Hugh Forrest Provides Seven Early Observations on SXSW 2018

By Laura Lorek
Publisher of Silicon Hills News

From amazing weather to Elon Musk‘s pop up appearance, blockchain technology, and internationalization, South by Southwest 2018 is over but not forgotten.

Hugh Forrest, Chief Programming Officer of SXSW, gave an overview of seven early observations from SXSW 2018, during a Tech Talk event with the Austin Chamber of Commerce Tuesday morning at the chamber’s offices.

“We as SXSW staff have one perception of how the event went,” Forrest said. “I think it went pretty well. But I also know that beginning this week we will also spend roughly a month reading lots and lots and lots and lots of attendee feedback.”

Often times, that attendee feedback tells you things that were great and things that you didn’t know were not so great, Forrest said.

“I’ll have a different picture, perception of the event, after reading that,” he said.

“While SXSW 2018 was generally a successful event, we can’t ignore the backdrop of SXSW week 2018 which was the bombing stuff which certainly was one of the darkest weeks in Austin in recent memory,” Forrest said. A 23-year-old domestic terrorist planted a series of bombs in March that killed Anthony Stephan House, 39, and Draylen Mason, 17, and seriously injured Esperanza Herrera, 75 and he rigged tripwire and package bombs that led to other injuries. While none of the events occurred at SXSW, the tragedies were felt by everyone in Austin and beyond.

In the presentation, Forrest’s first observation, “sounds somewhat trite,” he said. But Austin had really amazing weather this year, Forrest said.

“This is the first year in at least a decade where we didn’t have one day of rain or one day of cold,” he said.

Austin looks great all the time but looks a lot better with beautiful weather, he said. And great weather helps spread people out and mitigates overcrowding problems, Forrest said.

The second observation focused on diversity and inclusiveness.

Esther Perel, a couples’ therapist, gave the opening Interactive keynote on Friday on the importance of relationships determing a person’s quality of life. It’s a really powerful talk, Forrest said. And it’s available on SXSW’s YouTube channel. He encouraged everyone to watch it.

“Patriarchy doesn’t just hurt women, it hurts us all,” she said during the speech and in a takeout quote featured on Forrest’s slideshow.

SXSW had a lot of programming focused on diverse entrepreneurs and organizers made sure to bring those panels and discussions into the main venues, Forrest said.

The third observation focused on the blockchain buzz and how blockchain can be used in a lot of different applications including healthcare, Forrest said.

The fourth observation focused on internationalizing Austin. The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan gave a keynote address about inclusiveness in the technology industry and the need for government regulation. SXSW also featured talks from the Prime Minister of Ireland Leo Varadkar, Techfugees’ CEO Josephine Goube from Paris and Norway’s Crown Prince Haakon.

“Lot of international presence in Austin,” Forrest said.

It’s easier for internationals to get to Austin and the reputation of SXSW is stronger than ever internationally, he said.

SXSW named global connections as the trend of the event. The trade show had more than 30 different companies exhibiting and international houses exhibited throughout Austin including the first ever Africa House, Forrest said.

“All of these countries and cultures use technology in slightly different ways, use creativity in slightly different ways but Austin is a platform for them to come together and see which ways they can cooperate and which ways they can build new relationships,” Forrest said.

Mayor Steve Adler has a vision for a more international Austin as well as things the Austin Chamber of Commerce is working on to bridge connections with other countries, Forrest said.

The fifth observation is more City of Austin support for SXSW.

SXSW worked a lot with the City and the new city manager Spencer Cronk, who recently took over the job after moving from Minneapolis, on crowd control.

“At this point, when you are planning a big event like SXSW literally 25 percent of your planning time is related to safety and security,” Forrest said.

And the number sixth observation is “Elon happened.”

“The Elon Musk thing was pretty amazing,” Forrest said. “If it happened two weeks later with the backdrop of the week they had last week it wouldn’t have happened.”

“For as long as I’ve worked at SXSW I’ve never been a part of something that came together this quick,” Forrest said.

“We got an inkling that he was going to be in town on Wednesday and we reach out to Elon and his people every year, can you speak at SXSW because Elon is kind of a pinnacle for so much of our community. We usually get a polite no, it’s not going to quite work this year. When we reached out Wednesday this year, they said that might work.”

SXSW staff pulled together a venue, ticketing, production for Elon Musk’s Q&A talk within 24 hours, Forrest said. Elon Musk, founder of Tesla, SpaceX and other companies, made a surprise appearance at the SXSW Westworld panel on Saturday. Late that day, SXSW announced a special Q&A session with Musk on Sunday. And despite the daylight savings time change making it even earlier than usual, a line of people stood around the block outside the Austin City Limits theater at 10 a.m. waiting for the noon talk.

“It was a nice SXSW touch,” Forrest said.

By comparison, when SXSW had President Obama speak a couple of years ago, SXSW staff spent six months preparing for the event, Forrest said.

Last but not least, the seventh observation is the Fairmont Hotel opening.

“That was a great thing for us and the city,” Forrest said.

The Fairmont gave SXSW more hotel rooms and meeting space to accommodate people, Forrest said. It was touch and go up until March on whether the hotel would open on time, he said. Not all of the hotel sleeping rooms opened on time, but SXSW was still able to accommodate about 600 guests at the Fairmont, Forrest said.

(My SXSW Facebook Live video of the new Fairmont Hotel – taken during SXSW)

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