The 2022 edition of South by Southwest came to a close on Sunday. This highly anticipated return to in-person experiences in Austin, Texas, was augmented by many sessions streaming online. The success of this edition marks a return to a sense of relative normalcy for tech.
Despite some brands pulling out due to diversity and equity concerns brought on by new laws in Texas, Austin once again attracted a large following of creators, investors and fans of technology, music and film. SXSW returned to its regular in-person format after the 2020 edition was canceled at short notice and the 2021 edition took place online only.
Highlights included keynotes from Meta (nee Facebook) CEO Mark Zuckerberg (via video link) and Mike Winkelmann, also known as Beeple, the artist who sold an NFT for $69 million in March 2021 through auction house Christie’s.
This edition is the first since SXSW has been 50 percent owned by the long-term partner and shareholder of SXSW, P-MRC. This joint venture of Penske Media Corporation and MRC owns and runs Billboard, Rolling Stone, and Variety, among other well-known publications.
Expect Lower Attendance in 2022
Attendance was down, with local reports estimating a 20 percent drop compared to 2019. SXSW chief programming officer Hugh Forrest did not share official numbers yet, simply stating that attendance numbers were “a bit lower than in past years.” He attributed this in part to lower international attendance, particularly from Asia, due to Covid-pandemic related travel challenges.
Some participants made much more conservative estimates. InEvent CEO Pedro Góes shared his disappointment at the attendee turnout from an exhibitor’s perspective. A post on LinkedIn suggested that attendance was 50,000 to 60,000, down from 200,000 in previous years.
Brands Are Investing in Events Again
SXSW is renowned for its brand activations largely absent from the virtual-only 2021 edition. Brand activations were back, and the most popular one was undoubtedly the Halo Drone Show that lit up the night skies of Austin with characters from the show and a scannable QR code.
“It was really well done. They didn’t skimp on the number of drones […] and the QR code actually worked – that’s genius marketing!” – Cindy Y. Lo, CEO, RED VELVET
Created by advertising agency Giant Spoon, the activation was a first in Austin and featured 400 drones flying in synchronized formation.
“One thing’s for sure: The pandemic brought QR codes to the mainstream, and they are the way brands communicate with the public,” said Liz Lathan, chief marketing officer at Haute Companies.
Slack was one of the household names to host an activation at SXSW, taking the shape of what event tech veteran Matthew Donegan-Ryan called an “in-real-life Slack.” The project, developed by Sparks in partnership with RED VELVET, was open to non-badge holders, with access expedited for holders of SXSW badges — an advantage that was lacking from many other activations.
The Cheetos Hands-Free House was a playful technology-enabled activation that showcased a cutting-edge hands-free home and featured plenty of creative Cheeto-infused drinks and snacks. It proved so popular that many visitors reported waiting in line for over two hours, something more common in previous editions of the festival.
Other noteworthy brand activations included the The Ledger, an activation hosted by Blockchain Creative Labs (FOX Entertainment’s NFT studio) that converted data from SXSW itself into an NFT, the Doodles SXSW activation that invited visitors to explore the Doodles brand of NFTs with special rewards for Doodle-holders, and AtmosphereTV’s Banksy Exhibit, which is now likely to become a permanent Banksy Exhibit in Austin.
Event Tech Is Still Not Solving Navigation and Discovery Challenges
Navigating a show the size of SXSW is always challenging. The complete Schedule of 15 conference tracks and nine summits running alongside festivals and exhibitions is notoriously difficult to grasp for first-timers. “I was a bit overwhelmed with the various track options, tons of concurrent sessions, and the sprawling event layout,” said event planner and first-time SXSW attendee Sara Berner Roberts.
Several attendees, including EventMB founder Julius Solaris, shared challenges in using technology to search for content or network with fellow attendees. The abundance of official sources of information meant that users jumped between the SXSW Schedule and the SXSW Social websites as well as the SXSW Go, the SXSW TV and the SXSW Expo mobile apps. “It wasn’t until I returned home from the conference that I realized that the SXSW schedule website was probably the best place for information,” said Berner Roberts.
The overlap of official tools led to challenges around saving events to calendars, messaging other attendees (and having them notice the incoming message), and determining which sessions would be available on-demand in video or audio format.
With that said, some parts of the event tech experience were a hit. The most popular function included in the SXSW GO app was by far the “Event Status” feature that used a simple traffic light color to inform attendees in real-time of how full each room was. Interestingly this feature was introduced by long-time app partners Eventbase in 2018 but seemed more relevant than ever, as organizers and attendees focus on a safe contactless experience.
“I loved the real-time display of session capacity on the app. This is the prime example of real-time data that matters so much to large events. You don’t want to waste your time if you have to navigate four hotels and a convention center.”
– Julius Solaris, EventMB founder
NFTs and Web 3.0 Are Front and Center
“Web3 was the breakout theme for SXSW 2022, encompassing crypto, blockchain, NFTs, DAOs and metaverse topics,” said Greg Oates, senior vice president, Innovation at MMGY NextFactor. Oates closely followed what Facebook parent company Meta had to say, as well as sessions led by fully-functioning metaverse platforms like The Sandbox and DAOs such as UkraineDAO, a charitable fundraising initiative backed by a member of Russian feminist protest punk rock group Pussy Riot.
Virtual event and extended reality (XR) tech were well represented at the trade show; the latter had a dedicated exhibition named XR Experience, the in-person sequel to the last edition’s SXSW Online XR. Both technologies are likely propelled by the ramped-up investments in the metaverse and complementary technologies.
It’s impossible to deny the buzz around Web 3.0 currently, but not everyone is a fan. Solaris is skeptical about many of the metaverse projects discussed at SXSW. “There’s a sense of these people don’t know what they’re talking about. [They] have their own projects, [which] seemed super cool, and they’re hyped by the fact that everybody wants to invest,” said Solaris.
Innovation and Entrepreneurship Are Alive and Well
The 2022 SXSW Innovation Awards recognized many tech areas, including a category most relevant to the event industry, “Innovation in Connecting People.” The category winner was hologram technology manufacturer Proto (formerly known as PORTL). The “Best in Show” award went to Strap Tech’s Ara smart device for the blind and visually impaired.
The 2022 SXSW Pitch Event showcased promising startups looking for exposure and investment. Portland-based 3D printed circular footwear creators HILOS impressed the judges the most and took home the coveted Best in Show award.
Destinations See The Value
Destinations are also among the regular brand activations at SXSW, with many showcasing local startups as a demonstration of homegrown innovation. Fort Worth used an open-air Container Bar to showcase the destination’s culinary, creative, and business community attributes. The activation also featured a series of podcasters recording their shows from Austin and various panels, including one facilitated by the mayor. Oates, an expert on destination marketing and suppliers to Visit Fort Worth, said, “That type of activation showcases a destination in a more holistic and human way, which I think more CVBs can learn from to differentiate their value proposition for event professionals.”
Canada, Australia, Germany, and the U.K. were among the international destinations that returned to SXSW in 2022 with a country house activation. Other destinations, such as Tulsa, opted for a lineup of sessions and smaller activations.
Smooth Logistics Are a Must
One area where there was consensus was on the logistics, seen across the board as solid and well-received. The reduced attendance made this easier on organizers, but the well-managed registration lines, vaccination check using the Clear app, and free onsite Covid testing were lauded by many.
“I’ve been to South by Southwest a handful of times, and this was definitely the smoothest. Everything I wanted to do, I was able to do,” said Donegan-Ryan.
The recent Omicron spike and the war in Ukraine likely contributed to the lower attendance figures, resulting in a less crowded experience for attendees. Behind the scenes, this uncertainty was challenging for the many event professionals involved. “We had a lot of clients that went quiet and didn’t decide until the last minute (as in mid-February) if they were going to do a SXSW activation,” said Lo.
Sustainability, Equality and Diversity Are Not Going Away
While Web 3.0 took center stage, equality, diversity and sustainability were all well represented. There were not only multiple sessions dedicated to these crucial topics, but they permeated many other sessions and content.
“You have all of these intersections of innovation in all types of environments, and more than ever, they’re layered over foundational themes related to sustainability and diversity,” said Oates. The Porsche activation addressed issues around tech, business and gender equality. In particular, Oates highlighted one session that featured a female race car driver working with Porsche on experimental crowdsourcing of sponsorship funds using NFTs.
Session Designs Continue to Evolve
With regard to the design of the event itself, a clear win was making some content exclusive to the online audience, perhaps taking a page from the 2021 online-only edition. Remote attendees paid up to $519 for the online pass and online content was also available to holders of in-person badges. Some of this content was available for a limited time, an enforced scarcity tactic that may be a sign of things to come.
Attendees, including Solaris, did not respond well to the standard one-hour-long session format and made a case for shorter sessions to match attendee attention spans both onsite and online. Solaris further criticized the remote speakers and hybrid panels that included speakers as Zoom feeds. Despite the attenuating circumstances of speakers who contracted Covid at the last minute or who could not travel at short notice, Solaris described these sessions as “a worse version of a YouTube video.”
The general feeling among event professionals is that it’s great to see SXSW back. Even if attendance was lower for many reasons, including post-pandemic social anxiety, less crowding made attendance and the city experience more comfortable for onsite attendees.
It’s good to know that tech, innovation, and music and film continue to drive enthusiastic crowds to Austin. “It was great to be back in person. It was all run very well. Overall, it makes me bullish on live events returning,” said Donegan-Ryan.