Going to SXSW


I took my kids to SXSW this year…sort of.  One of the things that I have struggled with during my adult life is frequent work travel, and that means my kids are at home.  I have tried (unsuccessfully) to bring my children with me when I can, but I never know the culture of the place that I am going regarding children and what is appropriate.

 My older sons are now of an age where they can come to meetings and no one really “notices” them.  But, my younger children still are a bit disruptive.  All of this is to say that I took them to Austin. but not actually to SXSW.  They got to see the outside of the conference but not the inside of the conference – and the inside used to be what mattered.  I am not sure that is the case anymore.  Today SXSW is more spectacle for outsiders to view, not to touch or participate in.

 My first visit to SXSW was in 2007 – at that time, SXSWi as it was called, drew about 25-40% of the people that now attend the conference.  And many of the surrounding conferences, such as Cities or Sports, did not exist. They were just bundled into the primary interactive conference.  What I remember is that you could actually talk to the other attendees…at the conference.  During breaks the meeting rooms were usually either highly engaged (but not that full) or busting at the seams.  And in either case, everyone wanted to meet everyone else.  I didn’t get that impression this year. 

 Like many events that reach some “coolness” factor, SXSW has lost what made itself cool in the first place.  It is not that there are too many people.  It is instead that there are too many agendas.  Everyone is there with a purpose beyond simply meeting people and hearing about new things.  This means that you get mostly empty presentations – not bad – but not sharp and cutting on new things.

 We have recommended as part of our work that cities start connecting conferences.  It is not a frequent recommendation – but it is something that certain markets need.  For example, we were in Oklahoma City this week, and we recommended two different types of conferences.  Specifically, conferences are for breaking social pathways and creating new ones.  Most ecosystems have silos of interaction built around industry, culture, geography, or other social connections.  OKC is this way – the people have dinner parties and small conferences.  And they have big conferences for economic developers and suit types – but they don’t have a gathering that is just about hearing about cool stuff going on where the goal is not to sell a product, per se, but to find new, interesting people.  SXSW used to be about that. I think today it is just a boondoggle.




Tom Chapman