance and which populates their massive army of volunteers.

I personally spoke with nearly 100 people to gauge sentiment in Austin regarding SXSW, and unanimously, folks were surprised it wasn’t cancelled, and indicated they had changed their plans to attend, noting that they would be avoiding downtown for the duration of the conference. Unanimously.

There are a lot of jokes online about SXSW being the reason Austin will be host to a major wave of coronavirus after the conference, and that feeling is no surprise…

If you’ve shopped in the past week in Austin, you know that it is very hard to find hand sanitizer, rubbing alcohol, and even less common items like deep freezers, and ammo.

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Locals are not taking any risks. And that includes attending SXSW.

Therefore, this begs the question – will locals excluding themselves cripple SXSW’s earning capacity? Fears may be overblown, I grant you that, especially given that no communal cases have hit the Austin area, but people are opting out because they’d rather live than hear a surprise concert from a famous rapper, learn about cool robots, or watch a screening of an indie film.

It is my personal opinion that SXSW is literally the best conference on the planet. We’ve been involved for over a decade. And the organizers are in an impossible situation. Truly.

But with so many unknowns about the coronavirus, shoving thousands of people into close proximity is running more and more people off, be they speakers, performers, attendees, or just about everyone that lives in Austin. It’s time for SXSW organizers to make the painful call to cancel. Or at least postpone for the fall.

But they won’t.

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Here are some recent reactions from the ol’ internets:

Lani is the COO and News Director at The American Genius, has co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH, Austin Digital Jobs, Remote Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: How COVID-19 is forcing Austin tech companies to adjust to remote work, personal travel

  2. Pingback: SXSW has been cancelled - here's how it went down

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