Already Stung By SXSW's Cancellation, Austin Businesses Brace For More Events To Get Called Off

Mar 11, 2020

Cindy Lo spent the weekend after South by Southwest was canceled reassessing things. The owner of Red Velvet Events and her 27 employees have a reputation for transforming spaces into experiences for clients like Mercedes Benz and Tito’s Vodka. The loss of the festival could have been worse for her.

“Because of the way our contracts are written, we get paid for the planning up to the point, so that actually didn’t hurt us financially,” she said. “It hurt more [for] the hourly contractors.”      

Red Velvet Events designed the Mercedes-Benz house for SXSW in 2019.
Credit Thomas Burblies / Red Velvet Events

The temp workers she hired for the week were all cut.

“We had 822 hours on the books that were supposed to be paid out to these contractors,” she said. “That’s the painful part. That’s people who were saving up probably for this time to kind of catch up, or maybe get ahead, and now they can’t. So that’s unfortunate.”   

To put that into perspective, that’s like you and 19 of your coworkers not getting paid for a week. 

Over 34 years, a financial ecosystem has grown up around SXSW. Big companies may sponsor events, but they hire locally to put them into action. 

Amanda Fairman did freelance work for live music events. At the end of last year, she and a friend decided to put all their festival experience to work and open their own print shop, Bluebonnet Custom Graphics.

“We’re both at a point where we want to grow with what we’re doing and I want to take something that’s not as gig-heavy," she said. "So we launched the print shop and everything started to take off."

Before SXSW, Bluebonnet had $50,000 in orders for T-shirts, bags, flyers – the swag you would get from shows and conferences. 

“That was the biggest number we had ever gotten to,” Fairman said. “So, we were pretty excited to even see that on paper, just seeing it in quotes, but it was heartbreaking because Friday, it was just like, ‘Aaaaand it’s all gone.’” 

For some small-business owners and freelancers, SXSW was like Black Friday, Christmas, Super Tuesday… whatever metaphor you prefer. 

Without it, things are bad. And without other events on Austin’s calendar, conditions could get dire.

Hoping to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, the City of Austin and Travis County expanded the ban on mass gatherings this week. Officials are allowing big events only if they check specific boxes.

“Some of the things we are going to be looking at as far as the criteria would be crowd density, whether it’s going to be an indoor or outdoor event, the layout of the venue, whether the event is a registered or nonregistered event, the number of participants that may be coming from areas that are affected by the COVID-19 outbreak within the last 14 days of that event,” Stephanie Hayden, director with Austin Public Health, said Friday. 

MotoGP, the world’s top level of motorcycle racing, postponed its Austin race until November. The Americas Grand Prix, which was to take place the first weekend in April, would have been MotoGP’s first event of the year after two other races were canceled or postponed due to virus concerns.

The Austin Urban Music Festival announced Wednesday it will be postponed. It was supposed to happen the last weekend of the month.

Eighteen other upcoming events are “being reviewed” by Austin Public Health. And that's just the big stuff; corporate meetings and conferences of all sizes are on the ropes.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler said last week the city will deal with all the ramifications from these cancellations. One of those ramifications will be financial insecurity for a city that has not had too much of it in the last decade.

Lo said opening her email and picking up the phone has been difficult.

“What really is hurting us is this future fear,” she said. “So, April, May and June – they’re starting to say, ‘Wow, if you can’t have South By, maybe you can’t have my April program.’ And they’re starting to inquire about that and that’s what’s scary.”      

Red Velvet's yearly goal is probably unattainable. But for now, the team holds on.

Fairman says she's still hoping to finish some work for Rodeo Austin to sustain her print shop. In the meantime, she’ll pick up live music production shifts – assuming there are some to pick up.