5 Lessons for Planners From the SXSW In-Person Experience

Written by The Meeting Pool

Beth Surmont       


Beth Surmont       <!—->

people looking at illuminated hall

Each year the SXSW experience brings attendees surprise, delight, creativity, and fun — not to mention music and provocative discussions. (Aaron Rogosin/SXSW)

beth surmont

“A version of the SX model is within reach for nearly every event.” — Beth Surmont

For a long time, I have looked at SX (“Southby”) as a source of innovative ideas for all kinds of other events. The Austin business event/festival checks a lot of boxes: future-focused, city-as-campus, crowdsourced content, festival components, and cultural zeitgeist. I was excited to see how SX would approach 2022, after an absence of the physical event for the past few years and with so much uncertainty still at play.

My time in Austin did not disappoint. While unofficial estimates put the attendance at about 80 percent of previous levels, the event still had tons of energy and vibrancy. There were fewer activations and brands, but still more to see and do than it would be possible for any one person to completely consume in a week.

At its core, SX held true to what made it appealing in the first place: the experience. Topics you wouldn’t come across at your average event. Music coming from everywhere. Tons of swag. Surprise, delight, creativity, and fun. And, of course, breakfast tacos.

And what excites me the most is that the components are the same as most association events. SX has the same building blocks: pipe and drape expo, theater-style rooms, a simple stage with a nice backdrop and lighting, keynotes and concurrent sessions, and meter boards everywhere. If you walked into it without knowing what SX is, at first you might think it was a typical conference.

A version of the SX model is within reach for nearly every event. Based on my in-person participation, here are specific things that you can incorporate in your next event to give it a SXSW edge.

1. Talk to your audience to increase your relevance — SX curates a monthly email that is sent throughout the year. It has a conversational style, owing to the fact that it’s from a real person, Hugh Forrest, SX’s chief programming officer. The email usually features something that is going on in the world and then highlights previous SXSW content that relates to the issue. As the upcoming event gets closer, SX provides more frequent updates that align to announcements to build excitement for the show.

STEAL THIS IDEA – One of the best things SX did this year was drip out the “Know Before You Go” information over the course of a few weeks. Instead of one overwhelmingly long email, they sent multiple updates, which also allowed them to reinforce important information like safety policies.

SxSW 22 app screen

The SXSW TV app is made available on IOS and Android mobile devices, plus Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, and Android TV. (Courtesy SXSW)

2. Continually optimize the audience experience — SX is many things, but it is never stagnant. With every iteration of the event, organizers work to remove friction. When I first started attending, content was spread far across the city, in what seemed to be random building assignments. Now, it is concentrated all within walking distance and tracks are grouped by venues. A few years ago, they introduced a red/yellow/green status in the app, so you could see if it was worth rushing to try to get into something, or if you should make a different selection. This year, the digital experience added a new level of convenience. If I missed a session or simply wanted some quiet time in my room, I could catch up on the many on-demand sessions available.

STEAL THIS IDEA – the SXSW TV app is a game changer for conference content. Not only does it create a bingeable digital experience, non-SX attendees can purchase a view-only pass to see the online content. At $149, it is a great way to experience a large piece of the event and attract audiences who are interested but unable to travel or afford the full event.

3. Deliver both substance and what’s new and shiny — SX is full of the shiny: NFTs, metaverse, blockchain. But at the same time, there are plenty of sessions and experts focused on examining what is real and useful, and grounding the shiny in practical application. This creates an environment for serendipity and interdisciplinary thinking, which is where new ideas are born. Part of the joy of SX is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. By the time I left this year’s event I had learned several new practical skills for my job, heard about consumer trends which I could map to impacts on events, contemplated life after death, and understood the psychology of successfully marketing insects as food.

STEAL THIS IDEA – Test out a tangential but applicable panel session, with experts from various backgrounds and a moderator from your community who can translate the concepts to your audience.

4. Don’t shy away from controversy — Texas might be one of the most politically contentious states right now, and SX is not a traveling event. It is based in Austin, relies on Austin, and is designed for Austin. SX both celebrates the community and uses its stage to say, “We are a part of Texas too, and we don’t agree with this.” The very first keynote speaker SX announced was the head of Planned Parenthood. Even as the event was going on, SX added a panel of trans people and speakers from Ukraine. There were multiple opportunities to make donations and fundraise, and many of the speakers took time before their sessions to briefly share a statement on their perspectives. In a time of divisiveness and polarization, their sentiments were refreshing to hear. I also appreciated being educated on the issues at play.

STEAL THIS IDEA – If you are holding an event in a controversial location, consider adding a session with local community leaders about the areas of contention, giving people the opportunity to educate themselves, hear different perspectives, and develop understanding.

5. All SX does is SX — SX exists to put on the SXSW festival. That is its only focus. The team works year-round, focused on continually optimizing and perfecting the experience. Most organizations don’t have this luxury. We have multiple initiatives, programs, and strategic goals. However, we do have the option to align everything around our missions. Think about how much further you could advance your industry if every action you took was focused on driving your mission forward.

STEAL THIS IDEA – Dedicate one day, half a day, or even one hour a week to focusing on how to optimize your event. Start with the registration experience and spend your time walking through every step of the attendee journey.

So, what’s next for SXSW? The event is still positioned as a model for what the best events can be, and I’m excited to see how it continues to evolve. As a SX staff member I met in the elevator told me, “2022 was a rebuilding year. 2023 is going to blow you away.”

Beth Surmont, CAE, CMP, is vice president of event strategy and design for marketing, strategy, and experience agency 360 Live Media.