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New event deadline means clarity, crunch time for SXSW planners

Monday, January 7, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

The Austin Center for Events has set a hard deadline of Feb. 8 for applications for special events scheduled to take place during spring festival season, or the 10 days in March that span the South by Southwest festival.

Setting that date – which was announced Dec. 27 – roughly a month ahead of the festival is a change in policy from recent years when the city would periodically announce that ACE and associated city departments were getting close to capacity for handling applications and plans for special events. With festival season typically seeing more than 200 special events taking place mostly downtown and in East Austin, the previous rolling deadline would prevent some events that were in the planning stages from taking place during a time when more than 200,000 visitors typically come to Austin.

Event planners and those looking to hold special events from March 8-17 can apply and review guidelines for temporary use permits on the City Stage website.

Bill Manno, the manager for ACE, said the Feb. 8 deadline was established to give anyone involved in event planning for SXSW a definitive schedule for planning and submitting their applications.

“A lot of times an event planner or a company executive in another city will see that they’ve got some extra money in their budgets for the new year and get an idea to do something in Austin, but they don’t know anything about doing an event in Austin,” Manno said. “This (deadline) allows us to better manage the turnaround and have the meetings with applicants so we can plan and advise them on what they need to do.”

Manno said as of Friday the city had received about 30 applications for events during SXSW, with a rush expected soon since applicants traditionally kick their event planning into high gear in the new year. The city’s planning and review process for event applications is focused heavily on traffic, police, fire and other safety needs during a time when the downtown core is thick with crowds from early afternoon until well past midnight.

Manno said the ongoing downtown building boom of hotels and high-rise condominium buildings has forced more events to move into existing businesses, rather than taking over a vacant parcel or parking lot.

“People find places that look awesome on Google Maps, but they don’t know there are problems or concerns from a safety standpoint, so we kind of end up being the dream crusher when we say, ‘Here’s the reason why there are problems,’” Manno said. “At the same time, we know those events add a uniqueness and diversity we like to see.”

Another variable in play for this year’s SXSW is the combination of the state Legislature being in session and – for what is believed to be a first – the festival not overlapping with local spring break schedules. That is expected to create more traffic than usual during busy portions of the festival and could affect safety plans and approvals for some special events adjacent to busy traffic corridors near the state Capitol and the University of Texas.

Catlin Whitington, planning manager for SXSW and chair of the city’s Tourism Commission, said the hard deadline will help prevent some events from missing the application window, but added that it would be more helpful if the city had announced it well in advance.

“You’ve gotta know the rules of the game, and we’ve messaged all of our partners working on finalizing all the details, since this does accelerate some things while also incentivizing good communication,” he said. “At the same time there is always last-minute stuff that comes up and it would be more helpful to know about deadlines like this well in advance, to allow us all to better manage our timelines and planning.”

Photo by Ed Schipul made available through a Creative Commons license.

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