AUSTIN — The lack of I-35 traffic jams and tourists flooding downtown city streets may have some folks in Austin excited for now.
Last year’s abrupt cancellation of the South by Southwest Film festival (SXSW), due to COVID-19, as well as this year’s all online event means tourist dollars will not be flowing through the city. Austin Tourism Commission Chair Catlin Whitington said those happy feelings may change when the effect starts to hit Austin’s pockets.
“Seeing two years of not having that economic impact in the Austin economy, $700 million of lost revenue really will have a long-term effect on the hospitality and tourism economy here in Austin,” Whitington said.
Before the pandemic, hotels in Austin had its highest occupancy rates every year during the SXSW conference weeks. Whitington said that rate would climb as high as 98% every year, translating into work for over 40,000 people in the city’s hospitality industry. He said the effect of missing out on that impact will be felt by everyone in the city, not just hospitality workers.
It would also affect “… people that work in events, people that work in transportation, people that work in retail,” Whitington said. “It was estimated at one point in time by an economist that the economic impact of SXSW meant $100 for every person in Austin’s tax bill that we didn’t have to pay.”
Business owners that profit off of tourism dollars will feel the effects also. CK Chinn, co-owner of Native Hostel, said his bar was set to host events throughout the entire festival.
“It’s the season where everybody knows you’re gonna be alright,” Chinn said. “There’s a huge influx of business coming from out of town. Bartenders are excited they’re about to make some money and restaurants are excited because it’s kind of a kick off to spring.”
When events began to cancel and the pandemic took hold of the city, Chinn had to have the tough conversations with his staff about unemployment services and aid opportunities. It’s the same conversation he said many bar owners around the city had to endure.
“It was such a swing,” Chinn said. “You go from being about to have the best week of the year to the worst… None. It’s heartbreaking.”
Whitington said that it will likely take three to four years for the city to rebuild after missing two years of SXSW. He says a physical event in 2022 could be the shot in the arm the city’s economy needs.
“If we can get back to seeing that annual boom in March of $355 plus million into the local economy that is a huge step in the right direction,” Whitington said.