Some SXSW fans still fighting for refunds after COVID-19 cancellation

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Nathan Vanden Avond’s extensive and colorful vinyl collection fills bookcases. It spans decades. He’s been collecting since he was 12-years-old. 

“Well, it is alphabetized. That is a question I get all the time,” said Vanden Avond of his 8,000 records. “It is, I would say, it’s a vice. I think it’s a very nice and safe vice.”

As he settled in for our Zoom interview, he pointed to a few of his favorites from local bands. 

“Bad Mutha Goose is one of the first bands I fell in love with,” he said. “Timbuk 3 was kind of one of the biggest things that came out of Austin back in the day.”

Nathan Vanden Avond has been going to SXSW since 1998. He said he’s been able to experience every aspect of the festival. (Courtesy: Nathan Vanden Avond) 

Vanden Avond loves discovering new music — especially every year at the South By Southwest festival

“I started attending the second year of SXSW, which was 1988. I turned 18 that year, which means I could get in to see most shows but not all since some venues were 21+,” said Vanden Avond. 

To celebrate his 50th birthday last year, he purchased a Platinum badge and eventually a wristband for his husband totaling more than $1,300. 

“I thought that would be a great way to celebrate this milestone and immerse myself in everything SXSW had to offer,” he said in a letter to SXSW.

SXSW canceled due to COVID-19 concerns

When the festival was canceled last March due to coronavirus, Vanden Avond was crushed. 

He eventually got an email with a deferral offer for 2020 registrants. He said the offer mentioned that he could move his badge registration to another year.

“There was not an option to get a refund in any capacity. I just found that a little disheartening, because we are in the middle of a pandemic and people are trying to figure out where their next meals are going to come from… how their rent is going to get paid, how they’re going to be able to make the car payments,” said Vanden Avond. “I’m fortunate that I was able to keep my job, but not everybody else is in the same situation.”

Vanden Avond requested a refund online and sent a letter, but said he got an emailed response which said in part, “Enforcing the no refund policy is necessary because of SXSW’s financial expenses that were required to produce SXSW 2020.”

KXAN investigators asked how the money from ticket purchases was used, but a spokesperson wouldn’t comment. 

“In light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, SXSW is producing a robust online experience in March 2021. All registrants who accepted SXSW’s offer to defer their 2020 credentials will receive deferred credentials for the next in-person event and will also receive access to attend the 2021 online event at no charge,” said the SXSW spokesperson in an email. “If a registrant chose 2021 as their deferral year, that deferral will now be honored in 2022, which is when we expect we will be allowed to hold a full scale in-person event.”

Lawsuit filed over no refund policy

Vanden Avond said there is no guarantee that the next in-person event will be the same as previous festivals. He said getting answers has been tough. 

“If you’re not able to put on the festival, as it normally is, then I feel you shouldn’t be holding on to people’s money,” he explained. 

Vanden Avond isn’t alone in demanding a refund. 

A class action lawsuit was filed last April against SXSW over the no-refund ticket policy following the cancellation of the festival. 

The lawyer behind the lawsuit said that changing or canceling without providing a refund violates Texas law. 

At the time, SXSW said that they were reliant on one annual event and they had incurred extensive amounts of non-recoupable costs and that the expenditures, and the loss of expected revenue, resulted where there’s no money to issue refunds. 

Refunds issued by other events

Vanden Avond said he received refunds from other major events. 

Austin City Limits Music Festival offered ticketholders a 30-day window to request a refund last July or choose to hold onto their tickets for this year’s festival slated in October at Zilker Park. 

“Patrons who requested refunds during that window had funds returned to their accounts before August 30, 2020,” said Sandee Fenton, Director of Publicity with ACL Fest. 

Rodeo Austin also offered refunds for the 2020 event. A spokesperson said the process was competed several months ago. 

Texas Performing Arts, which operates Bass Concert Hall, refunded Broadway Across America tickets. 

“Our approach is to put our fans first. When we’ve had to cancel a production, Broadway in Austin ticketholders have been offered the option of a refund, receiving a credit for future use, or donating the value of their tickets to support the artists.”

“Overwhelmingly, our subscribers have opted to hold on to their seats for the upcoming season,” explained Bob Bursey, Executive Director of Texas Performing Arts at the University of Texas at Austin. 

Vanden Avond disputed the wristband charge with his credit card company and eventually got a credit back.

He said now that it’s clear that this year will be a digital experience, all refunds should be granted for other passes. 

“It’s very disappointing because I love South by Southwest… and they didn’t prove to me that they were as loyal to their attendees, to their vendors, to the musicians, to all the entertainers and everybody else who has spent money for the 2020 festival.”

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