What began as a simple music festival in Austin, Texas, in 1987 has become one of the most influential events in the United States. South By Southwest -- also called SXSW or simply South By -- now includes film and technology components, and it's a mecca for music junkies, cinema buffs and cutting-edge social technologies looking to become the next big thing (both Twitter and Foursquare got their start here).
The music program, which drew 700 registrants in its first year, had some 17,000 this year (March 9-18), while SXSW Film and SXSW Interactive brought in about 16,000 and 24,500 people, respectively, to the Austin Convention Center. But thousands upon thousands of unregistered groupies also travel to Austin, seeking the plethora of after-parties and independently ticketed events, hoping to mingle, party, and score some free food and drink. While it's impossible to officially tally everyone that comes through town during the 10-day event, some insiders estimate the 2012 event drew as many as 300,000 people to Austin.
To delve deeper into the conference's appeal, M&C went to this year's gathering and picked the brains of Mike Shea, executive director of SXSW; Steven Stout, director of meetings and events for Hospitality Financial and Technology Professionals and an Austin resident; and Jason Preston, vice president of strategy and product with the Redmond, Wash.-based events production company Parnassus Group, who was one of many speakers on the show's jam-packed agenda. Following are key takeaways that can be applied to any event.
Create lots of lounging spacePlanners pay for every square foot of a venue, so why not use it? At SXSW, "There wasn't a corner in the convention center that didn't have some interactive lounge or activity for attendees to experience," says Stout. "There's this imperative that we want attendees to spend their time in the sessions and not in the common areas, but if someone wants to go network in a lounge instead of head to a lecture, that's still a win. You're still providing valuable education, because networking is one of the main reasons why people come to face-to-face events."
For the entirety of the show, the convention center's floors, corridors and corners were dotted with sofa-stocked lounges, whiteboards and cell-phone charging stations, many of which were sponsored, and all of which were constantly trafficked by attendees from morning to night. "Everywhere you turned there was a place to sit," Stout notes. "It makes interactions so informal and organic."