clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Austin shuts down SXSW as the number of canceled tech conferences rises

The cancellations of some of the biggest tech events of the year could be a sign of what’s to come in other sectors.

A crowd of people in a convention center attending Facebook’s F8 conference.
Facebook canceled its annual F8 conference in San Jose, California, over coronavirus concerns.
Amy Osborne/AFP via Getty Images
Shirin Ghaffary is a senior Vox correspondent covering the social media industry. Previously, Ghaffary worked at BuzzFeed News, the San Francisco Chronicle, and TechCrunch.

The coronavirus is prompting major tech conferences around the world to cancel their events. So far, several ones have been called off entirely, including, on Friday, South by Southwest, a festival that attracted some 200,000 people last year, as well as Facebook’s F8 and Mobile World Congress. It’s an unprecedented disruption to the usual packed lineup of annual tech events every spring that’s having an economic impact of over $1 billion.

The cancellations of some of the biggest tech events of the year seem to be a sign of what’s to come in other sectors as fears mount that the coronavirus will become a pandemic. The US tech industry shares close ties to China, where the outbreak started, and some in the industry were so concerned about the virus that they took early precautions, like discouraging handshakes and requiring employees who have recently traveled to China to work from home.

Here’s a running list of notable tech conferences, which typically draw between 500 to 100,000 attendees a year, that have been canceled so far due to coronavirus:

  • South by Southwest in Austin, Texas
  • Mobile World Congress in Barcelona
  • Facebook Global Marketing Summit in San Francisco
  • Facebook F8 in San Jose, California
  • EmTech, Asia in Singapore
  • Google News Initiative Global Summit in Sunnyvale, California
  • Shopify’s developer conference, Unite, in Toronto
  • Google I/O in Mountain View, California

The tech event cancellations come at the same time public health leaders are considering how other, larger global events outside of tech, like the Tokyo summer Olympics, should respond if the outbreak continues to spread in the months ahead. Japan’s prime minister recently took the drastic step of closing all of the country’s schools for a month to try to contain the virus’s spread.

Covid-19 has taken the lives of 2,867 people as of Friday and infected more than 80,000 people. In the past week, the number of new cases of the virus outside of China, in the US, Italy, Japan, and other countries has been surging. That worries global health experts, who say there’s now less of a chance that it can be contained.

On Thursday, Facebook said that due to concerns about the virus, it’s canceling F8, its biggest event of the year, which last year attracted thousands of attendees from dozens of countries. Instead, it will put on smaller “locally hosted events, videos and live streamed content.”

F8 is one of several big tech conferences, including Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, that has been canceled altogether or negatively impacted due to coronavirus. On Thursday, Microsoft and Epic Games pulled out of one of the video game industry’s major conferences, Game Developers Conference, in San Francisco on March 16 to 17.

Industry leaders are particularly concerned about events in tech’s capital in the San Francisco Bay Area, which has some of the highest travel rates to and from China compared to other regions in the US. Earlier this month, Facebook canceled a 5,000-person marketing event in San Francisco scheduled in March due to similar concerns.

And on Tuesday, the mayor of San Francisco declared the city to be in a state of emergency, although there are still zero confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in the city. Concerns are increasing after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed that a person in Solano County, in Northern California, has been diagnosed with the virus who seemingly had no ties to anyone overseas with the disease, suggesting that the coronavirus may now be spreading person-to-person in the US.

Meanwhile, some other major tech conferences, such as the RSA IT security conference in San Francisco’s Moscone Center, which attracts some 40,000 attendees annually, carried on as planned this week and featured speakers from Facebook, Twitter, and Google. IBM, AT&T Cybersecurity, and Verizon, however, pulled out over coronavirus fears. Organizers reportedly encouraged attendees to knock elbows instead of shake hands and placed ample hand sanitizer stations in the conference halls.

Considering Facebook and other major tech companies have canceled or pulled out of conferences, it raises questions about whether other major conferences will do the same.

Apple is scheduled to have its major annual developer conference, WWDC, in June in San Jose, California. Apple did not reply to Recode’s request for comment about whether it plans to host its conference as scheduled.

Recode will host its annual Code tech conference in May in Los Angeles. The conference is considerably smaller than others that have been canceled, such as Mobile World Congress, which had more than 100,000 attendees last year.

“We are watching this closely to see what happens between now and the end of May. The health and safety of our community is of utmost importance to Recode and Vox Media,” Shannon Thompson, the executive director of conferences for Recode, said.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.