A first-timer’s guide to SXSW

Founder of The Nest Consultancy Greg Graham
By Founder of The Nest Consultancy Greg Graham | 19 March 2019
Greg Graham

I’ve been to many conferences and festivals over my career, but for various reasons never made it to SXSW in the US. This year, I decided it was time to experience this growing phenomenon for myself.

And what an overwhelming experience – in a totally good way – it has been.

SXSW bills itself as a celebration of the convergence of the interactive, film and music industries. With a jam-packed schedule of speakers and events, it’s like being in a giant wave of inspiration. The entire city of Austin, Texas, comes alive, beyond the surrounds of the Convention Centre that holds most of the events.

There are 25 tracks across the three streams of interactive, film and music, with more than 70,000+ attendees from all over the world – it’s an incredibly diverse vibrant festival that just grabs you by the balls and delights you at every minute of the day and night.

It takes a bit of time to suss out the variety of venues and learn to navigate your way around and manage the queues. But that’s all part of what makes this a mind-blowing experience. I met the most amazing people while waiting in queues, from all over the globe, and got to chat about how to get the most out of the festival.

Overall, getting around Austin is really easy: you can use one of the 10,000 electric scooters all over the city to venue hop – although I don’t suggest using them at night on 6th Street after a few Texan brews. Anyway...

Here are the major themes of this year’s SXSW as I see them:

Be human
Being a good person and improving your personal skill set helps at work and makes you a better leader. So many speakers stressed the importance of good ol’ human relationship behaviour and how empathy and listening are vital, now more than ever. Both Brené Brown and Esther Perel delivered outstanding messages around relationships and human belonging and connecting.

Don’t ignore the power of brand experiences
Some of the best brand immersions and activations in the world were at SXSW this year. As a huge Game of Thrones fan, I was beside myself at the HBO experience created by Giant Spoon. I was not the only one completely immersed in what was going on and I had goosebumps when the choir began singing in the church, transporting us all to King’s Landing.

It got even better when the Red Priestess called my name to bend the knee in front of the iron throne and get my GoT medallion. I was up for Bleeding for the Throne and many attendees queued for hours to donate blood to the American Red Cross – saving lives as well as getting excited for the final season.

There were many more brand experiences showing us how it should be done, including from the likes of Sony, Uber Eats, Capital One, Netflix, Amazon Prime, SAP, NBC, Showtime, Snap and Twitter. Phew.

Tech isn’t done with us yet
Futurist Amy Webb covered 315 tech trends that did my head in! It was a fascinating session and a reminder, if we needed one, of the impact of technology on our lives. What jumped out at me the most was the advent of DNA biotech, CRISPR gene editing and the wider implications for all of us. Amy used an example of how scientists can alter the mosquito DNA to delete the malaria gene for improved health conditions globally. Other examples scared the hell out of me!

Politics on the agenda
I guess it’s the timing and mood of the US, but several high-profile politicians and political candidates held packed sessions, including former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, Elizabeth Warren and a very popular Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Trevor Noah of The Daily Show kept the crowds entertained and a brilliant activation of The Daily Show presents The Donald J Trump Twitter Presidential Twitter Library was a bloody hoot.

Big Tech Beware
Speakers in a number of sessions and panels talked about digital disturbance and the impending regulation that could curb some of the big players. Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren told SXSW attendees that she intends to break up the biggest technology companies to restore the balance of power, promote competition and to ensure the next generation of technology innovation is a vibrant as the last. Even if she’s not elected, the mood at SXSW suggested that patience with big tech is running out.

After seven days I’m shattered. Attending four-plus sessions a day in a variety of different locations, plus multiple brand experiences, awesome music and Texas BBQ, with a few incredible parties thrown in, can have that effect. A shout-out to The Daily Mail for an awesome closing night party featuring ’80s rock star Joan Jett that capped off an inspirational week.

I’m now a complete SXSW convert and encourage all Aussies to get to SXSW to explore and be inspired. Australia House presented by G’Day USA was a brilliant addition to Rainey Street and showcases some extraordinary local talent.

I’ve already booked the early bird offer for next year. SXSW 2020, giddy up – here I come. 

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