When you have two choices, you have a decision. When you have three of four choices, you have a quandary. When you have 200 choices every hour of the day – and at least 50 of them are things you want to do or people you want to see? That’s pandemonium. And that’s the recent nature of South by Southwest, which these days has become part CES for startups, part Coachella for indie bands, part “spring break for geeks” (a frequent nickname in the press), and 100 percent ridiculous congestion. It “jumped the shark” at least two years ago, and now it’s jumping SeaWorld.
Into this mess, which not that long ago was a tiny regional show, have cascaded the hopes and dreams of not only thousands of indie bands, garage filmmakers and “lean” startups alike, but every major car company, most packaged goods makers, and a remarkable array of the world’s top advertisers – all convinced they can somehow hijack the Titanic.
I’ve been going since 1996, when there were about 400 bands instead of 4,000, and the tech portion – then dubbed “SXSW Multimedia” – was largely populated by Austin Web developers, not prominent VCs and a who’s who of the tech and media worlds. Google your favorite brand and “SXSW” and odds are you’ll find they were out in Austin, desperately seeking attention in the flood (and I’m not referring to the thunderstorms that always seems to dampen this show, then turn to sunny and 80 just as everyone leaves). This is a show with 300,000 attendees (including non-official events), stuffed like an overfed goose into a downtown area with only 6,000 hotel rooms and 600 cabs.
Need something normal like a lift from the airport? Uber was overrun, and the traditional taxi line (if you can call Waiting for Godot a line) ran three to four hours on Friday and Saturday nights. Speakers, staff, sponsors and other VIPs quickly gobbled those 6,000 rooms at rates approaching $1,000 a night (the Hampton Inn ran $800 a night) – as well as pushed the price of sub-$100 hotel rooms 20 miles away in the $400 range. AirBnB? They set a record with 10,000 rooms booked – and Austin’s response was to outlaw short-term rentals on January 1, perhaps the most violated law in the history of Texas not involving consensual sex or marijuana.
Every day from the moment you crawl out of your bed that cost five times what it should, until the last person you track down at 3 am in a crowded hotel lobby on Foursqure, Twitter, Highlight or GonnaBe (and now there’s even the added distraction for those so inclined of an SXSW version of the instant hook-up app, Bang With Friends). So, yes, some brands might consider this a great place to do sampling among the digirati and their “I’m with the band” friends. And it’s certainly been an amazing place to do high-level randomized networking (ooh, isn’t that Al Gore at the bar? Is that Timothy Berners-Lee he’s chatting with? Perhaps now we can find out who really invented the Internet!). But if any individual brand manager thinks he or she is going to get a significant share of attention – something, by the way, that is still possible for a well-planned, well-executed launch at CES or Mobile World Congress – they should take a sharper look at their analytics (once you wade past the first million tweets).
We, by way of both example and disclosure, run media showcase events called Startup Debut for startups at CES, CTIA, NAB, E3 and SXSW. At most shows, including the unruly CES giant, we typically bake in a no-show rate of 30 percent. Despite being the only traditional media showcase format at SXSW, we have to bake in no-show rates of 60 percent or more. And that’s far better than most events: hold a free, non-VIP event and you can bank on no-shows of more than 90 percent. There’s even a service that was developed called RSVPster that charges $30-50 per person to automatically rsvp one into all discoverable open events at SXSW – a sign in itself how out of control the show has become that one can make a business out of signing one up for free parties.
SXSW has outgrown its usefulness as the world’s largest “exclusive” show for the music, film and interactive communities to converge under one roof. Or at least it has if that roof is Austin. I applaud SXSW for expanding into other times and venues, like moving the educational part of the show (SXSWedu) to the three days prior to the main show’s opening – and moving the SXSWeco to another month altogether. But it’s still not enough. Brands need to contribute more (like the Twitter-fueled #ChevySXSW free car service for stranded partygoers) and expect less control. I refer to the recent format of SXSW as part CES and part Burning Man. With lots of BBQ. And the 1886 bar at the Driskill is the Playa.
Finally, I also applaud the experimental move to Las Vegas for a summer show that’s tech only. Really, with 80,000 people attending SXSW Interactive (50,000 of them not even attending the conference portion), isn’t leaving Austin a mere 220,000 people for film and music in a downtown with 6,000 hotel rooms and 600 cabs a step in the right direction? Las Vegas, where I live, is a much more appropriate city for the interactive part of the show to move – and to move it out of the spring, when there are so many major tradeshows jammed in before Easter, you’ve run through both your annual budget and your valium supply by the time your taxes are due. Let’s leave something for the rest of the year, starting with Vegas V2V in August – and perhaps an eventual full move of SXSWi to Vegas for Interactive in a week of guaranteed good weather (late September/early October).
Las Vegas has some 160,000 hotel rooms at the ready (more than all of Canada) and 1,000-cab-per-hour capacity of getting people out of the airport. Sin City already handles 25 of the top100 tradeshows in the country – and the startup tech community locally is on fire, thanks to Tony Hsieh’s sale of Zappos to Amazon in 2009 and his subsequent commitment to pour $350 million back into the community, starting with a $50 million tech fund predicated on moving startups into Las Vegas. Stir in the rapid growth of the gargantuan data center Switch and you’ve got the perfect setting for the show. Oh, and it’s two hours closer to both Silicon Valley and Silicon Beach – and the bars never close.
The first V2V is not designed quite yet to replace SXSWi. It’s envisioned as a show for startups (who for the past five years have flocked to Austin by plane, train, bus, car and thumb to hand out QR codes to their app on the same street corners musicians are handing out their performance flyers). But the writing should be on the wall. Interactive needs to move, and Vegas is a much better choice than San Antonio. It will also give brands two times a year to dive into the frenzy, but this time there will be a four to six month hiatus between music/film and tech/startup/media. And there’s a lot more billboard space in Las Vegas, too.