Has SXSW Outgrown Austin?

SXSW is feeling its growing pains. The title is, of course, a rhetorical question. South by Southwest could no more move from Austin than Mardi Gras could exit New Orleans. But the 2012 incarnation of SXSW, at least the Interactive portion, is exposing some weaknesses in the infrastructure. Notably, the conference now occupies multiple venues in downtown Austin, not all of which are particularly close. While the distances are walkable, they discourage easy movement from one venue to another. This year, rain was a rare addition to the mix, a further disincentive to move from venue to venue.

Our panel, How Brain Science Turns Browsers into Buyers, is a case in point. First, we were exiled to the Intercontinental, a fine hotel and meeting venue, but blocks away from the Convention Center. (“Branding” panels were grouped there to minimize commuting between venues.) Then, the room filled up well before our start time. There’s no doubt that we could have drawn a much larger group had we been in the Convention Center in a bigger room.

Through the course of the event, I encountered numerous rooms that were filled to capacity and turning people away ten, fifteen, and even twenty minutes before their start time. Imagine your frustration if you had hurried from one venue to another six blocks away, only to find that the room was closed for capacity reasons.

I’m sure that allocating room space at a massive event like SXSW is difficult – there are so many simultaneous sessions serving so many attendees that it’s easy to overflow a room. Nevertheless, one solution to the dilemma is to allocate more space to each event. Doubling the size of all the smaller rooms wouldn’t prevent every overflow situation, but it would likely have reduced the number dramatically. (It’s a credit to SXSW management that they apparently DID make the rooms larger at the Intercontinental midway through the 2012 event.)

There’s not an easy solution. SXSW is already very selective on the number of panels it accepts, and as attendance grows the need to expand venue space continues. A massive increase in meeting room and/or exhibit space in or adjacent to the Convention Center is what’s really needed to keep the sessions close, but that seems unlikely to happen rapidly.

The current situation reminds me of Comdex, the legendary computer show that at its peak was the biggest show in the U.S. and one of the world’s largest. It eventually absorbed every exhibit venue in Las Vegas (and even motivated the building of a few new ones.) Las Vegas, of course, is hardly walkable, and getting between venues was particularly awkward. Exhibitors at lesser venues had to accept that many Comdex-goers would never even reach the building they were in. Comdex eventually imploded for a variety of reasons. The changes in the overall industry was certainly the biggest driver, but the degradation of the visitor and exhibitor experience also played a role.

For another perspective on the growing pains at SXSW, see this video interview of Leo Laporte by Jeremiah Owang. Just before publishing this, I also spotted an opinion at Technorati that SXSW is too big for Austin.

Austin is already a great convention destination and is now the host of the first Formula 1 race in the U.S. in years. Expanding the available convention floor & meeting space in or near the Convention Center would serve SXSW well but also open the possibility of attracting other large events that might not be accommodated in the current venue. With its plethora of restaurants, bars, and live music, Austin is one of the few cities in the U.S. that people really want to visit, and augmenting SXSW, F1, and Longhorn football with a few other large shows would be a boon to the whole city. Austin’s airport is excellent, too, despite the SXSW-induced food shortages and long security lines. A little advance planning could ensure smooth transit and get everyone their parting taste of local favorites like Salt Lick and Maudie’s.

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