SXSW is a Festival –Not Just A Conference

Crowd in the Hallways

Is SXSW for Business or just a Boondoggle? That’s the wrong question.
More than ever, I heard more folks debating if SXSW was good for business, or just a big party. Those who have attended the event for over a decade swear the soul has been stolen, and local Austin denizens often leave town and rent their place on AirBnb for a pretty penny, there’s no shortage of critics.

Looking closer, the components for a unique petri dish are present, including: 1) Big brands, 2) software vendors who are trying to sell to them, 3) device manufactures who are trying to reach influencers, 4) digerati and A-List tech celebs (which means they are D-List celebs in real life), 5) mainstream media celebs including actors, sports stars and more, and perhaps most importantly, 6) an engaged set of over aprox 25,000 interactive attendees ready to trial new technologies. (see demographics)

Here’s the arguments both for and against SXSW as a business event vs a boondoggle.

Business Goals: The Upsides and Downsides of SXSW

Use Cases Upsides Downsides
Unique Interactive Experience Concentrating over 25k people into a a few small blocks enables unique social and tech interactions The chances of you experiencing a unique breakthrough moment are rare, as the event is dispersed.
Quality Speakers and Panels The keynote speakers are grade A quality: Al Gore, Elon Musk, Wholefoods CEO, and others, deliver earth shaking insights. The crowd influenced panels are hit and miss. Most panelists are not professional speakers, and quality is a crap shoot.
Reach Influencers Many of the tech influencers are present, launching books, on stage, hosting parties, or milling about. They’re overwhelmed with requests and trying to get their attention to pitch them is very challenging.
Learn about new trends Historically, new technologies have gained grown here, from Twitter, to a rash of location based apps. We’ve not seen any major breakthroughts in the last few years, with the exception of Grumpy Cat memes.
Network and expand connections One of the best ways to quickly become immersed with the digital and interactive scene. For the first timer, this is a daunting festival, there’s too much to do, events are sold out, and there are many crowds and often bad weather.
Accessibility and Logistics The entire festival officially and unofficially spans the entire city, walking or pedicab rides enable quick access to most events. Yet due to headcount increase, the event is straining housing, and unless you book 9mos early, you’ll be paying an expensive travel and expenses bill.
Grow your business A strategic company can host an event, attract prospects, engage customers deeper. This requires significant planning, knowledge of the venue, budget to cut through clutter, and extensive influencer outreach.
Socialize and Have Fun This is a fantastic event to see live music, eat great Texmex, and drink from bottomless bar tabs and dance all night. Perception of being a party can spill over to workplace, and not everyone will uphold the privacy code to not sharing online.

The Right Question: What are your Goals at the Festival?

So to put this topic to rest, I’m going to assert that SXSW is a festival, which includes both business presentations, networking get togethers, and downright riotous all-night parties.  There’s so many options for any individual to partake in whether you’re a first timer, a corporate executive, a new media innovator, or just someone who’s interested in interactive technologies.

If you’re going to go, or are requesting your boss to attend, or are sending your staff, it’s important to set expectations with everyone around you.  SXSW isn’t a normal business conference, it’s a social activity.  Make it clear to those around you the opportunities of the event and the goals of your specific participation.

The Bottom Line: SXSW is what you make of it, but whatever you do, don’t call it a conference, it’s a festival.

(There’s a discussion brewing on my Facebook newsfeed about this post, Photo by Ahockley, used with attribution under creative commons license)

18 Replies to “SXSW is a Festival –Not Just A Conference”

  1. Jeremiah, as a first time attendee and just arriving home today, I can say I wasn’t overwhelmed, probably because I’ve been following people who have attended for the last 5 years. I wrote a pretty straightforward post about my advice as a first timer before I left and feel I nailed every point, and as a result, had an experience I anticipated. Festival is exactly the right word. If there is one thing I would change next year, I would plan more small meetings for coffee, lunch and dinner and also target more 1:1 meetings. SXSW can be one of two things; a fun social gathering or opportunity to network with so many people in such a short time. Plan and the later will occur. It’s not about the panels, it’s about the people.

  2. Tim. First of all, I wanted to be thankful for the time we spent to meet, while at the Community Manager super-fast-meetup. I enjoyed our time talking at the bus stop, the energy was so high! Glad you found your own event strategy.

  3. Great observations. SXSW fulfills the part of our human nature that requires a deeper personal connection than what technology alone can provide. In that sense, it’s as much about being present “in person” as it is a serious business event. The fact that it’s both is what makes it so popular in an era when most of the time, we listen passively.

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