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AFROTECH Conference

Image courtesy of AFROTECH Conference

AFROTECH is the largest Black tech conference that bridges the worlds of afro-technologists, innovators, investors, corporations, musicians, and everyone in between.

Execs from Meta, Disney, Amazon, Google, American Express, Salesforce, Apple, Gap, Dreamville, and more will be on hand. This year, the AFROTECH Conference will also introduce a music experience, with special music performances from Bas, Bia, Wale, MÉLA, DJ MOMA, and more.

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SXSW economic impact stumbles after multi-year pandemic closures

A Few Less Dollars

Still coping with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, South by Southwest saw its local economic impact drop 27 percent from the pre-pandemic year of 2019 to this year, 2022.

SXSW announced on September 21 that this year’s version of the music, film, and interactive confab generated an economic impact of $280.7 million for the Austin economy. By comparison, the economic impact of the 2019 gathering totaled $355.9 million.

Consulting firm Greyhill Advisors produced the 2019 and 2022 economic impact studies. Five days before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, the City of Austin shut down the 2020 edition of SXSW. The 2021 event was held virtually. This year’s in-person gathering lasted 13 days.

“We celebrate the return to Austin of SXSW and its unique energy that showcases the arts, live music, and technologies of the future,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler says in a news release about this year’s economic impact report. “SXSW captures why and how this city has become home to and attracts the most innovative and creative people. And once again, our local businesses and creatives were able to enjoy the support that SXSW brings.”

Although the economic impact of SXSW declined from 2019 to 2022, the event remains one of the biggest moneymakers for Austin’s hospitality industry.

In 2022, SXSW directly booked more than 10,000 individual hotel reservations totaling more than 45,500 room nights for event registrants. The average nightly hotel rate for SXSW-booked rooms in 2022 rose $2 over the average rate in 2019. Direct bookings by SXSW alone generated nearly $1.8 million in hotel occupancy tax revenue this year for the City of Austin.

Next year’s SXSW will be March 10-19.

“We were especially excited to see the crowds return … after being cooped up for so long,” says Hugh Forrest, chief programming officer at SXSW. “This year’s event was a huge success for the organization and for the city of Austin. While the anticipation of 2022 will be hard to top, we are thrilled to be producing an even stronger experience this coming March.”

Courtesy of BioBQ

Austin startup developing lab-grown brisket earns national spotlight

Futuristic food

Brisket, a barbecue staple in Texas, is as synonymous with the Lone Star State as the Alamo and oil wells. An Austin company recently recognized as the state’s most innovative startup wants to elevate this barbecue staple to a new high-tech level.

BioBQ is working on technology to bring its lab-created, cell-cultured brisket to the market in 2023. The company made the Bloomberg news service’s new list of the 50 startups to watch in the U.S. — one startup for each state.

The co-founders of BioBQ are Austin native Katie Kam, a vegan with five college degrees (four from the University of Texas and one from Texas A&M University), and Janet Zoldan, a “hardcore carnivore” who’s a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. Kam is the CEO, and Zoldan is the chief science officer.

This kind of meat is genuine animal meat that’s produced by cultivating animal cells in a lab, according to the Good Food Institute.

“This production method eliminates the need to raise and farm animals for food. Cultivated meat is made of the same cell types arranged in the same or similar structure as animal tissues, thus replicating the sensory and nutritional profiles of conventional meat,” the institute says.

It turns that before becoming a vegan, Kam worked at the now-closed BB’s Smokehouse in Northwest Austin as a high school student. She’d chow down on sauce-slathered brisket and banana pudding during on-the-job breaks.

“But then over time, as I learned more about factory farming and could no longer make the distinction between my dogs and cats I loved and the animals that were on my plate, I decided to become vegan,” Kam writes on the BioBQ website.

Hearing about the 2013 rollout of the first cell-cultured hamburger set Kam off on her path toward starting BioBQ in 2018. Zoldan joined the startup as co-founder the following year.

Now, BioBQ aims to be the first company in the world to sell brisket and other barbecue meats, such as jerky, made from cultured cells rather than slaughtered animals.

According to BioBQ’s profile on the Crunchbase website, the startup relies on proprietary technology to efficiently produce meat products in weeks rather than the year or more it takes to raise and slaughter cattle. This process “allows control of meat content and taste, reduces environmental impacts of meat production, and takes BBQ to the next tasty, sustainable level consumers want,” the profile says.

In 2020, Texas Monthly writer Daniel Vaughn questioned BioBQ’s premise.

He wrote that “there is something about the idea of lab-grown brisket that keeps bothering me, and it has nothing to do with science fiction. If you could design any cut of beef from scratch, why choose one that’s so difficult to make delicious? Why not a whole steer’s worth of ribeyes?”

Kam offered a very entrepreneur-like response.

“I’m from Austin, and I know that brisket’s kind of a big deal here,” Kam told Vaughn. “It seemed like a great, challenging meat to demonstrate this technology working.”

Meanwhile, Zoldan came up with a more marketing-slanted reaction to Vaughn’s bewilderment.

“I don’t think cell-based meats will take over the market, but I think there’s a place for it on the market,” Zoldan she told Vaughn.

Rendering courtesy of Electric Shuffle

The London bar that revolutionized shuffleboard is electrifying Austin

Shuffled Board

Shuffleboard isn’t usually the focus of the evening — or anything, really — but that’s the point: It’s unobtrusive enough to schedule just about any outing around it. Electric Shuffle, a bar and games venue out of London, is coming to Austin to hold that space and more this fall.

Electric Shuffle seems like a paradox, as shuffleboard is an antique activity, not really something people are racing to innovate. But the London bar did it, implementing custom-built “high-tech shuffleboard” with cameras to track and map each puck, keeping score for up to two dozen people, and making tournaments especially easy. Despite the arcade-ification of this classic bar game, it still seems to work the same mechanically, so analog experts need not worry.

“We are so excited for Austin to be the next spot we call home,” said Electric Shuffle USA CEO Gene Ball in a press release. “The city is a hub for innovation and hospitality with a deep love of good vibes and great music while being home to some of the coolest and weirdest concepts in the world. We cannot wait for Electric Shuffle to be a part of this community and culture while adding our own little piece of uniqueness to the city.”

The Austin bar will reside where an upscale, retro bar games spot gone high-tech makes sense: Rainey Street. It will be housed in The Quincy, a mixed-use complex between The Fairmont and the Hotel Van Zandt.

The bar itself is visually stunning — at least it is in Dallas, the closest and only other United States location — with an eclectic mix of art deco lighting, exposed brick, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and colorful velvet seating. While dive bars can be plenty of fun for late night games, this is not one. The Austin location is not just the second in Texas; it’s the fourth city in the entire chain, which is operating in London, Dallas, and Leeds coming this fall.

The elevation reaches through the decor and into the kitchen, which sends out a long list of snacks and even full meals to share, including roasted shishito peppers, sampling platters, seven types of pizza, and more.

It’s not just good for an evening hang, either. Electric Shuffle serves an over-the-top brunch with a bottle of prosecco for each guest (or a nonalcoholic alternative), other cocktails, live DJs, a charcuterie-like “Ultimate Brunch Board,” and bacon jam pizza. Huge parties are more than welcome, with reservations available for four to 24 guests, and opportunities for private events of up to 250.

More information about Electric Shuffle, including details on the Austin location, is available at electricshuffleusa.com.

The game tables by Electric Shuffleboard keep score with cameras, so tournaments have never been easier.

Rendering courtesy of Electric Shuffle
The game tables by Electric Shuffleboard keep score with cameras, so tournaments have never been easier.
Photo by Daniel Cavazos

Dazzling Field of Light illuminates 16 acres of Austin's Wildflower Center

Photo Synthesis

In collaboration with the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, British artist Bruce Munro’s Field of Light is a vast installation of solar powered lights that illuminate 16 acres of the South Austin staple. The exhibition opens September 9 and runs through December.

In collaboration with the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, British artist Bruce Munro’s Field of Light is a vast installation of solar powered lights that illuminate 16 acres of the South Austin staple. The exhibition opens September 9 and runs through December.

Photo by Daniel Cavazos
In collaboration with the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, British artist Bruce Munro’s Field of Light is a vast installation of solar powered lights that illuminate 16 acres of the South Austin staple. The exhibition opens September 9 and runs through December.
In collaboration with the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, British artist Bruce Munro’s Field of Light is a vast installation of solar powered lights that illuminate 16 acres of the South Austin staple. The exhibition opens September 9 and runs through December.

NASA sets new launch date for historic return to the moon

go for launch

Texans who are eagerly anticipating America’s historic return to the moon now have a new date to mark on their calendars. Artemis I will launch on Saturday, September 3, with a two-hour window beginning at 1:17 pm, NASA announced August 30.

Viewers can tune into the livestream of the rocket and spacecraft at the launch pad on the NASA Kennedy YouTube channel. Additionally, live coverage of events can be found on NASA Television, the NASA app, and the agency’s website.

This comes after the initial August 29 launch was scrubbed. At that time, teams were not able to chill down the four RS-25 engines to necessary temperatures. Teams also caught and quickly managed a hydrogen leak on one of the rocket’s components.

NASA reports that teams are currently addressing and testing both issues in advance of the Saturday launch. Another important component for flight windows — weather — is currently favorable. Meteorologists with the U.S. Space Force Space Launch Delta 45 forecast favorable weather conditions for Saturday. Though some rain showers are expected, they are predicted to be sporadic during the launch window, per NASA.

Artemis I is the first flight test of NASA’s Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System rocket (dubbed SLS), and the ground systems at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“The first in a series of increasingly complex missions, Artemis I will be an uncrewed flight test that will provide a foundation to extend human presence to the Moon and beyond,” NASA notes in a news release. “The mission will demonstrate the performance of the SLS rocket and test Orion’s capabilities over the course of about six weeks as it travels about 40,000 miles beyond the Moon and back to Earth.”

Given the gravity of the launch, NASA planned considerable fanfare for the broadcast, including celebrity appearances by Jack Black, Chris Evans, and Keke Palmer, as well as a special performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Josh Groban and Herbie Hancock. A planned musical performance featured “America the Beautiful” by The Philadelphia Orchestra and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Representatives from Johnson Space Center had not received an update on the Saturday broadcast program when contacted on Wednesday, August 31.

Texas — and Houston specifically — has been inextricably tied to lunar missions ever since NASA’s first launches. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy boldly declared that America would go to the moon before the end of the decade in front of a packed Rice University football stadium.

On July 20, 1969 — a commitment to the late President Kennedy’s directive — Apollo 11 marked its arrival to the lunar surface with a statement heard around the globe from Commander Neil Armstrong, who would take mankind’s first steps on the surface: “Houston, Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed.”

And the Bayou City has (somewhat tiredly) been the source of a ubiquitous sentence — actually, a paraphrasing — uttered by Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell: “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” The adjusted “Houston, we have a problem” declaration was later immortalized by Tom Hanks (as Lovell) in the blockbuster Apollo 13.

What will be the next iconic phrase sent back to Houston when NASA’s manned mission readies to land on Earth’s sole satellite? The countdown is on.

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H-E-B unveils merch for super fans, plus more hot Austin headlines

Hot Headlines

Editor’s note: It’s that time again — time to check in with our top stories. Here are five articles that captured our collective attention over the past seven days.

1. H-E-B unveils merchandise for brand super fans, available exclusively at one store. Kerrville was chosen to launch the company's new line of H-E-B-branded merchandise in celebration of its 117th anniversary.

2. Austin bar transforms into a magical winter wonderland this holiday season. Don your favorite elf socks and meet the lovely citizens of “Tinseltown.”

3. Draft 'Vision Plan' for Zilker Park unveils land bridge and more possibilities. Austinites are invited to comment on a vision plan that will inform the future of Zilker Park.

4. Austin ranks among world’s 100 best cities in prestigious new report. Austin is the No. 43 best city in the world, according to a new study. (And yes, we beat Dallas.)

5. Austin airport launches new SkySquad travel assistants in time for the holiday rush. Austin-Bergstrom International Airport is keeping lines moving during a period of heavy travel with a new team of airport assistants.

Steven Spielberg opens up personal history in The Fabelmans

Movie Review

For over 40 years, director Steven Spielberg has been delivering some of the most popular blockbuster movies of all time as well as a bevy of Oscar-quality dramas, a combination that’s unique to him. For his latest, The Fabelmans, he’s decided to go more personal than ever, telling a thinly-veiled version of his own childhood.

Sammy (played mostly by Gabriel LaBelle) is one of four children – and the only son – of Mitzi (Michelle Williams), a concert pianist, and Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano), a computer engineer. From an early age, Sammy is enthralled by the art of filmmaking, first remaking a train crash sequence from The Greatest Show on Earth, and gradually moving on to more adventurous stories.

Burt’s advancing career, which moves the family from New Jersey to Arizona to California, causes stress for various members of the family, most notably Sammy and Mitzi. Sammy must deal with anti-Semitic bullies, while Mitzi falls deeper into a mental health crisis. Sammy’s movies continually offer a respite for the family, though, giving him a creative outlet and the rest of them a chance to forget their troubles for a while.

Written by Spielberg – his first writing effort since 2001’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence – and Tony Kushner, the film is heavy on emotions but presented in a way that those feelings don’t always translate. Spielberg is no stranger to depicting fraught family situations in his long career, but in showing ones from his own family, it feels like he pulled back, not wanting the scenes to be overwrought or schmaltzy.

The result is a story that isn’t as universal as some of his other films. As the film is told from Sammy’s perspective, it’s easy to get caught up in his pursuits and various discoveries as he gets older. The mindsets of the rest of the family are less clear, even though his parents and sisters are ever-present. Mitzi’s state of mind is a concern from the start, but it’s not always treated as such by other important characters.

Just as Sammy’s movies are an escape for his family, so too are they some of the best parts of the film. Sammy figuring out the process and secrets of filmmaking is informative and often thrilling, especially if you’re a cinephile. Spielberg has been considered a master for so long that watching him revisit the days when he was learning as he went is catnip for movie lovers.

In addition to being a dead ringer for a teenage Spielberg, LaBelle is a fantastic actor. It’s no easy feat to carry a movie on your shoulders, and LaBelle makes the assignment look easy. Williams’ performance will likely be more polarizing; she employs a very mannered speech pattern that works in some situations, but not all. The film also includes memorable short appearances by Seth Rogen, Judd Hirsch, and David Lynch.

Spielberg has provided the moviegoing public with such pleasure over the years that he deserves to have a movie that’s mostly for him. The initial viewing of The Fabelmans left this critic wanting, but perhaps it will gain more traction on a second screening.

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The Fabelmans is now playing in theaters.

Photo by Merie Weismuller Wallace/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment

Gabriel LaBelle in The Fabelmans

Texas billionaire Tilman Fertitta acquires award-winning California resort

tilman goes laguna

Fans of Tilman Fertitta's nationwide hospitality brands are in for a treat. The Billion Dollar Buyer has just secured an award-winning, 30-acre resort in sunny Southern California.

Fertitta has purchased the acclaimed Montage Laguna Beach Resort Hotel, a premier beachfront property in the sunny SoCal getaway destination. Notably, the Montage Laguna Beach Resort Hotel is one of only six hotels in the U.S. to score the Forbes Triple Five-Star hotel status. The Montage has also been included among Travel + Leisure’s Top Hotels in the World.

Image courtesy of Montage Laguna Beach

Fertitta's newest purchase overlooks the ocean in Laguna Beach.

“I am truly thrilled to acquire this world-renowned property and add one of America’s most iconic trophy resorts to our luxury hotel portfolio,” Fertitta noted in a statement. “I have been traveling to Laguna Beach for over 30 years. It is one of my favorite places to visit and one of the most beautiful areas in the world. The Montage is a stunning oceanfront property and one of the premier hotel brands in the world.”

Press materials didn't list the property purchase price, but Law360 reports that the deal is in excess of $660 million.

The Craftsman-style resort sits on a coastal bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Impressive amenities are highlighted by the 20,000-square-foot Spa Montage, which offers eucalyptus steam rooms, dry redwood saunas, ocean air whirlpools, fireplace lounges, a state-of-the-art fitness center, a movement studio, and a lap pool.

More outdoor fun includes two pools and direct beach access, a museum-quality fine art collection, and more than 20,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting space, per press materials.

Every resident space — the 260 guestrooms, including 60 suites, beach bungalow-style rooms, and multi-bedroom villas — boast stunning views of the Pacific.

Dining destinations offer chef-driven interpretations of coastal California flavors inspired by region. The property is designated and included in the distinctive Legend Collection of Preferred Hotels & Resorts Worldwide.

“We are thrilled that Tilman is the new owner of this one-of-a-kind property and welcome him into the Montage family,” said Alan Fuerstman, founder, CEO, and chairman of Montage International. Mary Rogers, the Montage's GM added, “The staff is thrilled to be working with Tilman. Everyone here at the property is tremendously excited about his purchase and look forward to continuing to provide a world-class experience to all of our guests."

Aside from his palatial Post Oak Hotel in Houston, Fertitta also owns 14 other hotel properties around the country, including the award-winning San Luis Resort in Galveston, plus five popular Golden Nugget casino and hotel locations.

Another feather in Fertitta’s luxury portfolio cap is the iconic Huntting Inn, one of the most charming and historic locales in East Hampton, New York.

No stranger to California, Fertitta's presence there includes Catch Seafood and Catch Steak, Mastro’s Ocean Club and Mastro’s Steakhouse, Morton’s The Steakhouse, Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse, The Palm, and more — all part of his 60 brands and more than 600 concepts nationwide.