The organizers of SXSW, the annual festival that is slated to kick off in Austin, Texas, in two weeks, say they have no plans to reschedule or cancel the event in the face of the coronavirus outbreak. Still, there have been a few cancelations of would-be attendees as fears around the spreading pandemic are starting to ripple through the creative community.
"Where travel has been impacted, especially in the case of China, we are seeing a handful of cancellations," a spokeswoman for the event shared in a statement with Ad Age.
But otherwise, all systems appear to be go. Event organizers are assuring the public that SXSW, set for March 13 to March 22, has not had to adjust plans for the yearly confab. “The SXSW 2020 event is proceeding as planned," the spokeswoman said. "Safety is a top priority for SXSW, and we work closely with local, state, and federal agencies year-round to plan for a safe event."
Still, the Centers for Disease Control advised Tuesday that the illness known as coronavirus, which is already disrupting travel and conferences worldwide, is threatening to further impact the U.S: The CDC said the spread of the coronavirus here is not a question of "if" but "when."
Festival-goers and Austin citizens are starting to worry about an event that typically brings 400,000 international travelers to town. On Wednesday, a group called China Gathering, which has connected Chinese entrepreneurs with SXSW in previous years, announced that it was pulling out. The coronavirus has hit China hardest, where thousands have died from the illness, leading to drastic quarantines and travel restrictions.
On the ground in Austin
"Oh man, SXSW is gonna be fun this year with this whole coronavirus business," tweeted Nathalie Phan, CEO of On Vinyl Media, an Austin-based music design firm.
The sentiment was shared by many local citizens expressing concerns online about an influx of travelers coming to town amid a potential pandemic.
J.J. Castillo, founder of Viewer Ready, an Austin-based virtual reality gaming firm, says he has participated in the tech, film and music tracks of SXSW in prior years. This year, he plans to demo a new game at the festival but is worried about the potential for disruptions. He pointed to several prominent companies that have already canceled appearances at Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, set for the same week as SXSW.
"I do have worries about the coronavirus, seeing that GDC and SXSW both have large crowds, many from all over the world,” Castillo says. “And hearing that Oculus and PlayStation have canceled their GDC plans due to the virus really makes it hard to ignore or take lightly.”
The SXSW festival has become an annual pilgrimage for the creative community, including advertisers, internet companies, celebrities and media. It offers a unique mix of indie music and film spirit with major brands sponsoring installations and event spaces. This year, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Kim Kardashian West and Janelle Monae are just a few of the marquee names on the schedule.
On Wednesday, representatives for Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter said they were planning to attend as promised. They all have their standard SXSW schedules with events that bring their executives face to face with advertisers and creators.
"I do not think the events will be canceled like some others are saying," Castillo says. "But if attendees adopt best practices like not shaking hands or going out when feeling sick, I think we’ll be fine."
Since January, the virus COVID-19, known as coronavirus, has infected tens of thousands of people and spread to multiple countries, mostly affecting Asia. There have been about 15 confirmed cases in the U.S., and health officials are preparing for a possible pandemic. The risk of the virus has disrupted business and travel worldwide. Global markets have been shaken, and conferences like this month's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona have been canceled.
Earlier this month, Facebook canceled a marketing summit it planned to host in San Francisco in March in response to the outbreak. And last week, Facebook, which owns the virtual reality headset maker Oculus, and Sony, which owns PlayStation, dropped appearances at the Game Developers Conference. On Wednesday, Electronic Arts announced it would not attend.
Considering the dire warnings, some people are taking the global panic in stride with a bit of gallows humor. Hunter Walk, co-founder of Homebrew, a San Francisco-based venture capital firm, tweeted jokingly that coronavirus would prevent him from attending SXSW. "Because of coronavirus, I've skipped the last five years of SXSW won't be attending this year and, just to be safe, won't be going for at least the next decade either," Walk wrote.
On Wednesday, when reached by e-mail, Walk replied with a smiling emoji: "I will use any excuse to not attend SXSW, regardless of pandemic."