When you think of SXSW, what’s the first word that comes to mind? Creativity? Unconventional? Exhaustion? For me, it’s bucketlist.
For those of you who just said “huh?” and don’t know what SXSW is (pronounced “South By South West”), it is an annual event in Austin, that features a film festival, music festival and expansive conference covering topics from virtual reality to global sustainability. Think Coachella + Sundance + hundreds of sessions on your favorite hobbies and interests.
As someone who has been immersed in the business events industry since the start of my career, SXSW has always been the mecca of gatherings. It has been a goal of mine to attend for years, and I couldn’t control my excitement when the plans were set to attend in-person. I signed up for all the newsletters, took note of every pop-up and activation and was determined to discover all of the hidden gems that SX is said to hold.
When it was time to travel to Austin, I wasn’t exactly sure what was in store, but I did have some preconceived notions:
- It’s going to be overwhelming
- Expect to see a celebrity
- The best sessions will be the ones I didn’t know existed
- Expect to wait in line… a lot
- Anything I miss, I can watch online later
With a very heavy suitcase and a quick mental check to make sure I was officially going, I headed off to my firstSXSW.
On Site Observations
Walking through the streets of downtown Austin, it did feel like SXSW was “back” – it may have been a smaller crowd than usual but it was back. As I moved from venue to venue, session to activation, I started to notice a few themes:
- The best sessions were the ones that engaged the audience - it didn’t take much to engage us, but there was a noticeable difference when a speaker or panel presented without acknowledging the audience in the room. A simple ask for a show of hands or nod for agreement was all it took to feel like we were making an impact on the conversation, a feeling that was sorely missed after two years of virtual.
- You have more in common with the people around you than you think – when you pick up your badge at SXSW, you receive a colored lanyard based on your registration type – blue for film, green for music, etc. As I was walking around, I saw attendees with different colored badges than mine and figured I wouldn’t have much to talk to them about. To my surprise, as I started to talk to others throughout the event, I met a man from Brazil whose holidays were also affected by the pandemic, a woman from Austin who was also experiencing her first SXSW and a retiree who happened to be a member of my previous organization. All of us were at the event for a different purpose, yet we could still find common ground.
- There were overarching themes that connected the content together – I made a point to attend a variety of sessions. Different formats, different tracks and vastly different topics. Although the content was extremely diverse, I found myself hearing common themes such as “curiosity” and “empathy” as lessons to take to the next session. It was a reminder that we carry our previous sessions with us, and it gave deeper meaning to what would have been an otherwise disconnected experience.
- Authenticity is here to stay – a commonality seen over the past two years was a heightened sense of authenticity. Zoom gave us windows into each other’s homes, pets and children made cameos in our meetings and we were able to cut each other some slack. Each day at SX I noticed this trend continue in person. People are kinder when things go wrong, they’re more honest in their presentations and conversations, and traditional components (like a keynote speech) felt more real, more approachable and filled with laughter.
Takeaways from SX
Fast forward to one week post-SXSW. I have a notebook full of ideas, a phone full of photos and a suitcase full of swag. Now having had time to relax and reflect on this whirlwind of an event, there are a few learnings that are relevant to events moving forward.
- Time is one of the most valuable currencies – Even the very best events, the ones that you dream of coming to, require you to sacrifice your time. SXSW is a spectacular event, but it’s also a very long one. Spending more than a week away from home and the office had me questioning how soon I would be willing to travel again. We must be mindful of the time we are asking our attendees to give and allow them the opportunity for balance.
- Make it easy to talk to people – It was easy to network the first day of SX; the buzz and excitement took over and everyone was just excited to be at an event. That hype soon wore off and it became increasingly difficult to go up and talk to people (even for us extroverts). The most successful meetups = pushed us to talk to the people around us and the best ones gave us a prompt to get the conversation started. We are socially out of practice and those of us who run events need to be aware of that and make it easier to get back into the swing of networking.
- Novelty and Surprise are your friend – Perhaps the most exciting aspect of SXSW is that every day is different. You always have new activations to look forward to, surprise guests and pop-up performances. This doesn’t mean you have to launch a second expo floor halfway through your event (which is what SX did), but introducing small changes and surprises throughout your event will keep the audience interested and eager to stay to the end.
- Highs and lows – If you don’t incorporate highs and lows into the event, your attendees will find them themselves. SXSW was not seven straight days of fun and excitement. There were times when I had low energy and was more concerned with what was happening in the world than what was happening on site. As event organizers, if we understand that the lows are inevitable and strategically build in time and resources for our attendees to move through them, we can greatly improve their experience.
And as for those preconceived notions, it turns out the reality of the event was slightly different than I thought:
Expectation vs. Reality
- It’s going to be overwhelming --> You get the most out of SX (or any event) if you have a plan
- Expect to see a celebrity --> Check ✔ - but there were even more who I did not see
- The best sessions will be the ones I didn’t know existed --> The best sessions were the ones where I branched out of my comfort zone
- Expect to wait in line… a lot --> Lines can be fun and a great place to meet new people
- Anything I miss, I can watch online later --> Not all sessions were recorded which made me think harder about what I wanted to see in person
At the end of the day, SXSW is all about inspiration. Inspiration to make our world, our communities and our events better so that one day they become someone else’s dream to attend.