Austin bar and restaurant owners counting on a business boom from South by Southwest expressed disappointment with the festival’s cancellation — but many said they supported the decision.
Steven Dilley, who owns locations of Neapolitan pizzeria Bufalina in East and North Austin, said he hopes SXSW’s cancellation has a minimal effect on his bottom line.
"We didn’t have any buyouts, and the reservations we did have all canceled last week," Dilley said. "SXSW is usually a trade-off for us anyway — the amount of local business we lose is offset by conference goers, but we usually don’t see a big spike in business."
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As for how the city and festival handled the cancellation, Dilley said after hearing the mayor speak: "I think they handled it pretty well, all things considered. Their hands were kind of tied, and can you imagine the backlash if COVID-19 surfaced shortly after SXSW, regardless if it was related to the festival or not? But it sucks for the city and all the hospitality places that count on it — venues, bars, restaurants, hotels, drivers, etc., etc."
Eric Silverstein, owner of the Peached Tortilla and Bar Peached, said he is expecting a 5% to 10% sales hit at his two restaurants, which aren’t in the heart of downtown.
"With that said, our catering business is taking a massive hit and the cancellation of SXSW will have a tremendous negative impact," he said.
But Silverstein said he understood what went into the decision.
"I respect the decision by Mayor Adler and think it was the prudent one. I do not think you can understate the potential we had for a coronavirus outbreak in Austin during SXSW," he said. "I do wish the cancellation was perhaps communicated a little bit earlier, but nevertheless it was the right decision."
Every year, Zilker Brewing — located along a well-trafficked section of East Sixth Street — hosts Utopia Sessions for three days during the music portion of SXSW. The festival overall and the unofficial event, held by the producers of Utopia Fest, tend to deliver a big uptick in business for the brewery, but co-owner Patrick Clark said SXSW's cancellation isn't going to put Zilker in the red.
"Our business is not anywhere close to being dependent on that week, out of 52 weeks of the year," he said. "If there is a decline (in sales) this year, we can absorb that."
Zilker and the Utopia Fest producers said they don't intend to cancel Utopia Sessions and might not change much about the format. Throughout each of the three days, artists play in the taproom, where customers can watch free of charge. Zilker has a special event permit for those days that allows up to 250 people in the space at a time.
Clark is choosing to see a positive side to the SXSW cancellation: Maybe during the week of the festival, locals who would otherwise shy away might venture out "because they know it won't be overrun by tourism."
"I think this could encourage locals to support local businesses. It could be like the old SXSW where it's just the locals hanging out," he said.
East Austin bar Nickel City doesn't host SXSW private events, and co-owner Travis Tober said in that way, "we've protected ourselves a bit." But the week of the festival does tend to be very busy for the neighborhood spot, especially because it's the place where a lot of service industry folks like to go after their shifts are over to unwind. That's where Tober said he expects to see a hit.
"One of our biggest days of the year is the last day of SXSW with a bunch of locals and industry people coming in, but they won't necessarily have that cash this year" if their businesses are affected by the cancellation, he said. "I think it's a trickle-down effect for us."
American-Statesman staffers Matthew Odam and Arianna Auber contributed to this report.