South by Southwest announced Tuesday that it will launch online programming as part of its 2021 event, while still leaving open the possibility of in-person festival and conference activities.


SXSW Online "will feature conference keynotes and sessions, screenings, showcases, networking, and exhibitions," according to an announcement from the sprawling annual music, film and interactive conference and festivals. Organizers added that "SXSW is working with the City of Austin and public health authorities on plans for a 2021 physical event."


The shutdown of this year’s SXSW by city officials on March 6, a week before the event was scheduled to begin, was the first major sign of how deeply the coronavirus pandemic would affect Austin. As the pandemic persists, the question of whether the once-growing festival would return next year, and in what form, has lingered.


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The dates for SXSW Online will be March 16-20, preceded by SXSW EDU Online (an education-focused branch of SXSW) on March 9-11. SXSW will accept "Panel Picker" proposals for those two events from Oct. 6-16.


The SXSW Music Festival will bypass its usual application process for 2021 and "will be curated by programming staff with priority given to showcase presenters and artists who were scheduled for the 2020 event," according to the statement. Submissions for the SXSW Film Festival will be accepted Oct. 6-28.


Asked Tuesday how likely it looks at the moment that some in-person activities will also be a part of the 2021 event, SXSW CEO and co-founder Roland Swenson said that "it’s pretty hard to tell, but I think it’s possible. I wouldn’t want to put a percentage on it."


Swenson added that some SXSW 2021 events could happen after the online programming concludes. "If we can’t do them in March, we could look for a date later in the year," he said. "That’s not our preference; I think I would rather see a much smaller (physical) event in March that’s attached to the online event.


"But we’ll just have to see how that plays out. Right now, in terms of venues, it’s hard to know what’s going to be available to us."


SXSW 2020 was called off after a tidal wave of celebrities and companies dropped out as the pandemic escalated. With the festival facing pressure to cancel — Austin did not yet have any confirmed cases of COVID-19 — Mayor Steve Adler declared a local state of emergency, leading to the first spring in more than three decades without SXSW, an event that has come to define the city’s culture and serve as a launching pad for both emerging artists and projects from tech and media conglomerates.


Austin and Travis County soon limited gathering sizes to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Other spring events, such as the Austin Rodeo and Luck Reunion, followed in SXSW’s footsteps, canceling or pivoting to online-only substitutes.


Registrants for SXSW 2020 had an option of deferring their passes until 2021, 2022 or 2023. Swenson confirmed that those who chose 2021 will have the option of changing to 2022, and he also noted that all 2020 paid registrants will be given access to the 2021 SXSW Online programming.


After initial shutdowns meant to curb the pandemic, most sectors of the Texas economy have partially reopened. The forecast for large, in-person events remains murky, though, as the death toll of COVID-19 increases. On July 1, Austin City Limits Music Festival announced its physical event would not happen in October. Organizers recently announced an online event slated for that month.


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At the time of the festival’s shutdown, SXSW officials said that they were "exploring options to reschedule the event and are working to provide a virtual SXSW online experience as soon as possible" for people who had planned to attend. Some virtual programming emerged, including an Amazon Prime Video streaming showcase for a handful of movies originally set for the film festival, but no full-fledged virtual replacement for the 2020 fest was held.


The cancellation of SXSW also dealt the first major blow to Austin’s economy at the start of a pandemic that would squeeze several beloved local establishments out of business over the next few months, a trend that shows no signs of slowing down.


The festival itself took a significant hit. On March 9, SXSW confirmed it had laid off about a third of its 175 year-round employees. On Tuesday, Swenson said that 22 more employees were subsequently furloughed, allowing them to keep benefits and apply for unemployment. Asked if some of the furloughed employees would be brought back in the ramp-up to next year’s online programming, he replied, "That is what we’re hoping."


The ripple effects of missing out on thousands of visitors during an in-person SXSW in 2021 would be felt by businesses across Austin.


"SXSW is one of those events, like F1 and ACL, where you draw people from out of town, out of state and out of the country," said Matt Patton, an economist with Austin-based Angelou Economics. "It’s just not the event, it’s the hotel, it’s going out and getting food and drinks and taking part in everything Austin has to offer. Businesses will feel that."


Going virtual will keep a spotlight on Austin for the time when live events are again safe, Patton said.


"Even if it is digital, it is still a helpful thing for SXSW as well as Austin," he said. "The silver lining here is that Austin is a resilient city with a diverse economy. SXSW will be here, maybe it’s online or hybrid this go-around, but it will be here."


One thing a virtual SXSW can’t replicate, of course, is the money that pours in during a live festival.


The 2019 SXSW had a $355.9 million impact on Austin’s economy, according to a report by Greyhill Advisors. By comparison, ACL Fest contributed $264.6 million to the city’s economy in 2018, according to figures released in 2019 by ACL organizers.


The Greyhill Advisors report broke the SXSW financial impact down into three main categories: $182.1 million for attendance impact, which includes credentialed participants and single ticket holders at SXSW events; $157.1 million for operational impact, which accounts for SXSW’s year-round operations and full-time staff; and $16.7 million in consumer impact, which includes expenditures by SXSW participants and money spent on official parties during the festival.


Total attendance for all official SXSW 2019 events was about 280,000, according to the report. Visitors to Austin booked 51,500 room nights during the festival.


Other businesses that benefited from SXSW included restaurants, movie theaters, live music venues, retailers, print shops and transportation companies such as taxi and shuttle bus operators.