Driving into downtown Austin with my host, Amy Brown, northeast regional sales director for the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau, I noticed the big crowds of people that I was expecting to see for such a large conference, but I also noticed a massive number of pedicabs that were traveling along the streets. They provided by SXSW to complement more traditional shuttle busing. I also noted that many of the buildings we passed were branded by the companies that had taken them over for the event.
At the registration area, I picked up a platinum badge, which allowed me access to all the events between the Film Festival, Interactive Conference, and Music Festival. I also picked up a conference bag and materials, which felt like it weighed 50 pounds.
It held three separate conference bags, three conference programs, and three schedules-at- a-glances listing sessions and events in 100 different venues. I realized that I could never complain about one of my single program, single-venue conferences ever again.
At registration, I also did what any meeting planner-outsider would do: examined the signage and branding placed by the organizers. Most intriguing were the flyers and posters that were put up by attendees or made during the event.Convention Center pillars were wrapped in clear plastic so that attendees could post their own flyers that could then easily be switched by organizers between the different conferences — SXSW is three conferences and festivals in one.
Also, huge white boards covered with graphic summaries of the sessions that had already taken place were on display in the foyer area. But the digital signage designed to look like street signs that changed directions depending upon what events were being displayed was what sparked my major meeting-planner geek-out moment.
One thing I thought was very cool that would be neat to put into practice at one of my own meetings was the white boards that were created by graphic illustrators throughout the sessions and then displayed in the foyer areas for attendees to view This was done at the opening general session at PCMA 2014 Convening Leaders in Boston as well.
There were some incredible speakers — including Chelsea Clinton, Blake Mycoskie of TOMS and Biz Stone, Co-Founder of Twitter — but SXSW also drove home to me the power of providing great experiences. For example, the trade-show floor, filled with technology companies from around the world featured The Price Is Right wheel — and of course we had to spin it! It was only the second time it left the studio!
We enjoyed local and internationally known bands, and checked out the local culinary specialities the city offered the SXSW attendees. I had to try the breakfast tacos one morning, because I was told they are an Austin staple. At the convention center I sampled a build-your-own burrito bowl.
We watched as staff pulled off one amazing conference, only to have it end, be torn down, and rebuilt again as another conference, twice. And we watched corporations take over empty lots and restaurants to build insanely ambitious and elaborate pop-up events, only to see them gone the next day.
SXSW is definitely an experience that I will never forget and that I hope I get a chance to experience again. I I am grateful to the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau for the opportunity to enjoy this event and learn so much from it.
Astrid Schrier, CMP, is a meeting manager at Fernley & Fernley. She attended SXSW thanks to Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau, Austin Convention Center, and the Hyatt Regency Austin.