SHIFTxSW: Interview with Hugh Forrest, Director of SXSW Interactive

SXSW Interactive: the land of entrepreneurialism, celebrity keynotes, guerilla marketing – where Twitter was unveiled and Uber launched – all deep in the heart of the “Silicon Hills,” aka Austin, Texas.

With nearly 34,000 attendees from across 85 countries and 2700 speakers across 1200 sessions, it’s a marketing spectacular where major brands and startups alike can put their brightest feathers on display as the tech elite converge on the former sleepy town of Austin. But behind the curtains of flash and pizzazz – from the most buzzed about unicorns and big dog brands leading the industry – what, or who, brings it all together under one roof?

The collaborative and inspirational panels, campaigns and company launches we have come to equivocate with SXSW are the brain children of the brightest minds in tech. While these certainly are the building blocks for an event centered on thought leadership and innovation, SHIFT wanted to get inside the mind that started it all. Meet Hugh Forrest, Founding Director of SXSW Interactive.

To kick off SHIFT’s inaugural SHIFTxSW blog series, we chatted with the instrumental Austin-native who set the Live Music Capital of the World on a path to tech domination. Here’s what the expert had to say on the best ways to prepare for the conference next week.

SHIFT: What’s a can’t-miss event or meet-up for a first time attendee that will help set the tone for your experience at one of the most influential tech conferences in the world?

First year registrants should try to attend my short “Welcome to SXSW 2016” remarks on Friday morning, March 11. For this talk, I will outline some of the new additions for this year’s event as well as cover the general community vibe of SXSW Interactive. First year registrants should also try to attend the Opening Party on Friday evening. Occurring at Mellow Johnny’s, this get-together is a great way to make some meaningful connections that will make the next few days a lot more manageable and enjoyable.

SHIFT: I’m sure you hear from many SXSW vets on their opinions about tricks and tips for the event. What would you say is the best kept secret at SXSW Interactive to help attendees make the most of their badge?

It is not necessarily a secret. But, the best strategy for making the most of your badge is to budget a few hours before the event to really think about what your goals are for SXSW. What kinds of sessions should you attend to accomplish those goals? What kinds of people should you meet to accomplish those goals? Then plan your schedule according to those goals. Much easier to navigate SXSW if you have a plan — and its entirely fair to abandon your plan if / when better opportunities present themselves onsite.

SHIFT: So many people write annual “how to survive SXSW” posts which are really just long lists of where to eat in Austin. With so many sessions, events, parties – what tools/resources do you recommend attendees use to find what might actually be interesting/relevant to them?

Yes, eating health food and drinking plenty of non-alcoholic fluids are essential to making the most out of SXSW. It is also important to have one or two pairs of really comfortable shoes — because you will probably do a lot of walking while you are in Austin. Otherwise, another great resource for making the most out of the event is SXsocial, which is the in-house social network for SXSW. Use SXsocial to meet and connect with other registrants before the event begins. These pre-event connections are a great way to share recommendations on the best sessions and networking events.

SHIFT: After 27 years, how do you (and your team) recharge the creative process and come back even stronger year-over-year? 

I think it is the connection to the digital creative community that keeps our creative process fresh. Before the event, the community shares some incredible speaking ideas via the SXSW PanelPicker. Onsite, the community inspires us with their energy and their passion and their enthusiasm.

SHIFT: Everyone talks about Twitter’s famous launch at SXSW, but what is the craziest and/or your favorite event/launch/promotion that has happened during SXSW Interactive in your 27-year tenure?

The onstage marriage proposal at the Frank Warren keynote at SXSW 2008:

SHIFT: With all of the content and media that is generated coming out of Interactive, how does your team manage all the media requests that come in now that the conference has grown so large?

For SXSW Interactive, we receive thousands of press requests from across the United States and all over the world. The press team works really, really hard to keep up with all of these requests. Like almost everything at SXSW, many, many, many hours of very, very, very detailed work usually produces positive results.

SHIFT: PR is all about building relationships, which we assume was much easier to do when Interactive was smaller. How do you approach relationship building for conference activities and efforts now that it’s become such a large event?

For better or for worse, SXSW has grown a lot over the last few years. So, one of the keys to make the experience as meaningful as possible is to break the event down into much smaller component parts. In other words, you are setting yourself up for failure and disappointment if your goal is 500 new one-on-one connections at SXSW. A much more realistic / manageable goal is something in the neighborhood of 50. Followup with these 50 solid connections after the event. Remember that small, meaningful one-on-one connections lead to big career improvements at events like SXSW.

SHIFT: We know you can’t play favorites, but what session(s) are you making time for this year? Or, what’s something you always look forward to every year?

One of my favorite elements of SXSW Interactive are the Dewey Winburne Community Service Awards. Scheduled on the evening of Sunday, March 13, this ceremony honors 10 digital do-gooders from around the world. The 10 honorees each have a few minutes on stage to tell the story of how they use technology to level the playing field between the haves and the have nots. Many of the stories you hear via these Dewey honorees will move you to tears because of their heart-warming / heart-breaking poignancy. So the ceremony is a really powerful reminder that tech can / should serve a higher purpose. Best of all, the Dewey Winburne Community Service Awards are free — so anyone can attend (even if they don’t have a SXSW badge).

SHIFT: We know that Interactive positively impacts Austin’s economic development, but what’s your perspective on how Interactive has helped shape Austin culturally? A town that started out many decades ago as a small-yet-sparky Texas town home to free spirits and ambition, vs. today where its title as “Live Music Capital of the World” has also added “the Silicon Valley of the South?”

If SXSW Interactive has helped shine a slightly larger spotlight on all the creative things that happen year-round in Austin, then great. The fact that Austin is such a hotbed of creativity is certainly one of the biggest reasons that SXSW Interactive has survived and prospered over the last two decades.

Through all the noise and chatter, SXSW still reigns supreme for a great environment for inspiration, networking and peer-to-peer collaboration, and PR and marketing folks are constantly pushing the envelope on how to keep the conversation sparked year after year. We don’t know about you, but we’re pumped to kick off a week of thought leadership and innovation alongside tech’s best and brightest – comment below with sessions or events you’re looking forward to checking out the most

Keep in Touch

Want fresh perspective on communications trends & strategy? Sign up for the SHIFT/ahead newsletter.

Ready to shift ahead?

Let's talk