SXSW Interactive's Hugh Forrest on Growth, Change and his Secret Fantasy Festival
Austin Post: SXSW has exploded this year with the addition of .edu, .eco and now SXSW V2V in Las Vegas. What fueled the desire to add so many new sub-festivals?
Hugh Forrest: A lot of these are offshoots of programming that’s been particularly popular during the core events. We’ve been doing education-related programming at Interactive for the last five or ten years. That’s been popular, so we thought there was a market to spin off into its own event.
Likewise, we’ve been doing programing that covers sustainability, green concerns, and ended up spinning that off into its own thing with .eco.
V2V leverages all the momentum of the startup space. There’s been a little confusion that the startup stuff would be leaving Interactive, and that’s not the case. It’s a lot of what we do, and it helps fuel the event. We think that there’s enough to fuel two very different events in two very different cities.
I would say that a lot of these things are offshoots of Interactive, but Interactive and Film are very much an offshot of music. South By Southwest gradually changes and morphs over time. It’s a living, breathing dynamic organization, and as parts grow bigger we split them off into different things.
Austin Post: SXSW V2V seems like a smaller clone of SXSW Interactive. Why essentially hold a second SXSWi out of town?
Hugh Forrest: V2V will be very much focused on startups. It’s one of the areas that’s really propelled the growth of Interactive in the last few years. We want to emphasize the core values of creativity, integration and innovation. V2V will be much, much smaller than SXSW is now. In 2012, Interactive had about 25,000 total registrations. We’re looking at 1,500 total for V2V.
Being small will be good. It’ll allow the event to find its unique voice.
One thing that’s really intriguing about Vegas is what Tony Hsieh is doing with the downtown project. He’s the founder and CEO of Zappos, and when Zappos sold to Amazon he made quite a financial windfall and is investing a lot of that money into the downtown area of Las Vegas. The downtown area isn’t as glamorous as the strip. It’s where a lot of the old Vegas is. In many ways the downtown area would remind people of Austin what South Congress was like 10-15 years ago. There are tattoo parlors and indie coffee shops next to rundown buildings. He’s trying to create this next big center of creativity and innovation in the US and it’s this real-life experiment of Sim City. He’s asking, in the real world, if we put a coffee shop every block and a half, does that encourage more artsy creative people to move in? What can be done to encourage more independently run restaurants? They’re doing a lot of things to encourage entrepreneurs to move to that section of Vegas.
I think that doing this V2V event in Vegas against this backdrop is pretty interesting and exciting. I’m anxiously following it as we move forward with this.
Austin Post: Is V2V your way of trying to give the startup crowd more space to do power networking without taking away from the more community oriented parts of Interactive?
Hugh Forrest: The Las Vegas event will be much smaller, so it’ll be a little more like the intimate atmosphere people remember from seven or eight years ago. Whatever the size of the event, if it’s 10, 100, 1,000, the essential value of any conference or festival is one-on-one networking opportunities and making valuable connections. So we hope we can provide a platform for those kinds of connections to be made. We think we have that now in Austin. People come here, they make connections that lead to new business opportunities, friendships, relationships. If we can create an atmosphere like that in Las Vegas, I think the event will be successful.
Austin Post: Are there plans to expand other parts of SXSW into more cities?
Hugh Forrest: We are a creative bunch and creative people sit around and think about lots of things. There are lots of ideas and thoughts about what we can do with this brand of SXSW. That said, we’re also very stretched to the max in terms of our bandwidth for producing events now. For the near future, the Vegas expansion is the only thing on our plate.
Austin Post: While SXSW is expanding and adding new festivals, if you could create your own perfect imaginary SXSW sub-event, what would it be like?
Hugh Forrest: What’s to say that’s not the event in Las Vegas? What I enjoy most about working at SXSW is tapping into this very creative community. That’s always the bottom line of everything we do here at SXSW. We stand back and watch the magic as these people get together.
So if I was creating an event that’s not Las Vegas, I’d try to have creativity be the bottom line. I like getting lots of authors together and hearing them talk about books, so that’s a potential focus if I was doing something on my own. We’re fortunate enough to have lots of authors at the main event in March.
Austin Post: SXSW gets a little bigger every year. What can you tell us about future expansion here in Austin?
Hugh Forrest: We’ve been lucky enough to grow a lot over the last few years. Having worked on SXSW during years when it didn’t grow that much, it’s nice to see. Our goal is always to be better, not necessarily bigger. If we’re able to improve each year, the growth, the numbers, will take care of themselves.
It is a challenge at this point for how we manage this growth. Creating these smaller events as a way to pull a little growth away from the main event is one strategy. Beyond that, we’re continuing to work a lot with the city in terms of making the downtown area as manageable as possible during the event. We get a lot of great feedback from the community on things we can do to continue to improve the user experience.
As much as the event grows and that’s fun to see, your individual techie doesn’t care that much about who else is there as long as they can make valuable connections. We want to provide a platform where people are inspired by other creative people.
Austin Post: Interactive has changed tremendously since Twitter’s launch in 2007. Who do you see as the target demographic for SXSW in 2013?
Hugh Forrest: We have lots and lots more startups coming to Austin and trying to be the breakout app, the next Twitter. The event really has changed dramatically since 2007. It’s harder for any one particular technology to be the breakout now that there are so many more people, although at the end of the day SXSW is still about creativity and about the future.
As much as the event has changed, there will be things launched at SXSW that look like the coolest thing in the world, but they won’t get mainstream adoption for another year.
That’s a feature, not a flaw. People like coming to SXSW because it’s a preview of the future. You see things people won’t know about for two or three years. You’re seeing new music and new films that won’t hit the mainstream audience for a year or more. People come for that preview of the future.
Austin Post: Are there underserved groups you’re trying to target in the future?
Hugh Forrest: We’ve been very fortunate to see growth on the startup side of things, and that growth is good and has let us do a lot. That said, it can also overshadow a lot of our other programming. Startups are only 10-15 percent of the total.
We’d like to shine more light on all the programming we have on how nonprofits can use innovative tech. The sexier story is often the 15-year-old who could be the next Mark Zuckerberg instead of the 30-year-old who is slaving away to help his nonprofit grow.
Our audience is pretty educated in terms of finding the most interesting and innovative content. I think that the bigger challenge is often to get people to go outside their comfort zone in terms of the programming. As the event has grown, we’ve moved more towards the campus structure where all the health programing will be at the Sheraton and all the food apps are being presented at another location. The upside is that makes it easier for attendees to find the content they want. The downside is we lose some of the serendipity of the past when you only go to sessions that match your expertise.
Often the social media person’s most valuable moment comes when they go to the panels on health care, because that’s where the really valuable connection is made. We had more of that intermixing of expertise and culture when all of the event was contained in one building. It’s a little harder to do that when it’s separated.
The concern isn’t that they’re missing out on good content. There’s plenty. But if you’re an expert on sports and new media, you should go to something completely out of your wheelhouse. That’s where you’ll get the most value. We like to hang out with our friends, but the most valuable thing about SXSW is making new friends and new connections.
Austin Post: Each year, SXSWi seems to have an inadvertent theme. Based on the Panel Picker, what do you see as the unofficial theme of 2013?
Hugh Forrest: Similar to 2012, startups and business-related ideas are a big theme. Those had the most entries in the panel picker. Otherwise, the big themes we’re seeing for this year are crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, and "do it yourself." That ranges from our opening speaker from MakerBot to one of our keynotes, Matthew Inman. There’s a theme of taking control of your own destiny through alternative means, whether that’s a 3D printer to create your own hammer or going on Indiegogo or Kickstarter to fund your own project.
Beyond that, healthcare is certainly another hot topic this year. How geeks can change and reinvent and reimagine government is another big thing. Nate Silver, the hero of the 2012 election, will be here. I think he’s really on the forefront of this big data movement.
Austin Post: Tech can be a fickle field. What is SXSW doing to make sure Interactive doesn’t end up going the way of COMDEX and other formerly beloved conferences?
Hugh Forrest: It’s certainly a big concern that we continue to stay relevant to our community.
I’m a firmly believe that what makes an event like this is compelling is that the community is excited. The passion and innovation, that’s the secret sauce. We’ve been lucky enough to land upon this community and the more we can let that community guide us and let us know what’s most interesting to them, the better chance we have to stay relevant amidst this growth and the changing economy.
Who knows if we’re in a startup bubble. If it goes away, that’ll impact us to some extent, but that's why the value of the community is so important. In 1997 and in 2013, the value of SXSW is still creativity in all its forms. Bringing all these creative people to a creative city during the spring, there’s a whole metaphor of rebirth. It’s a special time.
As much as I’m often really exhausted when spring comes around, there’s a special vibe when all these creative people are here. Sometimes that vibe is the hum of traffic when downtown is in gridlock, but it’s also the vibe of all these creative people with new ideas making connections sharing things and having fun.