South by Southwest’s Tech Conference Outdoes Famed Music Fest

By Cameron Scott 

austin, convention center, sxsw, technology conference, social media, social networksAustin, Texas, cherishes its moniker as the Live Music Capital of the World, but its tech conference has outgrown the music festival in recent years.

In 2012, the Interactive portion of the festival drew nearly 25,000 participants, while the music festival drew just under 19,000.

The tech conference started as a geeky add-on to the famed music festival, debuting seven years after the festival began in 1987. Participation in the Interactive event first surpassed that of the music festival in 2010. Many startups come with hopes of becoming the next Twitter, which saw its service take off after the 2008 event.

All told, South by Southwest fills some 11,500 hotel rooms, with almost 51,000 room nights booked in 76 tracked hotels. The city has just twice that many rooms in 168 hotels, according to the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that most of the other hotels are also filled.

Rooms at the Austin Motel, a popular local spot that doesn’t offer online booking, sell out for the entire month of March within the hour after reservations begin on the first day of December, staffers said.

In a city with a population of 824,000, South by Southwest has a dramatic effect on daily life. Many residents volunteer to work security at the music festival, earning entrance to some performances in exchange. In the festival’s early days, musicians ran a cottage industry of fake badges to allow local musicians who hadn’t earned a spot in the festival’s line-up to enjoy the wealth of performances. But as the event continued to grow, organizers responded with photos, bar codes and other anti-forgery efforts.

With the rise of Airbnb, many Austinites have begun leaving town during the festival, paying for their vacations with the money they make renting out their apartments. Airbnb anticipates somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 guests will use its service during this year’s festival.

Even with buses re-routed, downtown traffic at a standstill, and bars and restaurants filled to overflowing for the 10 days the festival now occupies, city leaders seem willing, for the time being, to put up with the inconvenience. After all, SxSW pumps $168 million into the local economy and gives city officials the chance to re-affirm the city’s role as Live Music Capital of the World while, more quietly, sending wooing interactive participants to bring their startups to Texas.