Let me start by being clear about this post: I love Austin, Texas. Itâ€™s a great town with a great energy and amazingly nice and interesting people. In fact, Iâ€™m fortunate to have many a friend and colleague who calls the best city in Texas home. I believe in â€œKeeping Austin Weird.â€
Despite it being an amazing place for food, fun, football and new business, Austin is no longer big enough to host SXSWi.
Although Iâ€™ve been to less than a handful of â€œSouth-bys,â€ over the past three years Iâ€™ve seen it grow in amazing ways. No longer is it just an â€œoh-by-the-wayâ€ interactive/digital conference on the front-end of a film and music festival. SXSW has become a must for anyone in the social business or technology start-up world including big brands too. Itâ€™s nice to see the level of professionalism increase legitimizing it as much more than just a corporate boondoggle for overworked marketing types.
Despite its upside, SXSWi is also experiencing some significant growth issues. Talk to anyone with a badge and theyâ€™ll share their frustration over a couple of key problems, like:
- Congestion. Not only is Austin more crowded with the throngs of douchey hipsters and corporate muscle, but the festival itself is so disjointed and overbooked itâ€™s hard to see anything relatively easily. With events scattered all over town, your itinerary of â€œmust seeâ€ panels and talks is almost impossible to juggle. Add in long lines (registration took our team almost 2 hours alone!) and a dearth of places to sit, stand or otherwise converse, and itâ€™s obvious the city no longer has adequate space to handle the number of folks coming in.
- Lack of Hotels. There are four people on my team and all four of us had to stay at different hotels that varied in distance from the convention center. Still, other colleagues had to stay 15-20 miles outside the city. You expect that with the Super Bowl but not a professional conference. Even if you book far in advance, itâ€™s getting increasingly difficult to get rooms in the overcrowded downtown Austin area.
- Lack of â€œInfrastructureâ€: Ok, so maybe not traditional infrastructure but soft infrastructure like cabs. The taxi situation was completely ridiculous. I understand itâ€™s busy but cabbies in Austin were impossible to find at moments and refused to take credit cards. They all conspired to say the same thing: â€œOur credit card machines arenâ€™t working.â€ Uh, not true. Poor service and small numbers were a lethal mix. Also, I spent a lot of money to bring my team and the service andÂ availabilityÂ of the simple things was deplorable compared to the investment.
Again, I know this is sacrilege because we all love the vibe, nightlife and warmth (usually, but not this year) of Austin. But if the conference continues to grow, especially with big brand sponsors, the size will be limiting.
In talking with a friend in Austin, he told me about the history of SXSW and how it was always an anti-establishment, â€œbuck the systemâ€ kind of event. Thatâ€™s true and thatâ€™s Austin for sure. Now, with this becoming real business â€“ not only for interactive but increasingly for film and music â€“ that mentality has jumped the shark.
While I donâ€™t want every conference to be in Las Vegas, San Francisco, or Orlando, those places know how to build up, staff and serve during a big conference. They have larger venues, more hotel rooms, and cabbies that donâ€™t sandbag and lie about broken credit card machines.
As more and more money is invested in, and by those who attend, the organizers of SXSW have to make a choice: do you make it smaller and stay in Austin, or do you move it and scale and grow.
Itâ€™s an interesting question for them to ponder but one they must.
Iâ€™ll always love going to Austin, but SXSW is now bigger than my favorite city in Texas.