He came to participate as a musician and wound up running the show for the past 23 years. The executive director of SXSW chats with M&C about the event and what makes it work.
How would you describe SXSW?
It's pretty hard to describe in just a few sentences, because it's grown into such an enormous thing. But you could say it's become a global marketplace for ideas.
What makes SXSW so innovative?
I think the innovation is twofold. The first part is that the people we invite or the people that gravitate toward us are innovative thinkers. We encourage that. The second part is putting all the different elements together. We mix a film festival with a music event and our interactive component, putting them all together in one package and inviting people to cross-pollinate.
What advice can you give to planners about bringing innovative aspects of this show to their own events?
They should be open to outside ideas, things that might take them outside their comfort zone but might appeal to their attendees. They shouldn't be afraid to have fun with things. They also shouldn't be afraid to listen to feedback from attendees. One of the best things we do is ask what kind of content our audience wants to see. People enjoy being invited to participate -- they felt like they get a chance to be part of the process, and people like feeling like they've been listened to.
What is the biggest challenge SXSW faces today?
Housing. Austin has become a big city, but the hotel inventory hasn't grown at the same pace as the city or event. Ten years ago I might have been able to get by with 20 or 30 contracted hotels. Today we have more than 70. And that's still barely enough.
Do you struggle to maintain a sense of community as the event grows?
One of the things that people like about SXSW is the intimacy. They like the fact that when they come here it's about business, but it's also about business in a social context. So we try to identify areas with content that might fall under a similar theme. People who are interested in social media can gravitate toward the social media campus, or others who want to find out more about startups can head to the startup village. Creating these themed communities lets people know where to meet others with similar interests. If we can help build sub-communities inside the larger community, then hopefully we can continue growing without alienating attendees.
How do you continue to deliver a consistent product year after year?
In a lot of ways, it grows out of our roots as a music event. Our attendees came to that event to have fun, and that expectation translated well to the film and interactive communities, too. People expect a good time here, and we try to maintain that environment. A reputation can be a dangerous thing, but we're very lucky. All we have to do is not besmirch that.