Jenna Million, a public relations senior at the University of Texas at Austin, wants to get into the music business.
For the past four years, South by Southwest has been a part of that plan. In 2015 and 2016, she attended as many free and all-ages shows as she could. Last year, she worked as a photographer and music writer while juggling a marketing assistant job at concert company Margin Walker. For the March 2018 SXSW, she helped produce a SXSW Fox Sports event as an intern with Giant Noise PR, worked as a contract photographer at a British Music Embassy installation and co-produced an unofficial music showcase with a friend.
So, she’s got concerns about what will happen next year when, according to current dates set for the big festival and for UT Austin’s spring break, the two don’t align. And she’s not alone; organizers of the conference and the University of Texas have been at odds for months, with SXSW blaming UT for changing a decades-long date range and the University at first refusing to acknowledge that anything had changed for 2019’s spring break.
South by Southwest is set for Friday, March 8, 2019, through Sunday, March 17. Spring break at UT and a few other area schools, however, has shifted to a later set of dates than usual, Monday, March 18 through March 22, 2019.
Other colleges in the area that will have spring break the week of March 18 include Texas State University and St. Edward’s University.
And the dates aren’t limited to colleges; Austin Independent School District and Pflugerville, among others in the area, are scheduled to hold spring break the same week as UT.
“It would be devastating to not have the same opportunities to work SXSW during spring break,” Millions said. “If my spring break did not align with SXSW, I would have to scale back some of my work. Exams and projects would come first, but I would still do as much work as I could take one without conflicting with school.”
It might look from the outside like a game of scheduling chicken or a mistake that could have big implications for traffic in Austin and for students who had plans to attend SXSW next March.
But South by Southwest’s leaders says they’re hoping UT can still make a change to the dates, despite the scheduling already being published on UT’s websites after having been announced late last year. The organization says it has always followed UT’s spring break scheduling, but that the 2019 dates took it by surprise and that its contracts — with more than 50 area hotels and the Austin Convention Center, which are signed five years out — won’t allow it to shift its own week.
Other schools in the area that will have Spring break the week of March 18, 2019, include Texas State University and St. Edward’s University. Texas A&M’s spring break will run March 11-15 next year.
For its part, UT Austin says no one should expect UT to realign those dates.
“The university can’t set its calendars around one event. We have to take a lot of things into consideration,” said UT director of media relations J.B. Bird. “When (the University Academic Calendar Committee) found out they were out of sync with SXSW, they really regretted that. We love SXSW. We love participating with them.”
However, he said, “Our calendar had been published and set. It’d be impossible to change at this point. People have already made plans.”
How it happened
The scheduling controversy may have begun as early as two years ago. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board sets a common calendar for public universities, community, technical and state colleges with a set of first class dates for fall and spring semesters as well as summer sessions.
According to THECB’s website, as long as schools start their semesters within seven days of the common calendar dates, they set their own holidays. UT’s start date for the spring 2019 semester is January 21, the day after the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and a day after THECB’s guidance for classes to begin. THECB does not make specific recommendations for spring break dates in the Common Calendar and declined to comment specifically about the SXSW situation.
Bird says that UT’s Academic Calendar Committee convenes two years in advance and publishes an academic calendar 18 months ahead of time. He said UT’s unofficial rule is that spring break is eight weeks after MLK Day unless the holiday falls late in the month, in which case it’s seven weeks. Bird says that if UT had followed that logic, the dates would have lined up as usual. However, for 2019 UT did not follow that unofficial policy, as the MLK holiday falls later in the month, on Jan. 21.
Also, an examination of UT’s academic calendars dating back to 1997 reveals that spring break hasn’t taken place so late in the calendar year for any of those dates. In 1998 and 2015, the university’s spring break lasted until March 21, but it typically lands in the third calendar week of March.
Bird said UT may be encouraging professors to allow students to do some “Experiential learning” at SXSW instead of reporting to class and may allow them to include South by Southwest in some coursework.
SXSW executive director Mike Shea said his organization has “been tracking UT’s spring dates for at least the last 25 years and always tried to sync up with it. If you boil it down, it’s the third week in March for the last 25 years. “I think they didn’t understand he ramifications of all the people it would affect, faculty and students. Since then, we’ve followed up with a lot of different departments and been ignored or gotten the same answer: ‘we’re not in a position to change the dates.’ ”
So if SXSW and UT’s spring break aren’t in sync, what will be the impact on Austin in terms of public safety, traffic and availability of workers?
Although attendance numbers are not yet available for 2018’s event, in 2017 SXSW attracted 70,696 conference attendees and 440,000 participants from 95 countries, according to an economic report from Greyhill Advisors. That year, SXSW and its lead-up educational event SXSW EDU, had a total economic impact of $348.6 million on the Austin economy, according to the report.
So far, the city of Austin has only said that it will be planning ahead for a SXSW with no spring break exodus. “Austin Center for Events is aware of the SXSW dates and will be prepared to respond with the resources needed to ensure the safety and security of Austin residents and visitors, as it does with all major special events in Austin year round,” a City of Austin spokesperson said.
SXSW believes that in addition to city services being spread thin, that there will be more traffic than usual during South by Southwest and local businesses such as restaurants and bars will have a smaller labor pool to work with. SXSW itself may also have trouble filling its volunteer ranks.
“A third of our volunteers are students and most of them are either UT students or faculty,” said SXSW CEO Roland Swenson. ‘That’s gonna make it difficult for us to have the manpower it takes to put this event together.”
Hugo Rojo, who now works as a manager, social media communications, at National Public Radio, worked for several years as a volunteer for the SXSW Film during his years at a UT student from 2011-2015.
He says that wouldn’t have been possible if spring break and SXSW had been on separate weeks.
“The nature of my role was to support the film festival’s premieres and those happen at all times throughout SXSW,” Rojo said. “I needed to be completely off from school during spring break to be able to do this.”
Housing during SXSW might also be a major issue. Austin residents who typically opt to leave town and rent out their homes or condos during spring break might not have that option. That could impact the short-term rental situation that has helped alleviate a shortage of hotel rooms in the area, SXSW executives said.
“We rely on the short-term rentals to house our visitors, as well,” Swenson said.
According to the Greyhill economic report, SXSW-booked hotel rooms hit an average of price $375 per night in 2017, the highest they’ve ever been in Austin during the event.
Bird said the university can’t promise that the situation won’t happen again, even after 2019, but that more communication may avoid that.
“We’re bringing SXSW into the (calendar) planning process,” he said.
SXSW says that it will do what it did when it faced a tight situation this year waiting for one of its primary venues, The Fairmont hotel, to open in time for SXSW 2018.
“We continued to plan for it be open, but we also made a plan B as a contingency,” Shea said. “I think that’s our situation here, we’re hoping that we’ll be able to go ahead and get SXSW and spring break in sync again. We’re hoping someone at UT will step up and say this is the right thing to do. We have to make a plan B so we’re not left high and dry if we’re left out of sync.”