SXSW continues to grow
I’m wrapping up my fifth year of SXSW Interactive, one of the biggest tech and social media conferences in the nation, just right up the road in Austin. This year’s attendance has not been announced but estimates are that it will be well over 20,000, eclipsing last year’s attendance of 19,364. Even with the incredible growth the organizers of SXSW were able to accommodate everyone by expanding the footprint and introducing transportation shuttles between the campuses. Still, there were some challenges with the festival, especially with registration when most people showed up almost all at once to get their badges, resulting in 2+ hour lines. Not much can be done to speed that up except encourage folks to show up early to get badged or have remote badging sites at the campuses. But all that aside, what draws people to this annual week of geekdom?
SXSW Interactive started as an outgrowth of the Film and Music festivals when more and more creative people began using technology to augment and enhance their creative products. That outgrowth spawned into new technology tools in the worlds of social media and content delivery. After all, Twitter and foursquare were born during SXSW when people wanted to connect and socialize during Film and Music. Listening to a cool band at Stubb’s? Tweet it up to your friends. Wanna find out where they’ve all gone? Check to see where they’ve checked in with foursquare. It just made sense and once those techies got the tools in their hands, they took them back home to the Big Apple, the West Coast, and all parts in between.
So now just about every technology is either launching or introducing new functions at SXSW to an audience that spends more time with its head down than looking straight ahead. Walk into any room or hallway and if you don’t have your tablet, smartphone or laptop out you’re in the minority. Shut the SXSW2012 access point down and I can just see the entire festival come to screeching halt as people try to figure out how to move, interact, or just plain live without the network. It’s a scene of a world yet to come but being realized today in this cocoon of geekdom.
I’m planning to compile my notes on what I saw from this year’s SXSW Interactive and publish them in a series of blog entries at my Tech blog. For now, I’ll just focus on where I see this festival going and if it can grow any more. So let’s start with SXSW as a business. The folks at SXSW have built a reputation at putting on really cool festivals and put that model to use several times throughout the year. In October they host SXSW Eco, focused on green and sustainable living. Just before the big SXSW week, there’s SXSW Edu, a three day conference targeting educational issues. If that wasn’t enough, SXSW also serves the role of logistical coordinator for the Texas Tribune Festival, a political version of SXSW focused on Texas politics.
Looking at this year’s SXSW it’s evident the festival can grow and expand. Expanding to 15 campuses, moving some major footprints like Screenburn and Gaming to the Palmer Event Center, a move that made sense and allowed more non-SXSW badge access to the games, are all great ways to accommodate the crowds. I’ve always loved walking through Screenburn and seeing these kids jumping into the latest games and talking to the folks that built the games. These are the future of SXSW and inviting them to the party, alongside the entrepreneurs, is how you grow the next generation of innovation. SXSW gets that and its part of the magic of that team.
Expanding the footprint means more rooms and more room in the rooms. Sure, a few rooms were packed but those were unexpected and people made them work. Aside from the really hot sessions, the keynotes or the featured sessions, the rooms were only about 2/3 full, at max, with most running about 1/2 full. That means there’s room for more at the party. Now the focus is getting the BEST sessions possible to give good content to those that attend. SXSW’s Panel Picker process has been a good way to vet the content, provided the audience play the game with the organizers.
While some might claim housing is going to become the limiter, if you think creatively that’s really not an issue. With the improved schedule of CapMetroRail, hotels north of Austin are now in the mix as easy options for those who don’t want to close Austin down every night. Granted, they still have some improvements to make like running weekend service in time for the first session and offering Sunday service, it’s still a good way to get people right to the door of SXSW without creating a jam in downtown Austin. Quite a few took advantage of the train and rode it north to their hotels located in north Austin. Having good shuttle around the campuses will also make the spread footprint doable for the future.
Finally, there’s the overall experience in downtown Austin. During this period downtown Austin resembles downtown New York, Chicago and Boston. It’s vibrant and active. Austin meets the challenge by bringing in more food trucks, catering to pop-up stores and shops, and generally making the downtown as friendly as possible. That experience helps Austinites realize what downtown Austin could be like and probably has helped drive the growth in urban living in Austin, making it a year round experience. That’s something San Antonio might take to heart. Schedule more downtown things besides Fiesta and you make people see how cool downtown really is.
So SXSW has a bright future ahead and now it’s just down to tweaking the logistics. It’s reached that point where you just do what you’ve been doing and you’ll be fine. On a bright note this year, with Luminaria’s cancellation I will FINALLY be able to attend it. Year’s past it’s been scheduled the same time as SXSW and you can see where my priorities are.