SXSW cancellation impacts small businesses, service workers

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Photo Credit: Eddie Gaspar

Editor’s note: This story is part of The Daily Texan’s coverage of how coronavirus concerns are affecting UT-Austin. Read the rest of our coverage here.

Various businesses, freelancers and gig workers began to see the economic impact caused by a loss of clients and foot traffic after South By Southwest was canceled last week. 

“It was surprising to me that the entire festival was canceled just because of the total economic impact it has on the city of Austin, but it seems to be the right thing to do,” said Michael Swail, owner of Alta’s Café. 

Alta’s is located a block and a half from the Austin Convention Center, and Swail said he was expecting increased clientele to come into the cafe from the center. 

Swail also said he’s facing additional losses because Scandinavian Airlines booked the location for events and catering, but that contract was canceled.

“There’s substantial additional revenue associated with those events beyond our normal business,” Swail said. “And when those events aren’t going on, we benefit from the increased foot traffic from all the participants of the festival.”

Aside from small business such as Alta’s, freelancers and gig workers have also been impacted by the loss of SXSW. Christine Chen, the owner of Moth to Flame production company and a UT alumna, said freelancers such as videographers and editors living paycheck to paycheck are more likely to be affected by the cancellation. 

She said she personally was lucky and earned more than what she expected in revenue earlier in the year. Those extra earnings, have helped ensure her business will survive economically without SXSW. 

“I’ve been really lucky this year where our company has been doing well, in the front part of the year,” Chen said. “Usually it’s very slow in January, and it wasn’t for us this year. And because of that, the loss of South By did not hit us as detrimentally as it’s hit a lot of my colleagues.”

Many rely on the revenue SXSW brings, Chen said.

“March is usually my saving grace,” Chen said. “I can at least know that if I can at least last till SXSW, I’ll make (the money) back. The biggest problem for a lot of people (is SXSW) was their saving grace.”

Individuals working in the gig economy, such as Lyft drivers and DoorDash delivery workers, will be impacted by the loss of SXSW clientele, government junior Matthew Cox said. Cox has been biking for Favor for a year and a half and said they were expecting to make $150 a day working eight to 10 hours during SXSW. Now, they said they’ll probably be seeing $50 a day for working the same amount of time. 

“It just feels like I’ve been cut down a size because it was gonna be a great week, and now it’s gonna be at best an OK week,” Cox said. 

Cox said the money they made from SXSW was going to help cover expenses from the fall semester, including a new laptop they invested in. Cox said while they understand the need for a cancellation, they know the economic impact will be harmful for many. 

“It’s good from a safety perspective,” Cox said. “It’s to help people not get infected but also, just from a personal perspective, it hurts. I know I’m not the only person who does gig work or service work.”