Less than two weeks from now, a coalition of at least 35 public and private sector partners will lead the City of San Antonio’s first formal presence at South by Southwest Interactive Festival, March 11-16.
It’s about time, some in the business and technology industry say.
After all, SXSW Interactive is seen as one of the world’s premier gatherings of creative professionals. The festival began in 1987 with a focus on music, and introduced the interactive (technology) and film portions in 1994. The overall festival quickly grew in popularity with industry participants and consumers alike. In 2015, it injected more than $317 million into Austin’s economy.
Startups, industry leaders, and consumers have been traveling to the conference from San Antonio for years, but only now – more than two decades after the interactive festival began – is the City of San Antonio officially taking part.
A contingent of at least 80 locals is expected to attend panel discussions, a trade show, parties, networking and other activities during the interactive portion of the Austin festival. They will promote San Antonio’s culture and economy to an estimated 34,000 attendees from around the world.
Mayor Ivy Taylor will be in Austin on March 10 to take part in a presentation for SXSWedu, the education-centric conference that precedes SXSW Interactive. Taylor and other elected City officials also hope to attend San Antonio-related activities on March 13, when local cybersecurity leaders will talk up their industry.
Choose San Antonio, the new nonprofit spearheading San Antonio’s SXSW initiative, has amassed varying levels of financial, technical and logistical support from 33 local businesses, venues, entrepreneurs, nonprofits, advocacy organizations, and public agencies over the last few months.
This coalition includes the San Antonio and Bexar County Economic Development departments, Cybersecurity San Antonio, Geekdom, Tech Bloc, Busted Sandal Brewing Co., Local Coffee, Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, Whataburger, Aguillon and Associates, CodeUp, among others.
“The coalition is growing,” said Kevin Peckham, Choose San Antonio’s executive director and an executive for the digital marketing firm Lightning Jar, which also is lending support to San Antonio’s official, collective appearance at SXSW Interactive.
They’ve all bought into the idea that this is a prime opportunity for San Antonio to develop wider national and global recognition for its economic and cultural strengths and quality of life.
Peckham said SXSW is one major chance for San Antonio to not only highlight its growing creative class and emerging target industries, such as cybersecurity, but to lure more talent to town to help further the city’s upward trajectory.
Peckham points to the event’s demographics: 24% of attendees and participants work in creative development, with another 23% in management of related companies and organizations. A majority of attendees and participants (64%) go to SXSW to find new business opportunities. Startups, health, finance/venture capital, advertising, software development, and nonprofits were among the top 10 represented groups taking part in last year’s SXSW Interactive.
In recent years, growing companies such as Rackspace and startups have taken part in SXSW, mainly at the trade show, but that was the extent of San Antonio’s festival presence. So, why is San Antonio only now having an official, large-scale initiative at SXSW?
“I can’t speak to the why we haven’t done it before, but I know it is about time we get up there, establish ourselves in a coordinated effort,” said Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3). Viagran serves on the Council’s Economic and Human Development Committee. That panel hosted a presentation from Peckham and City Economic Development Director Rene Dominguez about San Antonio’s SXSW initiative a few weeks ago. She and her colleagues, on the whole, praised the plan.
“It’s about how we can position ourselves, with technology and other industries,” Viagran said last week. “We have everyone citywide working together now. Synergy is there that really wasn’t present before. The timing is right.”
Peckham is a New York transplant, but in his short time living and working in technology in San Antonio, he has been quickly sold on the city’s history, culture and potential.
“Sure, it would’ve been great if the city had come to the table (to participate at SXSW) five or 10 years ago. Presenting a whole community there, though, is a relatively new idea,” he said. In past years, cities such as Chicago and even countries such as Ireland have had a collective, formal presence at the trade show and other ways in the festival. A coalition from Washington, D.C., set up their “We DC” campaign at a restaurant across from the convention center for the duration of SXSW Interactive in 2015.
This year, Mexico, Germany, Italy, Sweden and Puerto Rico will have a similar footprint in the trade show. A coalition of officials and entrepreneurs and other representatives in innovation, tourism, cuisine, music and art from Mexico will operate “Casa Mexico” March 11-14 from Austin’s Mexican American Cultural Center.
These multi-industry/community groups are now seeing the benefits of a formal, united front at large gatherings such as SXSW, where networking opportunities are abundant throughout the event venues.
“We ourselves in San Antonio are realizing the new economy, a new mode of doing business and enjoying life,” Peckham said.
“You could argue we’re behind the curve, but as a marketer, the way I see it, the point is to make an impression in a significant way. It’s not just about technology or cybersecurity, it’s about promoting our culture. We have about 80 people going from up San Antonio. That’s bigger than any other community that’s showing itself at South by.”
That number, 80, represents the “cultural ambassadors,” representatives of coalition participants, as well as locals taking part in panel discussions, workshops and other special official events. More San Antonians are, of course, attending the conference outside the so-called embassy.
Stephanie Guerra, the creator of Puro Pinche, is again taking part in SXSW. Last year she was on a San Antonio-centric panel about Latina bloggers. This year she is one of 25 volunteer cultural ambassadors who will be at the trade show, which runs March 13-16. They will engage visitors about living and working in San Antonio.
The San Antonio trade show booth space is inspired by local icehouse culture, complete with string lights, fake grass and metal chairs – all meant to foster casual conversation.
A lifelong resident, Guerra agreed with Peckham and Councilwoman Viagran that the city could have tried making a bigger impression at SXSW in the past.
“But we’ve grown a lot in the way we market ourselves. For a long time, San Antonio had a traditional way of marketing. It was usually about the Alamo, the River Walk, the Tower (of the Americas) and all that helped build us up,” she said.
“But it’s changed. We’re a culinary destination, a tech destination, an outdoor/nature destination. We’re just getting more savvy about modernizing our marketing, getting more people involved. A new wave of creative people is coming in. We’re just growing up.”
Raising the level of self-awareness among San Antonians is one reason why she launched the Puro Pinche website, part blog, part event calendar to help promote a wide range of local events and causes.
“There are things to do here, places to be, you just have to know where to look so people can explore our city,” she added. “We know we’re a great city, we just need to show it off. I don’t think we’re that behind the curve.”
Showcasing a community in a collective effort at an event such as SXSW is no easy task, as Choose San Antonio is finding out. Last summer, Choose San Antonio was looking at an already dwindling number of ideal places to hold court in downtown Austin, close to the convention center during SXSW Interactive.
Choose San Antonio narrowed its focus on the Old School Bar and Grill, a highly sought-after venue for all kinds of happenings, including SXSW. Another participating organization put dibs on the venue, with a pledge to rent out the place longer than Choose San Antonio.
Briefly, Peckham’s organization faced the thought of establishing their envisioned SXSW “cultural embassy,” Casa San Antonio, in a parking lot, a scenario that would have presented even more logistical, security and bureaucratic challenges.
Eventually, things changed, the other organization dropped its consideration and Old School reappeared on Choose San Antonio’s radar. Peckham personally provided the deposit for the rent, which is $120,000 over the three days that Casa San Antonio will be open, March 11-13. Peckham said there were available cheaper venues but much further away from the convention center, the heart of SXSW, and Choose San Antonio was not confident many attendees – mainly walk-in traffic – would travel to get there.
The rental cost will be spread over multiple sponsorships for SXSW events each day while Casa San Antonio host panels with locals, parties, meetups, networking opportunities and more. Anyone with a SXSW badge can get in. Old School is a prime location, at East Sixth and Trinity streets, three blocks away from the convention center. It was the old Austin Cotton Exchange, dating back to the 1870s. Now, Old School, the venue features two floors – each with a stage – and a 1,500-square-foot shaded patio overlooking the busy intersection.
Peckham said this is just one reason why it was vital to form a coalition of private and public sector partners, who could make a contribution toward a greater good. The coalition has wanted to raise $600,000 but is closer to $300,000. Peckham and his colleagues are still confident they’ll “be able to have a successful event with a little additional value engineering, and with some new sponsors stepping up to help us champion San Antonio.”
Peckham also said this is one of many planning lessons his organization and the City could apply to future similar endeavors. There’s no other event participation yet planned. But Peckham has said he would love for San Antonio to forge a united presence at other major gatherings, which could increase momentum for San Antonio, and further build up the city’s reputation as friendly to creative professionals.
“The investment is worth the opportunity for our city and our sponsors,” Peckham added. The coalition aims to provide more attention to the SXSW initiative before the festival kicks off. A free, public rally will be held 5:30-7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 3, at the San Antonio Entrepreneur Center, 219 E. Houston St. RSVP here.
Plans are being finalized to secure a complimentary bus service to shuttle up to 30 SXSW attendees from San Antonio to downtown Austin and back daily March 11-13. The 80/20 Foundation is helping to provide financial support. The idea for a bus, Peckham has said, is to give some attendees a safe, budget-friendly alternative to driving and the challenge of finding parking.
The local coalition will promote San Antonio in other fun ways during SXSW, including using local artist Cruz Ortiz’s commissioned art on promotional literature, trade show booth, shirts, temporary tattoos and on an exterior wall at Casa San Antonio.
Choose San Antonio and the City’s Economic Development Department will work together to develop metrics to measure the impact of San Antonio’s SXSW initiative. But Peckham said success cannot be measured only in the number of businesses or entrepreneurs relocating to town.
“Our success won’t be defined by the number of people who stop by the trade show booth, Casa San Antonio or move to S.A,” Peckham added. “It’ll be measured by social media chatter, national and international media attention. Let’s have more dialogue. It’s not just about recruitment, it’s about retaining talent.”
Orgainizers will be using #SATXatSXSW to promote their events.
Councilwoman Viagran said she hopes many of her Council colleagues will be able to join her over the weekend during SXSW Interactive.
“To be able to go back to South by Southwest in an official capacity – for sessions, networking, workshops, events – is how we’ll showcase San Antonio and further establish our position in the world,” she said.
Guerra, as a cultural ambassador, looks forward to sharing with SXSW visitors her story of being a San Antonian and developing a life and career in town.
“We ambassadors will talk about our passions. People will be promoting their experiences and discuss building their businesses in San Antonio,” Guerra said.
*Top image: Part of a mural that local artist Cruz Ortiz was commissioned to create for San Antonio’s presence at South by Southwest Interactive in Austin. The mural will be visible outside of a wall at the city’s base, Casa San Antonio, at Old School Bar and Grill. Courtesy image