SXSW Exhibit Hall Fail

An Open Letter to SXSW: 10 Ways to Ensure The Conference Stays Great

Dear SXSW Interactive:

Remember MySpace? In July 2007, MySpace delivered 12% of all Internet traffic. It was the place and everyone wanted to be there. Today, MySpace still delivers more traffic than Twitter, but nobody cares.

If you’re not careful, the same could happen to you. Clearly, you’ll be a big show for years to come. But will you stay relevant? That’s where the magic lies. While I’m sure you get lots of advice, and opinions are cheap, I nevertheless offer my 10 ways to keep SXSW Interactive amazing.

1: Stop the Overlap

You’ve gotten too big. Austin can’t physically handle having both Film and Interactive going on at the same time. And while I know that some people like to go to both, and there is some overlap between the two, the best bet is to line them up sequentially so that people can fit. We need to fit in hotels nearby, in the hallways of the convention center, in the panel rooms for sessions. One way to get there is to stop overlapping the different sessions. You’ve gotten too big for that. And let’s not forget that Interactive is the largest of the three festivals.

2: Get Rid of Campuses

Last year, when all the panels were in the Convention Center or the Hilton, it worked quite well. Now I was supposed to go to the Hyatt for one session, then walk (shuttles? yeah… right… see #7) over a mile back to the Convention Center for the next panel, only to arrive in time to see there was no way to get in. It was a nice try, but it just didn’t work.

3: Announce Campuses Immediately

If you can’t get rid of campuses (but really, you can…), then at least announce them prior to making hotel rooms available for sale. That way, if you know that most of the panels you care about are at the Sheraton, you book the Sheraton. If most of the panels you care about are at the Hyatt, you book the Hyatt. Hat tip to Kipp Bodnar for this particularly brilliant idea.

4: Open the Trade Show Earlier

The conference started at 2:00 p.m. on Friday. Many of us arrived Thursday or Friday morning and left either Monday morning or Tuesday morning. Why then would you wait until Monday to open the exhibit hall?

The exhibit hall is a great way to learn about new tools, but I didn’t get to see a lick of it and neither did countless others. I haven’t talked to anyone who could make any sense of that decision.

5: Improve the App and the Site

Wow. You had a LOT of panels this year. And that’s a really good thing overall. (I overhead someone saying, “I just don’t want to miss anything.” I laughed…) But if you’re going to have so many choices, we need to quickly be able to get to our choices and the app is the best way to do that.

I saw some online praise for the improvements to your app, but at the show I heard mostly criticism of it. I heard enough negatives that I personally used Sched instead of the official app. I’d rather use the official app. Or, abandon the app and do a strong mobile experience, like Sched did.

6: Improve the Connectivity

It was tough to get online again this year. I personally saw some improvements over last year, but that’s not saying a whole lot. The show benefits from all the tweets, blog posts and the like, so pay to roll in hot spots to each of your campuses. Heck, save money on this by not having campuses at all. See #2 above.

7: Fix, or Kill, the Local Shuttles

This was the first year with the shuttles, so it’s expected they would be a bit crazy. But the experience wasn’t a positive. And one of my team members overhead one of your team members working hard to get the shuttle companies in gear.

But folks I talked to said you couldn’t be sure when one was coming (could there be an app for that?), if you would get a seat on it or which way it was heading when it came by. Some looked like giant FedEx buses, others like “nursing home buses,” to quote one attendee. If you can’t kill the campuses (I keep trying…), the shuttles will need some tweaking.

8: Something About Those Lines

I can imagine panel hoppers saying, “I paid for this badge, but couldn’t get into half of my sessions. So, why should I pay again next year?” This is, admittedly a tough one, but see idea #10 for one solution.

9: More Late Breaking Sessions

Filling that many sessions is a tough job. And I admire how you did it. Good communication with those of us who submitted sessions. Lots of strong panels. So good job there. One challenge: So many of the panels were proposed a long time ago so they were a bit out of date by the time they rolled around. You had some “late breaking” sessions. Great idea. I’d like to see a few more of those added.

10: Sell Out of Tickets

Honestly, this is the crux of the problem. Too many people trying to fit into too few seats and too few hotel rooms. There is a simple solution. Cap admission. Last year, Interactive alone had 14,251 attendees. Rumors I heard this year pegged attendance at nearly 20,000. What number you have to cap at depends a bit on if you follow suggestion #1 above, but 20,000 seemed too much. Sell out of tickets so you don’t seem like you just sold out to the man.

Summary

There was lots of overhead commentary about the conference being too big this year. And lots of folks I know wondering if they’ll come anymore (smart people… the kind you want to come back…).

Clearly, with the size, the revenue and the coverage that SXSW is generating this year, you’re not going anywhere soon. But to avoid becoming the MySpace of the conference scene, there are tweaks that could be made prior to 2012. I hope some of these suggestions are helpful as you make them.

Sincerely,

Jim Tobin

P.S. Please review the comments below for other thoughtful suggestions.

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5 Comments
  • Cindy Kim (@CindyKimPR)
    Posted at 16:13h, 15 March

    Jim,

    All great points. But I would like to point out one thing – a lot of content does not necessarily consistute great content – especially from the BtoB side. I was hoping that SxSW would do more to shed its “party and networking” image to provide relevant content that moves beyond the discussion of theoretical social media versus how to apply and really transform the ROI side. I come from the BtoB side and have to say – it’s all good talk by authors and social media “gurus” but when asked how that applies to business environments, I didn’t get much. What I’ve heard from people over and over again, including leaders in the space that SxSW is not about content – it’s about parties and networking and yet all we talk about is how content is king. Shouldn’t we live by our own words?

    Cindy Kim
    http://cindykimblog.wordpress.com
    Twitter: CindyKimPR

  • Lindsay Baish
    Posted at 16:26h, 15 March

    Kudos to this post. I do agree with 2, 3, 4, and bits of 7. I have to say I never encountered a connectivity problem and, for the most part, I found the app very helpful (minus the times it didn’t update the schedule accordingly). This was my first time attending SXSWi, so I obviously have nothing to compare it to, but this conference virgin will probably go back. And wear more comfortable shoes next time (in case they don’t listen to you on #2).

  • Lindsay Baish
    Posted at 16:26h, 15 March

    Kudos to this post. I do agree with 2, 3, 4, and bits of 7. I have to say I never encountered a connectivity problem and, for the most part, I found the app very helpful (minus the times it didn’t update the schedule accordingly). This was my first time attending SXSWi, so I obviously have nothing to compare it to, but this conference virgin will probably go back. And wear more comfortable shoes next time (in case they don’t listen to you on #2).

  • Jesse Emery
    Posted at 17:32h, 17 March

    I agree with this post a lot. I had a lot of connectivity problems (I even tweeted, basically begging one of the big players to sponsor a bigger pipe for next year). The connectivity is basically okay-ish for stuff like tweeting and checking in, but if you have to do anything real, like SSH/VPN/etc it’s a disaster. It was just too slow to get “work” done. I ended up relying more on my 3G(!!!) card.

    Also, per the site and the app, I just do not understand why this isn’t an open source project. You’ve got how many thousands of web developers at SXSW? You could rebuild the entire site in a 3-day hackathon.

  • Jesse Emery
    Posted at 17:32h, 17 March

    I agree with this post a lot. I had a lot of connectivity problems (I even tweeted, basically begging one of the big players to sponsor a bigger pipe for next year). The connectivity is basically okay-ish for stuff like tweeting and checking in, but if you have to do anything real, like SSH/VPN/etc it’s a disaster. It was just too slow to get “work” done. I ended up relying more on my 3G(!!!) card.

    Also, per the site and the app, I just do not understand why this isn’t an open source project. You’ve got how many thousands of web developers at SXSW? You could rebuild the entire site in a 3-day hackathon.

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