Listen to Austin 360 Radio

SXSW 2011: More events, more venues, more Interactive

New headquarters lets organizers manage conferences' growth.

Patrick Beach

After the South by Southwest festivals in 2010, and probably after a nap, managing director Roland Swenson sent his staffers a customary survey to suss out what they needed to do a better job next time.

The overwhelming answer was, essentially, "Get us out of here."

Over almost a quarter-century, the wee regional music festival had snowballed into the Thing That Ate March, spawning companion film and interactive festivals and becoming a 10-day cultural event for which Austin is known around the world. During that period, its offices had spread from two buildings on 40th Street just east of Interstate 35 to four other rented properties. The decentralized structure meant people didn't talk to one another or even know one another.

So Swenson went office-shopping and, in December, moved his staff of about 95 into the former offices of architectural firm Graeber Simmons & Cowan at 400 Bowie St., just down the street from the Tiniest Bar in Texas and near where the old Electric Lounge once stood.

"It's a real office building," Swenson said. "There's no getting around it."

Swenson said he's noticed a smoother operation already, which is important for an ever-sprawling festival whose economic impact on the city last year was $113 million, up from $98.9 million in 2009, according to an executive summary by Greyhill Partners. Festival executives put total attendance at more than 175,000, including 36,700 conference registrants, 13,000 music wristband holders (primarily local people), and free public events at Auditorium Shores , the Flatstock poster show and the Austin Record Convention.

The move to a centralized headquarters is just one of the changes for the people who, along with 2,000 volunteers, make it all happen.

The big story remains Interactive. Last year, SXSW Interactive's paid registration eclipsed SXSW Music for the first time. The official count was 14,251, including gold (good for Film and Interactive) and platinum (all three conferences) badge holders.

That growth, which could be repeated in 2011, was in the 30 to 40 percent range. Early registration numbers in December and January led to serious discussions about capping registration, but then it eased up on its own, mostly because of a lack of available hotel rooms (for the first time, SXSW's lodging staff has booked 50,000 hotel room nights).

"We've talked a lot" about setting a cutoff, Interactive Festival director Hugh Forrest said. "There are a lot of pros and cons to the idea of capping it. Had we continued to see the amount of growth in February we were seeing in December and January, we probably would have taken some steps in that direction."

The festival might decide to cap attendance next year if growth becomes unmanageable. Raising walk-up registration to $750 (from $550 last year) probably won't have much effect on curbing growth, Forrest said.

What attracts so many people to Interactive? The explosion of social media services such as Twitter and Facebook, the suddenly-it-exists multibillion-dollar market for mobile app developers and the increasing interest in digital living (cue your smart phone's ringtone) dovetail nicely with what the fest has always been about.

But the same people who embrace the digital takeover of America still worry that Interactive is becoming too mainstream — and too big.

The festival was taken to task by tech blogger Robert Scoble in December. Scoble complained that when a fest grows to the proportions of SXSW Interactive, it loses its intimate vibe.

Forrest said that this year's plethora of meet-ups (about 65 to 70 daytime events) and increase in campuses (10 this year) are meant to make the fest feel more targeted and to help attendees find their peers. Ten shuttle buses will be employed to locations including the AT&T Conference Center and the Hyatt to manage Interactive's sprawl.

Another big change is that keynotes will be live-streamed, not just to satellite campuses, but to the general public. It will be part of a block of sxsw.com live video that will run from 12:30 to 3 p.m. during the fest.

"We're traditionally very protective of our content in that regard, but we've come to realize that this is something that attendees or virtual attendees expect, and live streaming probably doesn't weaken attendance to the event," Forrest said. "In fact, it generates more buzz for future years."

Those who can't get enough of Interactive can attend the new SXSW Technology Summit, which will take place as soon as Interactive ends: March 16-17, on the sixth floor of the Hilton downtown. The summit is open to all badge holders.

Change and crowd control are not limited to Interactive.

On the film side, organizers have expanded screening venues to include the State Theatre on Congress Avenue and the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center after issues related to crowding last year. The festival is also increasing the number of seats at Austin Convention Center screenings to 650.

SXSW Film producer Janet Pierson said the festival plans to screen some selections at two satellite theaters, the Regal Arbor in North Austin and Regal Westgate in South Austin. Those screenings will highlight what's being shown downtown and make SXSW accessible for people who don't want to deal with downtown, she said.

Still, the festival is warning that long lines could be an issue for people without badges at smaller venues, such as the Alamo Ritz and Alamo South. Organizers said they have set up new procedures to ensure that people don't stand in line for a screening if a venue is going to be full.

For SXSW Music, 2,000 bands will play on a record 93 official stages. The trade show at the Austin Convention Center, once separated into events by conference, will span four days and all three conferences, March 14-17. Eleven venues will provide early music showcases March 15.

Coinciding with all three festivals, SXSW Comedy will feature networking events and showcases . Highlights include Comedy Central's special edition of "John Oliver's New York Stand-Up Show" on March 14 and Scott Aukerman's "Comedy Death-Ray" show on March 12.

Then there's Style X , an official shopping and fashion event that will highlight emerging fashion talent and some established brands , March 18-19 at the convention center. Though it's not an official fourth leg of SXSW, Style X is a collaboration with Austinites Joah Spearman and Jon Pattillo and SXSW officials.

And in the "if you can't beat them, join them" category, SXSW has made official former perceived music outsiders such as Perez Hilton and Village Voice Media. Swenson used those developments as an opportunity to downplay the perception that SXSW tries to clamp down on unofficial events piggybacking on the conferences' abundance of cool. As Swenson explained, Hilton's been official since last year, Voice Media owns many of the newspapers that are SXSW co-sponsors, and anyway, the perception of renegade events is a bit overblown.

"The majority of the so-called 'pirate' events cooperate with us one way or another," Swenson said. "SXSW exists because a lot of people decide to cooperate with us on making it happen — the clubs, the acts, the speakers, the volunteers and on and on. We rarely hold grudges, and we now work with many, many entities that at one time or another we couldn't get to cooperate with us."

So whether you're eager for it, braced for it or leaving town to get away from it, here comes SXSW 2011.

pbeach@statesman.com; 445-3603

Additional material from staff writers Charles Ealy, Omar L. Gallaga, Brian Gaar and Marques Harper.