To SXSW or not to SXSW, that is the question

Katie and Karen's first SXSW in 2011

Katie and Karen’s first SXSW together in 2011

This is the first time in six years that I won’t be at SXSW and I’m not the only one. Lots of people who used to plan in advance and purchase their badges as soon as they were available because they just HAD to be in Austin in March are skipping out this year. SXSW Interactive was the conference bringing the thought leaders and hottest companies together once a year thanks to great content, sessions that provoked conversation with other attendees, and a chance to meet like-minded entrepreneurs and tech geeks.

Image credit: (cc) Kenneth Yeung - www.snapfoc.us

Image credit: (cc) Kenneth Yeung – www.snapfoc.us

Now? It’s a stress ball of high priced badges that most don’t even bother with purchasing anymore, way too many panels so that those with badges are one of a small handful in the room during the presentation, downtown hotels that sell out quickly after they become available to badge holders. The upside–there’s no lack of free food and booze throughout the few days. If you’re actually paying the posted prices for hotel rooms and badges, you probably can’t afford to buy your own food while you’re in town anyways.

Image credit: (cc) Kenneth Yeung - www.snapfoc.us

Image credit: (cc) Kenneth Yeung – www.snapfoc.us

It’s also a place for the brands with money to compete against each other to go bigger each year. It’s getting harder for startups and established companies with small to decent sized budgets to rise above the noise of what Nike, American Express, Foursquare, and Pepsi are doing throughout Austin.  Who can compete with their activations??

My former colleague, Jenn Van Grove, wrote an article last year during SXSW sharing the trend of  bigger brands taking over the conference. Jenn shared how competitive it’s getting:

Because of Chevy’s participation as an official sponsor, Ford was not able to participate in an official capacity. The same goes for USA Networks and Red Bull, who were locked out from organizing official SXSW parties and events because of official sponsors Showtime and Monster, respectively.

Every year we have clients come to us to discuss doing an event at SXSW and it breaks my heart. Most of the clients have a decent budget, but there’s no way they’ll be able to compete with the brands that are taking over. The audience that now attends SXSW is not the same as it was a few years ago. It’s now a place for the ‘spring breakers’ and those who plan to drink more in 5 days then they have since the beginning of the year. A good majority of my geek friends who actually live in Austin vacate the city during Interactive and rent out their places for a price that’s equivalent to three months rent or more, because it’s still cheaper than some of the prime hotels.

Just to set the record straight, I think the SXSW organization has recognized the difference in the Interactive conference experience from even just a few years ago and believe as an effort to get back to those roots they produced SXSW V2V last year in Las Vegas. I attended the conference and loved it as it felt more like SXSW 2008 (my first year) than not. From the SXSW V2V website:

SXSW V2V offers entrepreneurs from across all creative industries a space to learn the skills, make the connections and find the inspiration to take their ideas and talents to the next level.

The numbers were much smaller than the March SXSW conference, which was great. The entire conference actually fit in one hotel!! I saw friends I haven’t seen in years and got to sit down at lunch with no wait and actually have conversations with new people without feeling rushed to get to another meeting or event. And the best part? The content was very relevant and well presented. The selection of topics and presenters appealed to attendees and were chock full of great info.

I think Entrepreneur put it best as they summed up SXSW V2V 2013:

The inaugural conference caters to the SXSW Interactive crowd, intended to help startups and innovators take their ideas to the next level. Basically, if SXSW Interactive was a night club, V2V would be its VIP area for startups.

If you’re heading to Austin in March, I wish you the best of luck. Don’t forget to hydrate, get some sleep, and wash your hands so you don’t get the dreaded SX SARS. If you’re coming to Vegas in July for SXSW V2V, let me know so I can save you a seat in the keynote session.

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About the author

Karen Hartline Karen’s passion is creating experiences that are engaging and unique, always thinking of what attendees will find interesting. For her, events are about the ultimate experience, starting with attendee registration through the post-event wrap-up email and everything in between. She prides herself on event design and strategy to make an unforgettable event.

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