Director Hugh Forrest is the calm at center of SXSW Interactive flurry
For the staff of the South by Southwest Interactive Festival, which began Friday and runs through Tuesday, the huge event is so exhausting that Festival Director Hugh Forrest asked that they "taper" beforehand.
Forrest, who has been with Interactive since it was the multimedia portion of the SXSW Film Fest in 1994, went to Kenyon College in Ohio and picked up the idea from the school's legendary swim-team coach, Jim Steen.
"Three months before the national championship, they're practicing two and a half hours a day, totally exhausted, practicing and studying all the time," Forrest says. "Then they start cutting back on practice, three minutes a day, three minutes more. By the end of February they're completely refreshed and just raring to go."
For SXSW Interactive, the staff of about 20 (plus five part-timers) could have worked nonstop for weeks and still not finished everything that needed to happen before the festival.
"It makes more sense to work a hard day and then turn off the computer and get a good night's sleep and be rested for the event. That's the whole taper message," Forrest said.
It's unlikely that Forrest tapered much himself. He's the married father of a 2-year-old son and regularly rises at 4 a.m. to answer emails. He's in charge of an event that was expected to attract more than 20,000 attendees this year and that is becoming the most influential portion of SXSW. Forrest and his staff have managed explosive growth fueled by social media and mobile technology.
In 2009, Interactive drew about 11,000 people. In 2010, the festival grew to about 15,000, and last year the count was 19,364. Forrest said that based on pre-registration numbers and hotel bookings, Interactive may not grow by as much as it did last year, but this year's festival will still be the largest yet.
It attracts notables such as celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, media mogul Barry Diller and executives from hot upstart tech companies like Pinterest and Dropbox, as well as established companies like Microsoft, Twitter and Dell.
But as much as it's changed over the years, the festival still reflects Forrest's personality and passions, including his insistence on keeping the event community-driven when it would be easy to give Interactive over entirely to buzzed-about startups and big names.
Instead, Forrest says, "The whole thing has always been about celebrating creativity and doing creative stuff." Growth, he says, has allowed Interactive to try new things, like adding campuses, more meet-ups and specialized programming and a new Hall of Fame Award for community-driven innovators (this year's honoree is Web pioneer Jeffrey Zeldman).
"Some of the stuff has become a little more commercial," Forrest says. "Fine. So what? There's some stuff we've pushed a lot more in the opposite direction as well."
Tall man, calming presence
Hugh Forrest is a very tall man who wears very nice dress shirts (this cannot be discounted, given how many ratty T-shirts you see at SXSW Interactive) and who, co-workers say, brings a Zen-like calm to the year-round process of putting the festival on.
Forrest sometimes takes long pauses before he speaks and gives thoughtful answers, even when he's talking about what he says is the worst part of his job, withering criticism that some attendees lob online.
"I think that in this social media echo chamber in which we all live, it's easy to get demoralized by negative comments," Forrest says. "During the event, people come up and say, ‘Wow, that was fun! I had a great time.' You're on this kind of emotional high. Two weeks later, you start reading the feedback, and the people who tend to write feedback are people who maybe didn't have a good experience.
"It can be really depressing at this point. You thought you built this thing that worked pretty well, then you read about these problems you didn't even know existed."
Forrest requires staffers to read 100 pieces of feedback and respond to the worst 10. He does this, too.
Shawn O' Keefe, a SXSW Interactive producer, has worked with Forrest for more than 11 years and says his boss incorporates much of the feedback into each new year's fest.
"Hugh is always the first to just say, ‘There may be a better idea than this.' "
Take the introduction in 2007 of the PanelPicker, which allows anyone to submit an idea for a panel at the festival and to vote on other ideas. That process, which helps the community choose much of the programming for Interactive, is now also used by the Music and Film fests.
"I think that making the decision to empower the community was another big catalyst for the growth of the event," Forrest says.
Not every change is a hit. Last year's Technology Summit, a post-Interactive event that attracted small audiences, didn't return this year.
"It's good to have a few high-profile failures to keep your ego in check," Forrest says.
Christine Auten, a SXSW staffer who oversees all Interactive logistics, says Forrest's decency, his ability to think through complex problems and his inspirational speeches have made office crises disappear.
She also believes his height (6-foot-5) has something to do with it.
"You can't disregard how tall he is," Auten says. "He has a presence that makes you feel like he's looking out for you, very fatherly, very shepherding. He's amazingly good at settling disputes and good at calming ruffled feathers and hurt feelings.
"He just has a way of walking out onto the (convention) floor and everyone goes, ‘Oh, it's OK, Hugh is here.' "
Turning points and Facebook farces
This year's SXSW Interactive has more than 1,000 panels and hundreds of parties. But in the early years of the festival, you could fit a list of panels and panelists on a sheet of paper.
Interactive was for years a funky, tiny part of SXSW, in love with robots, this crazy new thing called the Internet and educational CD-ROMs.
During the dot-com bust of the early 2000s, attendance dwindled. "We were barely paying the bills," Forrest says. "We were being supported by Music at that point."
Without a hint of humor, he adds: "If it were me, I would have pulled the plug on Interactive many years ago. I could never have envisioned it would grow to where it is now."
That growth was fueled by the boom in mobile technology of the mid-2000s and the rise of social networks, which has attracted more marketers and start-ups seeking to launch products.
In 2007, a company called Obvious Corp. used the festival to promote a new service called Twitter. That year's event introduced the site to many digital early-adopters, who went home and began building buzz for it. Many companies have since tried to re-create what Twitter did at SXSW.
"We didn't know it at the time, but the fact that they've gone on to be such a big deal has really helped us," Forrest says.
Another big push came, inadvertently, from a disastrous 2008 keynote featuring Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Interviewing Zuckerberg, tech journalist Sarah Lacy lost the crowd with softball questions and an evasive, snarky interview subject. Audience members began shouting their own questions and posting about the drama on Twitter.
"That was huge," says Forrest, who introduced the interview. "In a weird, ironic way, the train wreck of that keynote really gave us a lot more play than if it had just been a mildly boring thing. It was am amazingly powerful moment and a precursor of what this new world of Twitter would bring about."
2012: year of the startups
This year, Forrest says, the biggest buzz has been for startup companies that want to seek users and venture capital at SXSW.
"Startups are hot," he says with a hint of resignation. "For better or for worse, we've been lucky enough to become a center for a lot of that stuff. It's one of the things that South By is built on, and that's good."
But despite that extra attention for startups, they haven't taken over the festival. Events for startups are largely being kept to the "Startup Village" at the Hilton Austin Downtown, the Accelerator competition, private parties and the fest's trade show.
This year's keynote speakers don't include any heavy-hitter corporate types. Instead, the lineup is humorist Baratunde Thurston, "cyber anthropologist" Amber Case, futurist and author Ray Kurzweil and Code for America "hacktivist" Jennifer Pahlka.
"It does skew a lot more to the community side," Forrest says. "We thought, ‘Do we really need to push the startup thing and give it that much attention?' The startup stuff is hot by nature, and a lot of these people have budgets to spend on this."
Such moves do seem to be efforts to quell fears from longtime attendees that the fest has gotten too big and commercial.
"The community sometimes feel that (Interactive) isn't as relevant to them as it was five or 10 years ago," Forrest says. "It's a way to show where the event came from, the kind of people it started with and the kinds of people it's still hopefully geared to."
Sharron Rush, executive director and founding member of the nonprofit Knowbility Inc., was a Dewey Winburne award recipient in 2002. She says that Forrest has been a champion for accessible technology for those with disabilities, making the topic an ongoing part of the festival.
"He just saw the bigger picture," Rush says. "I think that's key to Hugh's entire approach and probably one of the reasons the festival has become so successful. He doesn't maintain a real high profile or go after the limelight. He's really good at bringing people together in the community and synthesizing the ideas of the community."
Forrest's staffers believe that much of what makes South by Southwest Interactive special has to do with his ability to make the fest feel both sprawling and intimate, an event that goes far beyond his own interests, despite his clear stamp on it.
"No matter what direction the festival goes in and what Interactive grows into, he's at the heart of it," Auten said. "His vision is what we march on."
More on SXSW Interactive
South by Southwest Interactive runs through Tuesday, taking over downtown across more than a dozen campuses. Find constant updates on the Digital Savant blog, austin360.com/digitalsavant