Creative Battery Recharge at SXSW

How Creative and Technological Inspiration Fuels Live Events Work

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I attended my first SXSW (South by Southwest or “South By” if you’re in a hurry) in March 2013. The annual week-long event in Austin, Texas, which is sometimes called “the nation’s best-known hipster tech conference,” started primarily as a music festival in 1987 but added film and interactive tracks in 1994. The official SXSW website describes the event, now in its 37th year, as “the premier destination for creatives across the globe.” In my first taste of the event 11 years ago, I had no idea what I was in for. I got hopelessly lost and caught in a rainstorm on my first day, but by the end of that week, I distinctly remember feeling like my brain battery had been topped up in a new and exciting way. Flash forward to this year, and I’m happy to report the event still delivers an “EV Level 3-like” fast-charge for the noggin for those fortunate enough to be able to invest the time and treasure to attend.

Despite my status as a South By veteran at this point (I don’t get lost or nearly as rain-soaked now), I still sometimes struggle to describe the event when I’m asked what exactly it is — or if it’s worth it. So I’m happy to let Hugh Forrest, SXSW’s Co-President and Chief Programming Officer, do some heavy lifting courtesy of his 2024 welcome remarks. He reminded the packed Ballroom D of the Austin Convention Center that the event’s mission is “to help creative people achieve their goals” and that despite celebrating emerging digital innovations across many industries, “face-to-face connections are the world’s most powerful technology.” Considering Situation’s own mission to “champion the power of shared experiences for all” and believing the world is a better place when we experience it together, my heart was warmed by the alignment of these values. In short, it’s not enough to just put smart thinking out into the world, you’ve got to gather people together to engage in these ideas to really make the magic happen.

If I’m being honest, though, being responsible for hosting shared experiences can be a real pain in the assembled masses. From promotion and registration to facility prep and no-show anxiety to technical snafus and schmoozing, actually making a gathering happen takes an army. This is not news to our industry, but here at Situation, we keep doing it because we genuinely believe the ROI nets out. In fact, I think the dopamine hit of pulling off event miracles can actually be addicting. I moderated a panel for our industry recently (craving that dopamine) that focused on renewing the audience relationship through innovation. Before the session, I asked each of my panelists, all makers of unforgettable experiences, to remember a time in the past year when they had their socks knocked off as an audience member. One of them looked at me blankly and said he couldn’t remember being an audience member; his life had become nothing but a string of events where he was part of the team making them happen.

So here’s a prescription for those reading these words, especially those whose day-to-day involves creating shared experiences: make intentional space to fill up your own audience meter, and I promise you the next event you work on will be better for it. In her keynote session in Austin last week, poet laureate Ada Limón talked about a poem she wrote that will be inscribed on a plaque and attached to a spacecraft that will travel to study Jupiter’s moon, Europa. In describing what she needs to craft a poem, she mused, “There needs to be a moment where we stop making in order to bring the next thing into being.” Other than writing this blog post, I’ve tried to follow my own advice over the past week, taking in and recording my observations to bring back to my team and our clients and make our upcoming events and roundtables the best they can be (I hope y’all want to keep talking about AI).

On a whim, after my second day of session-hopping this year, I checked out what I thought would be a run-of-the-mill audio walking tour in a nearby park to help me wind down my day. What I discovered instead was an immersive experience that blew me away; honestly, it was one of the most magical experiences I’ve had as an audience member in a long time. Participants download an app and are guided along a path by two podcast-style audio hosts in conversation with one another. Gradually and subtly, the world around you starts to sync up with what you are hearing, both the people and objects you see around you. The project, created by a group called Point.A, is called Eclipsing in honor of the upcoming total solar eclipse that will be fully visible in Austin next month, and it genuinely made me rethink what’s possible in the world of interactive entertainment. Battery full.

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