Flying in the face of the recession—and the dip in attendance at industry events so far this year, including the Consumer Electronics Show—this week’s South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, is expecting at least a 20% rise over last year’s attendance figure of 9,000.
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SXSW boasts a sexy lineup of leading lights in the online business, with speakers and attendees hailing from television networks, brands, agencies and technology firms including CAA, ICM, IBM, PBS, Digitas, Revision3, MSN, MTV, Google, Microsoft, the New York Times, Kraft Foods, Politico, MySpace, Macrovision, Initiative and Wired magazine.
But most attendees aren’t there for the sessions, or even the conference itself. Business at SXSW gets done in the halls.
“The panels are informative, but it’s the conversations in the hallways of the convention center that provide the bigger dividends,” said George Ruiz, head of new media at ICM, who’ll attend the show again this year. “Dealmaking is a lot easier when you’ve met someone face-to-face, and SXSW provides lots of opportunities for that.”
The interactive festival has earned a reputation in recent years as a place for the soft sell, to meet potential business partners and to learn new ideas about digital media.
“As for why we have continued to grow in 2009, the main factor here is the power of community,” said Hugh Forrest, event director for the SXSW Interactive Festival.
Many of the sessions are programmed with input from attendees and fans, who can help pick the sessions they want to see months in advance online. That builds interest and buzz as a veritable army of attendees spreads the gospel about the conference.
“The word-of-mouth publicity from this community has helped to pull SXSW Interactive forward,” Mr. Forrest said. “We have been lucky enough to gain a reputation as a great place to gain new ideas and inspiration from these cutting-edge digital creatives. Lots and lots of people from various different industries want to come to SXSW Interactive to try to tap into the wisdom of this community and network with these people who are pushing the envelope.”
Online studio Next New Networks said the genesis of its latest network, the Verizon-sponsored $99 Music Videos, came from its trip to SXSW last year.
Even with budgets tight in many areas, attendees are making room for this conference.
Canadian Web producer and actress Casey McKinnon said she decided to bite the bullet and go to SXSW, despite the high airfare, because attendees are serious about their business. The show might earn points for being fun, she added, but it draws a targeted audience of digital dealmakers and that’s who she wants to meet.
PBS is attending for similar reasons. The attendee makeup is just right, said Kevin Dando, director of digital and education communication at PBS, which will conduct live-streamed interviews at the show with film and interactive leaders for its “PBS Engage.”
“This will be PBS’ fourth SXSW, and we’ve made connections and learned more at this conference than at nearly any other conference we attend during the rest of the year, put together,” Mr. Dando said.
SXSW is less like a conference and more like a community, said Sarah Szalavitz, co-founder and CEO of 7 Robot, a digital design and social media firm. “It feels like a reunion, but it’s a familiarity that is jocular and inclusive. People are accessible and approachable.”
It’s also an opportunity to meet important players in the digital media business, such as representatives of ad agencies and production companies, venture capitalists and designers, she said.
In addition, the conference is a good venue to connect with potential advertisers and viewers of digital shows, said Jim Louderback, CEO of Revision3. Meeting viewers in person can help cement loyalty to an online show, especially because it’s still rare for fans to connect with the stars of the TV shows they like. But that connection and contact is possible in the Web TV world.
But the hallway vibe of SXSW is a double-edged sword, Mr. Louderback warned. “It has the potential to become a victim of its own success. The show itself is mostly irrelevant—it’s the people that show up that are important.”
The potential for inspiration is also a key draw for some attendees. Ben Watson, the VP of online video technology provider Overlay.TV, said he’s going in part to “use the massive amount of inspiration, sharing and community goodness to inspire great blogs and video shoots [and for] great conversations on the future of digital, interactive and film.”
The après-ski world of Austin nightlife, bands and time with thought leaders also are selling points, he added.
This year’s attendance increase is likely aided by hotels and airlines lowering their costs to lure travelers, as well as by the affordable entrance fee. The highest rate just for the interactive portion tops out at $495, much less than for many other conferences.