SXSW cancels its 400K-person conference due to coronavirus

SXSW has officially announced it will cancel its tech and music conference slated for March 13th to 22nd in Austin, Texas due to concerns around coronavirus, though it’s exploring rescheduling. “Based on the recommendation of our public health officer and our director of public health . . . I’ve gone ahead and declared a local disaster in the city and associated with that, have issued an order that effectively cancels SXSW,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler at a press conference today.

SXSW writes that it will follow the mayor’s order and cancel its conference. “We are exploring options to reschedule the event and are working to provide a virtual SXSW online experience as soon as possible for 2020 participants, starting with SXSW EDU. For our registrants, clients, and participants we will be in touch as soon as possible and will publish an FAQ.” It’s unclear if attendees or sponsors will receive refunds.

Interim health authority for Austin Dr. Mark Escott said that there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Travis County, but called the cancellation a “proactive step in preparing this community for this storm.” He said that because people would be spending long periods of time near each other at panels and concerts, and because some registered attendees hail from international and domestic areas with COVID-19 exposure, cancelling SXSW was the right move. Not all future events will need to be cancelled, though, Escott explained.

US President Barack Obama speaks during a South by Southwest Interactive with Texas Tribune editor Evan Smith (L) at the Long Center for Performing Arts in Austin, Texas on March 11, 2016. / AFP / MANDEL NGAN

The news comes just three days after Adler held a press conference to announce that, “At this point, there’s no evidence that cancelling SXSW makes us safer.” As of Tuesday, Austin’s Travis County said Thursday that it had zero confirmed cases of COVID-19.

SXSW is known as a central gathering point for the tech, music and media industries that gather to learn from each other while enjoying the Texas weather, beer and barbecue. A decade ago it was the hot place to launch new social apps. Though over the years as the event grew less nerdy and more mainstream, SXSW became more of an exhibition space for well-funded companies to prove that they’re cool.

A petition to cancel the 2020 conference had reached 54,000 signatures. Entrepreneurship influencer Tim Ferris had called on Adler to cancel the event. SXSW had been refusing to offer refunds to trade show booth-buyers and attendees. A full-access platinum badge for the conference currently costs $1,550.

AUSTIN, TX – MARCH 11: Josh Constine, Mike Krieger and Kevin Systrom speak onstage at Interactive Keynote: Instagram founders Kevin Systrom & Mike Krieger with Josh Constine during the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Austin Convention Center on March 11, 2019 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Saucedo/Getty Images for SXSW)

The conference was put in a tough position by the pull-out of many of its highest-profile sponsors, speakers and party organizers. Netflix, Apple, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, Vevo, TikTok, Warner/HBO and CNN had all cancelled events, product announcements, film premieres and speaking appearances by their employees.

Many other major tech conferences had already cancelled or moved online, including Google I/O, Facebook F8, GDC, Collision Toronto and Mobile World Congress. Music festivals like Ultra in Miami and Tomorrowland in Belgium had cancelled too. Lime president Joe Kraus was slated to hold a fireside chat with me at SXSW but had already cancelled this morning.

But the impact on Austin could be especially pronounced. SXSW isn’t a traditional festival held at one massive site. It’s spread across hundreds of venues across the city that all run panels, parties and concerts simultaneously. For musicians in particular, expensive travel rearrangements and tight touring schedules could make cancellation of SXSW a serious burden on their businesses and something that’s tough to reschedule. The city’s bars, restaurants, venues and hotels that benefit from the hundreds of thousands of attendees could take a significant revenue hit, as well.