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Summary:

In the seven years since Twitter made it big at SXSW Interactive the event has grown attendance five fold. But in 2014 attendance is expected to be flat while the events are farther apart.

A pedi-cab driver dons a panda suit to give rides around Austin. Companies like Uber were giving rides all through the weekend as a promotion.
photo: by Eliza Kern

The number of people hitting Austin for South by Southwest Interactive this year is supposed to be on par with last year’s total of 30,621 guests. But while attendance is flat, and festival operators have made some changes to try to keep the emphasis on technology as a means of serving the community and as part of a cultural conversation, the startups and money here will mean festival goers will be seeing more of Austin than in years past.

As big-name brands have moved in and the scrappy tech scene has gathered a corporate gloss, making the hacking a bit more commercial and the events a lot fancier, SXSW has become more far-flung. It’s not just the opening of the satellite registration offices where people can pick up their badges, but the number of miles I’m traveling between events. Some of them are even out of range from the ubiquitous pedicab drives (I’m looking at you, Mark Cuban: your event is about 11 miles from downtown).

Data provided by Joe Murphy of Digital First Media

While there have always been a few private parties held at the homes of local Austinites that might necessitate a drive, big events usually held downtown are being squeezed out of that area. For example, the frog design party that usually is held in the core of downtown is being held 2.3 miles away at the Umlauf Sculpture garden, and folks are getting there by bus. About four years ago the AT&T Conference Center — located 1.6 miles from the Hilton by the convention center — became a regular venue for the official SXSW events. People complained, but now events are being held even further out.

Given the crush of big name (and budget) companies trying to lease venue space for parties, lounges and their own events, downtown space is at a premium and events are happening further and further afield. In one day I will travel about 4 miles heading to about 4 events. This is kind of crazy, especially in a town where a car is a necessity.

Omar L. Gallaga, a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman and a columnist CNN, has been covering SXSW since at least 2000, making him a veteran of the event (I’ve been attending since 2002). He said event organizers are trying to reign in the event — or at least the startup launches and big tech money side of things.

The turning point for the festival in terms of popularity may have been in 2007 when Twitter got its big break, Gallaga said, or even in 2008, when Mark Zuckerberg attended and did an interview with Sarah Lacy that garnered a lot of attention. After that point, the startups and the attendees started pouring into Austin, leading conference organizers to take steps to refocus the event away from hot startups and more toward the original goals of promoting technology as a way to enhance culture and community.

To that end, Gallaga said organizers opened the festival last night with the Dewey Awards honoring community service and will crown the best technology startup on Sunday instead of later in the week. the goal will be to get that done with before the rest of the festival, said Gallaga.

“The event has grown from a conversation about tech to conversations about tech and entertainment and tech and culture,” he said. “The startup and money in technology is herded into its own area at the show and the V2V event is more in that vein.”

The V2V event was first held last year in Las Vegas, and who knows; it might become the new Mecca for startups as the Austin festival gets too big and too expensive. Now, please excuse me, I have to make the mile-and-a-half trip down to South Congress for my next event.

  1. Houston , Texas is also well suited to host SXSW.

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