SXSW 2014
6:05 am
Thu May 29, 2014

Austin Releases SXSW Survey Results, But Offers Few Opinions

The City of Austin's special event office Wednesday night presented the results of a feedback survey on this year’s South by Southwest music festival.

Bill Manno, Corporate Special Events Program Manger for the City of Austin, hinted at possible changes they're discussing, but some meeting attendees say they still aren't sure of the point of the survey and felt it was vague and the questions were ambiguous.

“What are perceived as the problems that we’re addressing here?" asked Jimmy Stewart, owner of Do 512, an event listing and RSVP site in Austin. "That’s where I’m unclear. This questionnaire is passed, we went over the results, but what are the problems? What are the objectives?”

When Stewart asked that question to the panel, they didn’t have a specific answer.

"As far as, like, recommendations that will be presented, is there a specific agenda or priority of the things that have been discussed here, one that is at the top of the list?" Stewart asked the panel. After a few seconds of silence, Manno said to the panel members, "I don’t know. Can you all think of one at the top as opposed to others?" 

"Not really – any specific," Don Pitts, manger of the city's music and entertainment division, said after a few more seconds of silence. "I think we’re all going to get Webster’s dictionary and look at the definition of ‘No.’ [We're] probably going to be saying a lot of that next year."

According to a survey conducted by the City of Austin, most respondents think the city issues too many special event permits during SXSW. It's part of a larger feedback survey the city conducted about this year's South by Southwest festival.
Credit City of Austin

The presentation is just one step as the panel continues to collect data and feedback about festival safety and cost, which it's expected to present to the Austin City Council June 25. During this year’s festival, four people were killed and nearly two dozen were injured when a suspected drunk driver drove through a crowd of people waiting for a concert, raising concerns about the size and safety of the nearly two-week event.

850 people responded to the survey – which was open to anyone for two weeks and not a random sampling.

Most of the respondents said public safety was a concern and nearly half of respondents said too many event permits were given out, but 54 percent of respondents were okay with events held in pop-up spaces, like parking lots.  A majority said event credentials like tickets and wristbands should be provided based on the capacity of the venue. Many times events will allow more RSVPs than a venue can handle, but Manno said it's unclear how the city can regulate that.

Despite concerns about alcohol, 57 percent of respondents said the city shouldn’t work with the Texas Alcohol Beverage Association (TABC) to limit the hours and amount of alcohol served during the festival. But the TABC says it can't limit or expand hours alcohol is served anyway unless state law is changed.

45 percent of respondents say free alcohol, food and swag is the main reason they attend SXSW. 44 percent said they attended SXSW for 'Events/Industry discovery.' The other options for that survey question were 'Registered Participant of the Event' (seven percent) and 'Other' (four percent). Free or live music was not an option, which some attendees felt was misleading.

A majority of people said the festival programming needs a second look. However, festival programming is determined by SXSW and, when asked, Manno says the city has no desire to control who performs at the festival.

Meanwhile, Manno says the city is looking at ways to enhance public safety – such as partnering with nearby law enforcement during the event. 

“When we can do that, that’s really going to help out APD [Austin Police Department], as far as staffing," Manno said. "But there are some very fresh and new ideas being thrown out there and looked at. I think going forward we’ll see a better use of resources by partnering up with other agencies.”

Manno alluded to some of those 'fresh and new ideas,' such as enforcing fire codes where a vendor can't promote an event to hold more than 110 percent of its capacity or possibly requiring a liquor liability insurance for temporary events. Currently, temporary events must get general liability insurance, but liquor liability insurance would specifically cover liquor related incidents. It would also cost more, which city officials say could be a way to deter events from providing free alcohol for longer periods of time (even though a majority of respondents said not to try to reduce the hours alcohol is served).

Manno also said the city is looking at increasing the number of Public Assembly Code Enforcement officers to increase oversight during larger events, but would have to find a way to pay for additional full-time officers.

Despite these possible changes, few panel members shared opinions or insight into what they think about the survey results. When another attendee asked the panel members about the findings, he was also met with little response. 

"What exactly stuck out to the panel as being notable?" the attendee asked.

"Anybody else want to interject, what notable findings?" Manno asked the panel, which remained silent. Finally, Manno responded, "The one about the free stuff," referring to the survey result in which 45 percent of respondents said they attended SXSW for the free alcohol, food and swag.

Jimmy Stewart, owner of Do 512, says he’s happy the city is asking for feedback from the community, but questions the timing of the survey. “I’m curious as to why we’re doing this here now?" Stewart says. "Was it because people were hit by a car? Is this the reason this is happening now?"  Stewart says he hopes to provide a voice for Austin residents who enjoy South by Southwest, as the city continues to gather feedback and consider any changes for next year.

An MP3 version of the story.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Mr. Pitts as Dan. His correct name is Don.