‘Everyone wants the biggest party’: SXSW is back for the first time in two years

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In 2020, the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, was one of the first major events to be canceled because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Travel plans were upended, venues were shuttered and many businesses took a hit.

Now, after going entirely virtual last year, festival organizers and local business owners say they are ready, and excited, to welcome thousands back to Austin for the event, which kicks off Friday in person for the first time in three years. There will also be an online component to the festival, making it a hybrid event.

“People are anxious, but people’s expectations are healthy,” said Stephen Sternschein, managing partner at Heard Presents, an event promotion and marketing company based in Austin. “Everyone is just pent up, ready to let their hair down and figure out how to have more fun.”

In 2019 alone, the event — which features film screenings, concerts and panels with appearances from celebrities, business leaders and innovators — drew more than 417,000 visitors from 106 countries, according to reports released by SXSW. It raked in a record-breaking $355.9 million for the city’s economy.

This year, while the total number of visitors may end up being lower, festival organizers still expect large crowds.

“It’s hard to predict what the final numbers will be, but one way or another, it is going to be a healthy turnout,” Hugh Forrest, SXSW chief programming officer, said. “There will be a lot of people at various panel sessions, presentations, films and music festivals.”

‘Busiest week of the year’

With thousands of attendees each year, SXSW, also known as South By, is usually considered the most profitable event for Austin’s hospitality industry.

“Before the pandemic, South By accounted for up to 50 percent of annual income for venues, bars and restaurants,” said Cody Cowan, executive director of Red River Cultural District, a nonprofit organization that represents a cultural hot spot neighborhood in the heart of the city.

Jeff Mettler, partner of popular restaurant Home Slice Pizza, described the conference as “the busiest week of the year for Austin.”

On an average week, Home Slice sells about 2,500 pizza pies and more than 4,000 individual slices.

During SXSW week, the local pizza joint typically produces almost double that amount, churning out over 3,500 pies and 10,000 slices.

But production has not ramped up to that scale since 2019, when SXSW was last held in person, Mettler said.

“The past two years were devastating for us, both in revenue and in morale, and for every business in the hospitality industry,” he said.

Mettler is hopeful that 2022 will finally see numbers that match the way it was before the pandemic.

“We’re going to have all hands on deck,” Mettler said. “We’re increasing our orders of supplies, from beverages to dough to paper goods, and we’re doing it more proactively than in the past because of supply chain issues.”

“Everyone’s feeling optimistic and excited to have that level of human interaction and connection once again because that’s who we are — it’s an essential part of our business,” he said.

Preparing for people, parties and profit

This year’s SXSW won’t be without some changes, of course, including added safety measures made in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that Covid-19 levels have dropped significantly enough that more than 90 percent of people in the U.S. can go without masks.

SXSW is requiring attendees to provide proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test in order to enter the event and to maintain credentials.

A testing center will also be available at the Austin Convention Center.

“We are putting the finishing touches on the first in-person SXSW in three years,” a March 3 tweet from the festival read. “It’s almost surreal that it’s actually happening, and it’s no lie that we can’t wait to see you all.”

Local businesses are also preparing for an influx of visitors.

Sternschein’s business operates three music venues — Empire Control Room, Empire Garage and The Parish — which are typically packed with thousands of people during SXSW. They bring in 30 percent of the company’s annual income, Sternschein said.

This year, he said he expects to match those numbers, if not exceed them, because the pandemic forced other venues to close down — creating a shortage of rental spaces and driving demand up for his businesses.

“Most of us can agree that more money is better, and everyone wants the biggest party,” Sternschein said. “But the takeaway is that we’re getting together to have a party, to hang out — and to me, that fruit is so much sweeter.”

Meanwhile, when asked how many pies and slices he expects to make during this year’s event, Mettler said production numbers are looking closer to those in 2019.

“We’re preparing for the best, and we’re preparing to welcome people both old and new to walk through our doors,” he said. “It’s going to be a lot of pizza.”