The annual week-long event, a mix of technology, film, music and politics, aims to provide the Austin, Texas experience with downtown rendered in virtual reality.
South by Southwest, the annual event in Austin, Texas that brings together technology, music, politics and Hollywood, is happening digitally this year after being canceled last year due to COVID-19.
Helping creatives achieve their goals is the stated mission of South by Southwest (SXSW), bringing together people from entertainment, technology, politics and more. But it was the organizers who had to tap into their own creativity to pull off this year’s event, as Hugh Forrest, South by Southwest’s director of programming, tells Voice of America.
“It has been a very challenging year for us, a difficult year for us. We have 30 years of experience producing live events, ”he says.
Due to the pandemic, the city of Austin canceled the 2020 event 10 days before it began. The expected crowd of 40,000 did not fill Austin’s streets, bars and hotels.
This year, as has happened in other events worldwide, SXSW, as it is called by its acronym in English, is entirely online, with most of its 500 sessions, 300 films, 200 prerecorded bands. It is still poised to attract 35,000 attendees with 33% international, down from 25%. Brazil and Asia continue as the main attraction of attendees.
“The virtual aspect of the event allows us to reach new audiences, people who could never travel to Austin for South by Southwest,” Hugh Forrest, South by Southwest’s director of programming, explains to the VOA.
From their computers, visitors can walk through a simulated Austin, with its landmarks like the Red River Cultural District. Inside the Paramount Theater, they can attend conferences and concerts and use the chat function to talk to other attendees.
Forrest anticipates that, “Within two to three years, more and more event-related content will be delivered this way.”
Another advantage of being completely digital? Hiring hard-to-get speakers and artists was easier, including business mogul Richard Branson, and American political leaders like Stacey Abrams and US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.
Additionally, musician Willie Nelson, who lives in Austin and has played the event before, will be speaking at South by Southwest for the first time.
Hugh Forrest says there is a mantra that the organizers repeat.
“We try to remind ourselves that within all these challenges, there are so many opportunities.”