Small Businesses Take on Big Crowds at SXSW

How local shops handle the international stage of Austin’s biggest festival

Every year, thousands of people flock to Austin for South by Southwest (SXSW), the nine-day tech, music and film festival that brings together creators and innovators from around the world. Filling the city to capacity, the event has a staggering impact on the local economy, bringing in $325.3 million and attracting nearly 90,000 people in 2016.

Needless to say, SXSW is busy season for local Austin businesses. Lines wrap around the corner, venues are sold out and breakfast tacos are in high demand. But beyond the influx of customers (and sales), SXSW provides a unique opportunity for Austin’s small businesses to showcase their wares to the world. Here’s what the festival means to local businesses and how they make it happen year after year.

Preparing for the SXSW Craze

Like any large event, SXSW means Austin businesses spend some serious time prepping, sometimes months in advance. From stocking shelves to making sure logistics around organizing foot traffic are in place, there’s quite a bit that goes into ensuring things run smoothly during festival time.

One of the biggest hurdles across the board is staffing. With events happening virtually around the clock—both planned and impromptu—many businesses work to solidify their employee schedule ahead of time.

“Preparation [for SXSW] takes months,” says Shelley Meyer, co-owner of Wild About Music Group, the parent company of three music-themed retail stores in downtown Austin. “We spend time making sure our staff is solid and well-scheduled to have the right help available for everyone. All of our exec team works the sales floor to help customers and support our staff so they get breaks.”

For some businesses, like Allen’s Boots, that extra support staff is hired just for the festival. The store brings in APD officers to accommodate the potential extra foot traffic for all 10 days of SXSW.

Likewise, Chi’lantro, a popular Korean-style barbecue restaurant, is all hands on deck, according to founder Jae Kim. The restaurant, which grew its SXSW presence from a food truck to catering corporate events, works with catering clients well in advance. “Months ahead of SXSW,” says Kim, “our clients come for site visits and we coordinate and plan for logistics. We have about 200 people working for us during the 10 days of festival.” The extra effort pays off—over the 10 days, Chi’lantro generates six figures in revenue.

While SXSW does bring in heavy foot traffic—and with it, clearly, big sales—it’s not all about prepping for volume. With an international presence at the festival, Austin businesses also prepare for a spotlight on the world stage.

SXSW Puts Local Businesses on the Map

With so many attendees taking up the sidewalks of downtown Austin, sponsors headed to SXSW to be part of the excitement search for local vendors to help them showcase their brands with an Austin flavor. Because of this, small businesses get the chance to take advantage of the exposure, while creating new fans along the way.

Watson Murals, an Austin-based mural and design company , is approached by companies all over the country for art and consulting work during SXSW. “This year,” says Owner Leigh Acord, “we’re doing a big piece for a brand in California. We’ve got to secure the space to create the mural, build the canvas and find the paint. Then make sure it gets set up and taken back down—all in four days.”

Many shops turn SXSW opportunities into lasting business relationships. During the 2012 festival, Kong Screen Printing had a company call on them in urgent need of t-shirts for an event. The team at Kong managed to come through by using shirts they had in the shop, and the event was a big success. Five years later, that client is still one of their biggest customers.

Allen’s Boots also sees customers come back year after year for authentic Texas cowboy boots. “My absolute favorite SXSW experiences have been seeing our repeat customers come back year after year,” says Erin Slade of Allen’s Boots. “It's a treat to the customer to be remembered and a treat to us. It makes you stop and say, ‘hey we must be doing something right!’”

Businesses Get Creative in the Spirit of SXSW

SXSW is a celebration of creativity, and local businesses take part in the showcase. Because downtown Austin is the epicenter of the festival, nearby shops get the chance to meet and greet creatives from all over the world, says Shelley Meyer. “It is a great event for our city and a great time to meet people, make connections, share ideas. Being in any one of our stores brings all of these people in and we get to meet and talk with them all. You can literally sit down on a planter and have an amazing conversation.”

For Wanderlust Yoga, SXSW means being flexible with their space by turning their yoga space into a venue for the festival. “We rent out our yoga studio as a SXSW space—making sure we’re partnering with a brand that aligns with our mission. Then we offer free yoga to regular clients and SXSW attendees at a nearby park that’s easier to access,” says Maile Floyd, Director of Marketing.

Ryan Burkhardt, co-owner of Kong Screen Printing, sums up the creativity of Austin businesses as being part of the fabric that makes up the city. “Design is a cultural thing that’s tied into Austin,” he says. “So many people come during festival season and see that on display. Business owners here really pride themselves on individuality and having a high level of presentation that distinguishes them.”

After the party…

Now that celebrations have come to an end for SXSW’s 2017 edition and Austin (especially the traffic) is returning to normal, the latest festival experience presents the perfect time for reflection on what SXSW means to the city.

For business owners, the experience is felt across the board, both in their day-to-day operations and in the effect on the city as a whole. As Jae Kim says, “It’s not smooth. Never is. Something always happens, but it is what it is.” But what the festival lacks in organization, she says, it makes up in its grand scale. “It brings so much energy and ideas–it really has a positive impact on the city.”

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