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Reeling from canceled festivals, Austin's small businesses find new ways to get by
(Kristina Gonzales/Party at the Moontower)

Party at the Moontower owner Kristina Gonzales is finding new ways to make money without SXSW and ACL.

Kristina Gonzalez, director of sales and operations at Party at the Moontower Event Rentals, minces no words about what the cancelation of this year's Austin City Limits Music Festival means for event vendors: "That's basically saying no one in events makes money for a full year."


Party at the Moontower has outfitted VIP areas at ACL in past years and partnered with hotels for conferences. Together with South by Southwest, ACL can keep event vendors afloat through the leaner months of the year.

"Event vendors—we all function off the flux of tourism, and the two biggest times of the year when all these people come in are October, with ACL, and March, with South By," Gonzalez explains.

In the wake of their cancelations, local business owners are bracing themselves for a year that has now been effectively stripped of its two peak tourism seasons.

Restaurants reel from the impact of canceled festivals

Many restaurant owners are feeling a similar financial burden, such as Sue Davis, owner of Austin vegan staple Counter Culture. Davis estimates that 30% of her annual business comes from tourism, and March is always her "busiest month of the year by far." She had just finished redesigning her menu and training extra staff for SXSW when the festival got canceled.

"Every South By, I'm like, 'What can we do better next year?'" Davis says. "And this year I felt like we were in a great position to just kill it, and it didn't happen."

Owning a brick-and-mortar restaurant doesn't put Davis in an enviable position right now; Counter Culture's dining room is still closed, and she's "paying rent for a building that we're using 20% of" as she pivots to takeout and delivery.

But food truck owners are also reeling from the cancelation of Austin's two premier festivals. Hope Green, owner of Emojis Grilled Cheese Bar, says her food truck does big business catering private events when corporations come to town for SXSW and ACL.

"Our SXSW events typically bring in a good $40,000 to $60,000 for us," Green explains. "So having lost that revenue, if we're doing $15,000 to $30,000 a month, we've lost like 62% of the revenue that we would've normally done by this time of the year."

That lost revenue doesn't just hurt Green. She works with homeless teens who have aged out of foster care, training them in the food truck to give them work and management experience. She usually subsidizes those programs through her festival season revenue, and consequently, she's had to pause them.

"If I just wanted to do this business by myself and just take care of myself, no problem," Green says. "But it's all of the other stuff—the things that I want my business to be about—that takes that financial engine to keep that going."

Finding new streams of revenue

If there is a silver lining to COVID-19 wiping out SXSW and ACL, it's that local business owners have an opportunity to evaluate what's working and implement new strategies. Green is working toward partnering with apartment complexes for dinner runs, while Davis has added a grocery section to her menu to sell excess inventory and partnered with various nonprofits to donate meals.

Party at the Moontower Rentals has pivoted to furnishing small events, like backyard parties and socially distanced weddings. That includes the ongoing Little White Chapel Pop-Up, which unites over a dozen vendors to host Vegas-style weddings at Austin's Mercury Hall.

"I think the pandemic has really made people think about the way that they do business and how planning and strategy is also just as important as doing," Gonzalez says. "You have to fall in love with the problem."

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