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SXSW Interactive reaches beyond Austin with fest pre-parties

Six official parties and several unofficial meetups extend the boundaries of SXSW Interactive's geography

Omar L. Gallaga

As the South by Southwest Interactive Festival grows every year, it's become an increasingly impossible task to hit all the happy hours, parties and associated networking events.

And in recent years, you'd need a large travel budget, too.

For the past few years, organizers of SXSWi have been organizing preparties in the months leading up to the mid-March event. This year, parties were held in San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles, New York City, Atlanta and Chicago, and an Austin party on Monday (the RSVP deadline has passed) will round out the slate.

Although recruiting attendees to the festival is one goal of the parties, which are each attended by organizers of the interactive portion, they're also a way to get those already registered excited about SXSW and to make those cities feel part of the festival's reach, said Tammy Lynn Gilmore, who heads up press and publicity for Interactive.

"The notion behind this part is community building," Gilmore said. "We get the conversation started at South by Southwest and continue the conversation with their hometown communities."

Saul Colt, a marketer for a Toronto-based startup called, attended the pre-parties in San Francisco on Jan. 11 and in New York on Feb. 1 when he found himself in those cities for business.

"Both events were very different in vibe and attendance ... but both events drew the elite of the local social media and tech communities," Colt said.

This SXSWi will be Colt's fourth festival. "I can say that these parties do help set expectations for what to expect at the festival and are a great way to start the excitement that we can look forward to once we arrive in Austin."

The parties typically attract several hundred attendees, are informal and free, and usually feature a giveaway of a festival badge. Though tech meccas like Silicon Valley are usually targets for the parties, in the past they've been held in Houston, San Antonio and other cities closer to Austin.

"We try to get to cities that have made a little bit of noise in past years about being neglected," Gilmore said.

The festival doesn't advertise the parties — word typically spreads from an e-mail sent to badgeholders in cities where the parties are held — but Gilmore has increasingly used social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to draw partygoers. About 60 percent of people who attend the parties already have plans to go to SXSWi, but many bring their friends or Twitter buddies, who might get persuaded to make the trip to a future festival.

The festival's principals, including fest director Hugh Forrest and producer Shawn O' Keefe, each try to attend two or three of the parties each year, but SXSWi has to reconcile its travel budget and promotion with the need to have those staffers in Austin to prepare for the festival.

The parties have begun to take on a life of their own: Every year, several unofficial parties spring up in cities that the fest won't hit. Last year, organizers in Shanghai reached out to SXSWi to throw their own party. This year, someone from Denmark had the same idea.

"We can't really discourage it," Gilmore said. "As long as they're not reappropriating our logo or stealing our name."

Jeremy Tanner, a marketing consultant in Boulder, Colo., decided to organize a preparty when he learned that South by Southwest wouldn't be making a Colorado stop.

"They didn't agree to it immediately," Tanner said. "They wanted to make sure they weren't sponsoring someone else's party." The festival eventually provided a free festival badge; about 50 showed up to a party at the Jet Hotel and Lounge in Denver.

Tanner, who is on an Interactive panel called "Don't Move! Build a Startup Community Where You Live" on March 13, said the Feb. 5 party was a good way to connect with people he'll see at the fest.

"It was great. These are people you'll share cabs with and you can exchange information, phone numbers, Twitter names," Tanner said, "I think some people who had been on the fence decided they'd register."; 445-3672