Sunday, March 03, 2013

The Value From Attending SXSW Comes From The People and The City (It is NOT in your phone!)

That time of year is here again.  SXSW in Austin, Texas.

I have lived in Austin for nearly 22 years and have seen the changes that have come to SXSW over the years.  There is so much that goes on from the Music, Film, and Interactive conferences.... but the thing that makes SXSW magical is not found on the agenda.  The real pizzazz that makes these festivals so exciting is the mix of the people and the backdrop of Austin, Texas.

Austin has a vibe.  Those who have not experienced this might roll their eyes-- But others are nodding their heads as they read these words.  Austin is cool and the people who live here are very nice.  When you come to SXSW get ready for more than your average multi-day mega event.

I have attended SXSW Interactive for seven years.  The conference has exploded over time, and many argue that it has gotten too large (some say there is "shark jumping" going on - but I disagree).  In the early years I saw a very integrated community.  There was no levels of "whose who", but instead people were all part of a family.  Now there are clearly cliques and walls that exist and it is much harder to meet people and make connections.  

But I do not think it is the size of the conference that has made it harder to meet people, but it is the adoption of technology over the past five years that has undermined the connectivity of SXSW Interactive.  Ironic that a conference about technology is being hurt by the tech tools that have become pervasive. 

People spend too much time on apps, and not enough time experiencing the human-to-human part of being at a live conference.  They do not look up and see the amazing life in the city that exists around the Convention Center or even their fellow participants.  

If you are coming to SXSW do not spend all your time glued to the agenda of panels, speakers, exhibits and parties.  Get you head up from your smart phone and witness all that is around you.  Get sucked in by the "Austin Vibe" and share all you see with people who are here... not posting pics to Instagram or Facebook so that your friends at home can be jealous.

I am not saying to not use technology.  That would be ridiculous.  The SXSW Interactive participants would have strokes and heart attacks if not constantly attached to their electronics, and the local paramedics would not be able to handle that number of emergency calls.  

Instead I am suggesting you develop a balance between looking at your devices and looking at the people around you.  During a speaker or panel, if the speaker is not able to captivate your attention... jump on your phone and surf the internet (or leave the room).  But during the scheduled breaks do not walk the halls as a "Phone Zombie". Spend your breaks in discussions with others.  While standing in line, say "hello" to people.  There is power in the word "hello" and it can spark conversations.  

These "Hallway Conversations" is where you will find the real ROI in coming to SXSW.  If you take actions to engage with other people, you will find your visit to Austin to be amazing.  If you are staring at your phone the whole time it is a waste of time and money to fly to Texas (however our Chamber of Commerce and City Government do appreciate your spending money here regardless of if you get a benefit from being present).

I challenge you to put your phone away more than you would usually and see if it improves your time at the event.  If the SXSW culture became one of talking to people then the event will be better.  If the culture is one where everyone is buried in a phone or tablet, the conference will fall flat.  

Choose people!!!

Have A Great Day.

thom singer


Tahira Endean CMP said...

Thom, this ties in perfectly with another post I saw today, this one about TED's 13 rules for attendees - - you could have written it! Talk to the people directly, not via your device! When you have so little precious time at an event, use that time best by celebrating the event and the city you are in. Nice one!

Joey McGirr said...

Thom, you might even say that the time to be on your device is BEFORE the event. It's so easy to search for people tweeting out how excited they are to get on a plane and come to Austin for SXSW (maybe even for their first time) and begin the conversation NOW. Two years ago, I serendipitously met a man from Canada when he tweeted out that he just discovered that his hotel provided no shuttle the day before the conference and he was wondering how he could get downtown to register. I responded and offered to give him a ride, as I was going there the day before to register myself. We spent that whole Thursday together and the following year, we had breakfast on Friday and spent most of that day hanging out as well...End result, He asked me to be the US distributor of a new product his company was developing.
I have met people by being in the same place, and I've met them by searching online social channels and engaging with them. In the end, it was the matter of spending some time with them in the flesh that really solidified the relationship.

Harwick Family said...

Thom, solid reminder. I am sending three of my folks this year while I head to San Diego. I will make sure they read your post before Friday. :-)

Leslie M said...

Perhaps you can do a post about the changes in SXSW over the years you've been. Not all of us can go. :-)