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I tried to cancel (citing concerns not about myself, but Austin), and got this response. The last line putting it on me felt odd.

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Hello,

Thank you for reaching out to us.

We understand your concerns. We recognize the disruption that the Coronavirus (COVID-19) has caused, and we sympathize with all affected.

Safety is a top priority for SXSW. We are working closely with local, state, and federal agencies to plan for a safe event.

The SXSW 2020 event is proceeding as planned. The World Health Organization’s recommendation is that travelers practice usual precautions. We will continue to monitor the situation closely and will provide updates as necessary.

Please also see the City of Austin’s Public Health Reminders from February 6, February 14, and February 25, and their COVID-19 FAQ, updated February 28.

We have a no refund policy as part of our terms and conditions, so we are unable to reimburse you for your purchase. However, you can transfer your registration to another person.

We hope to see you at SXSW 2020, but understand that the decision to attend is yours to make.




I've seen very similar form letters from other conventions. Largely they all lean on each other -- "they don't offer refunds so neither will we" -- but the bigger factor is that the convention probably doesn't have the money to refund people.

Most fan-run conventions run on a barely-above-breakeven budget at the best of times.

I'm not intending this as an excuse, merely an explanation for people who may not have been involved in the organisation of a convention, or been close to people who have.

With that perspective in mind, I find it hard to blame them. A wave of panicked attendees demanding refunds could well render them insolvent.


SXSW isn't a small independent festival. It has a lot of corporate backing and a lot of big organizers and company support.

All of that being said, they are probably still operating at at near break even. It's still a lot of volunteers (even if some of them are paid or offered by companies). If there's any left over for these conventions, it usually goes straight towards the deposits for next year (or other stuff the organizing committees do throughout the year to raise funds and advertise for the next year).

Even really big festivals usually run like this. It's a labor of love and resume building for organizers. But I agree, there's usually no money to refund. If less than half the people show, it will be just a lot of half filled venues.


I think it's a matter of the venue refusing to refund. They get to be intractable because they know that places that can host such events are few. You almost have no choice but to deal with them.

Not to mention, by renting to SXSW, they are choosing not to rent to someone else. By locking in the dates, then pulling out, the organizer is costing the venue money.

So no matter what, the money paid to the venue is gone. The organizers cannot pay that back. And like you say, they probably were only able to pay that much because of ticket sales. There's likely very little profit from the event after the books are balanced.

They likely know it would be the nice thing to do and that these are extraordinary circumstances. But, like you said, it would likely be them choosing to go out of business.


Straightening out the chain of liabilities would take some knowledge of state and local laws as well as all of the contracts involved. To claim the money is just gone is wrong. If they cancel right before an event, perhaps it is, but the conference itself may have some value. It could be sold off to another owner, for example.

If you purchased something as a consumer, and it wasn’t delivered, someone is liable. As others have speculated some of the conferences may end up going bankrupt. A 100% refund is unlikely but at least partial ones are due. Given the lost revenues from hotels, flights, and conference fee, this is billions of dollars. Large enough for law firms to work on it. On the business side, for losses to exhibitors, it’s all based on what the contracts say.


First, they've stated that the tickets are non-refundable. If they're still hosting the event and allowing people to attend, your reason for not attending is immaterial.

Second, yes, some of that money is gone. It's likely paid to people for services either already rendered or promised.

That's kind of the hitch here. The attendees cannot go after the venue for the money. The venue acquired the money legitimately from the organizer in a completely separate transaction.

The organizer is the focal point. And if they don't have the money to pay people back, it's not like they can will it into existence. And even if law firms get involved, what's the outcome here? "Yes, they owe money."

Cool. It still doesn't exist.


The more likely outcome if a court case found against a convention is that the convention would be rendered bankrupt and simply shut down.


PyCon US will be held in Pittsburgh in the middle of April. They have not cancelled, but are offering full refunds for people that decide not to go.


An arts and music festival has much higher capex than pycon. Pycon really just needs a standard conference center or conference hotel without modifications.


Yea, I feel like Amazon is so good at customer service that people just expect full refunds these days even for things totally beyond the control of the seller. The terms stated the tickets were non refundable. Don’t buy the ticket if you don’t like the policy.


Travel insurance can also be an option if you're worried about having to miss something for reasons outside of your control.


SXSW is not a small fan-run convention though. They almost certainly carry insurance for this kind of thing.


Right, but that doesn't mean there aren't remaining incentives that tempt unscrupulous organizers.

Insurance, if underwritten correctly, just turns a crippling loss into a moderate loss, not into a break-even.


I would be curious to know whether their insurance covers pandemics. That's even excluded from most travel insurance.


SXSW is hardly a "fan-run convention", though.


I do agree money is the reason, for both sxsw and (actually more importantly) Austin. I wouldn't call sxsw a "fan-run convention" or "breakeven", and they certainly have insurance. Austin likely is the bigger issue... it brings them a ton of money every year.


I’m really surprised that they don’t have insurance to deal with scenarios like this.


They definitely have event insurance, but that's for situations like if the entire conference has to be canceled. They have no reason to make a claim just a reimburse an attendee who cancels despite the no-refund policy.


> that’s for situations like if the entire conference has to be canceled

So how does a highly contagious virus with that’s already killed thousands not qualify for the above? I understand the mortality rate of the young and healthy is very low with this illness, but anyone who goes risks transmitting it to loved ones who aren’t in good health.


Would depend on the insurance policy. Probably no coverage for sxsw straight up cancelling without government requirement.


> With that perspective in mind, I find it hard to blame them. A wave of panicked attendees demanding refunds could well render them insolvent.

Couldn't a conference like SXSW buy insurance to cover refunds? It's my understanding that you can buy a policy at Lloyd's of London to cover pretty any kind of unique risk.

Pandemics like this one seem rare enough that the premiums might not actually be too bad.


> Most fan-run conventions run on a barely-above-breakeven budget at the best of times.

Ya, I've had local races get cancelled due to weather, and they also have a no-refund policy. Much of the revenue has already been spent, so I understand.


SXSW is quite far from a fan-run type of convention. There's big money involved with corporate sponsors - Budweiser, Amex and Kia being some. It basically takes over Austin for a couple of weeks. It's also a few distinct conferences - music, film and interactive. To give an idea of it's size and scope here are the stats from 2019:

https://explore.sxsw.com/hubfs/2019-SXSW-Event-Stats_9-10-19...


> We have a no refund policy as part of our terms and conditions, so we are unable to reimburse you for your purchase.

But they can go ahead with multi-100k person event in the midst of a pandemic, knowing that doing so carries a credible risk of thousands of deaths (or even creating an outbreak throughout Texas and surrounding states).

This is deeply, deeply disappointing, considering the power, influence and connections they have.


Maybe the issue is that conferences aren't assigned any penalty for helping spread a virus, which misaligns incentives? Then again, it could be something that's hard to get right, where any reasonable assignment of liability would make it impossible to hold a conference -- I don't know.

Edit: To clarify, I'm just suggesting a possible cause for misaligned incentives; I also added that holding them liable isn't necessarily a good solution either.


I'm inclined to agree. Incentives matter!

It's still deeply disappointing (to me) that the organizers have so few internal incentives to put lives ahead of profits. The entire value of an ethical framework is in the times when following is not what's most personally beneficial in the short term.


True, but at this scale, I expect to not to have to depend on the benevolence of conference organizers -- there needs to be a framework so that they don't have to make that choice.

To quote Deus Ex: Human Revolution:

"I managed to hang on to my humanity -- but the temptation to ignore it was always there. It's that temptation that so worries Taggart. He's not afraid of freedom. He's afraid of the chaos that erupts when individuals have nothing but morality to constrain them."


> True, but at this scale, I expect to not

Why is that a "but" rather than an "and"?

I'm disappointed in the organizers and would like to see better incentives.


Because you were phrasing it as a problem that ethical frameworks rather than laws solve.


That isn't true. At no point did I say or even imply laws weren't required. In fact, I immediately agreed with you!

Laws and ethical frameworks are synergistic in well-functioning systems.


I know that's what you may have felt in your head, I'm just talking about what your comment suggested, even if wasn't directly advocated. You mention ethical codes as filling in a gap here (where there the financial incentives work against you), and my point that it's not really effective for this scale (e.g. the level of coordination for the evil to be avoided). If you didn't mean or realize that implication, fine, I'm just speaking to how it comes off.


> Maybe the issue is that conferences aren't assigned any penalty for helping spread a virus

Darn that right of free association.


Using this argument, airlines should also shut down all flights - they're transporting more than this number, all over, with zero checks.


> But they can go ahead with multi-100k person event in the midst of a pandemic, knowing that doing so carries a credible risk of thousands of deaths (or even creating an outbreak throughout Texas and surrounding states).

You don’t have to go


Given the last part the text you quoted: Austin residents don't have to go where?



Sounds like it's time to chargeback.


Write again and tell them you have a roommate who just returned from Iran, you have flu symptoms etc.* I'm curious to find out their response to someone worried they have symptoms and trying to cancel to avoid infecting others.

* Or don't lie & perhaps someone else can do it


Any and all payments made to SXSW are not refundable for any reason, including, without limitation, failure to use Credentials due to illness, acts of God, travel-related problems, acts of terrorism, loss of employment and/or duplicate purchases.

I wonder if they change their tune if enough people say they are coming from effected areas / experience symptoms.




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