Tech Bloc Reps SA at SXSW, But Smaller Cities Dwarf City’s Low-Budget Presence

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Dax Moreno, Tech Bloc’s Chief Talent & Recruitment Officer, (right) talks to Victoria Wang, a senior associate for Los Angeles-based recruiting agency StartupTap.

JJ Velasquez / Rivard Report

Dax Moreno, Tech Bloc’s Chief Talent & Recruitment Officer, (right) talks to Victoria Wang, a senior associate for Los Angeles-based recruiting agency StartupTap.

San Antonio continues to fly its flag at South by Southwest Conferences & Festivals, the Austin gathering to which some 80,000 techie registrants, music lovers, and film buffs make a pilgrimage every year.

But its presence in the past two years is a far cry from the show put on in the 2016 and 2017 iterations of SXSW, when artwork by Cruz Ortiz infused a pop of puro San Antonio and San Antonians mingled with festival attendees at bars rented by Choose San Antonio.

Choose SA, a now-defunct nonprofit that aimed to promote San Antonio to the world, organized the effort in those years to build awareness around San Antonio as a tech city. The effort took hundreds of thousands of dollars to coordinate, and City officials later questioned whether the investment was paying off. Choose SA also encountered roadblocks acquiring the funding to sustain the same the level of activity at the event, said Tech Bloc CEO David Heard, who sat on the organization’s board.

SXSW exhibitors and brands are spending increasingly more money to stand out from the myriad stimuli at the sprawling week-and-a-half-long event. On just about every corner of downtown Austin, companies deploy people as walking billboards for their brands, and corporate logos, banners, and trinkets dot the urban landscape.

It’s a hyper-competitive marketing frenzy, and the nonprofit trade organization Tech Bloc has taken over the promotional effort the last two years while city leaders continue to assess whether the return is enough to justify a deeper investment. The nonprofit with 5,000 business and individual members in San Antonio’s tech community spent about $25,000 from the City’s coffers to run a booth at SXSW’s annual Job Market, which often draws top technical talent looking for new opportunities.

By Heard’s estimation, the $25,000 is about a 10th of the SXSW budget during the Choose SA days. What’s more, other entities often spend much greater amounts to stand out on the exhibit floor.

“I’m very happy with what Tech Bloc did this year, but the resource level is low,” Heard said.

The organization purchased a 10-by-10-foot space on the Job Market floor, costing about $5,000. Tech Bloc’s taco-themed presentation included looping video playing on a TV screen, a table with free swag, and banners promoting San Antonio and Tech Bloc. It was a modest presentation compared to other aspiring players in the tech economy. El Paso organized a regional presence with Las Cruces and Ciudád Juarez, with which it shares a metropolitan statistical area. Displays by representatives from Raleigh, North Carolina, and Lafayette, Louisiana, impressed Heard, who said he feels San Antonio missed an opportunity.

“El Paso – they went pretty big,” he said. “For sure I would say El Paso, along with Las Cruces, probably outspent the City of San Antonio by at least four to one on their exhibit, maybe more.”

El Paso’s towering displays projected infographics about the three-city region, videos gave prominence to the famous Star on the Mountain, and El Paso-based startup companies such as virtual reality firm Boost Human showcased their products.

El Paso’s SXSW activities extended beyond its Job Market presence. The regional coalition hosted an event at East Sixth Street bar Flamengo Cantina featuring musicians from El Paso and local cuisine.

Tech Bloc last year hired Chief Talent and Recruitment Officer Dax Moreno with financial help from the City and Bexar County. Moreno’s first order of business has been to build a data management system that will serve as a central tool for employers, job-seekers, and colleges and universities to connect with opportunities and talent in the tech sector.

Moreno said he added about 100 names to that database from the SXSW Job Market alone despite entrance to the area being granted only to SXSW badge holders – unlike in previous years when the event was open to the public.

Councilman John Courage (D9) has big ideas for the next SXSW, even going so far as to coin a catchphrase for the next promotional campaign: South of South by Southwest.

“We’re not far away” should be the lure for the out-of-towners and often international visitors that storm the streets of Austin during the March event, Courage said.

But he’s not satisfied with the resources that have been devoted to selling the city at previous go-rounds.

“I just don’t think exactly that our presence was as meaningful as it should have been,” Courage said. “I recognize it does take resources to do that.”

Tech Bloc hasn’t tallied up the numbers of résumés or leads it generated from the Job Market – the event wrapped up Wednesday – but it expects to present the impact to City Council in the coming weeks. Although he’s grateful for monetary support from the City, Heard, whose role at Tech Bloc is voluntary, said he can’t help but wonder if more can be done to tell San Antonio’s story to the tech world.

“We do walk around and look at bigger spends by other cities – some cities much smaller than us spending a lot more – and it does at times make us think about why San Antonio isn’t there in a bigger way or funding something bigger,” he said.

14 thoughts on “Tech Bloc Reps SA at SXSW, But Smaller Cities Dwarf City’s Low-Budget Presence

  1. That is tha San Antonio way: “do things on the cheap and look for others to pay for what you want done”.

    • San Antonio has no chance at SXSW considering level spending associated with the tech industry. The amount of money these tech companies spend on events, marketing, salaries are beyond comprehension to a typical San Antonian.

  2. Sounds like this should be more of a community conversation. The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. We need to bridge that gap. I understand our local government is doing it’s part to educate and train the next generation tech workers, but there is no tie in from a south side 1st grader to our downtown Tech District, hence the lack of synergy needed to create a viable local Tech Industry for a city of our size. Just my view from the outside looking in.

  3. If there was a high speed train that connects ATX and SA, so many people would come and see SA for a day during SXSW. That would put SA on the map even more.

    • In and of itself, it is a catchy phrase, but I digress. We must consider that our city was not built on tech, but on tourism, military base economies, some early tech and energy. The city of Austin started working on becoming a tech hub as early as the late 50’s.
      You also have cities around us like Laredo and El Paso that have grown tremendously. Laredo’s fortune was that they had no tech infrastructure a few decades ago so most of their internet infrastructure is fairly new. I can remember Laredo as a sleepy little town and I am impressed with its progress.
      San Antonio is unique, just like every other city. We can’t all be the tech mega-centers that we hear about. However, each of us with an ability to influence the tech industry in our communities can help San Antonio become a stronger tech powerhouse. One that is suitable for the citizens of San Antonio to enjoy in the comforts that tech provides us and the ability to express our technical ideas in ways that help this same community. Re-shaping our city is not easy and it is not going to happen as fast as we might all desire. We must continue to count the eggs in our basket. We have strong and growing cyber technology economy with USAF’s 24th and 25th and other wings, Lockheed and other’s coming in. We have strong tech communities at USAA, HEB, Valero, Toyota and other large companies based or having strong presences here. Our city and organizations like SARA, Edwards Aquifer use the latest GIS technologies. Our bio-science (e.g. bio-med and bio-tech) industries are also extremely strong. Many of our schools have STEAM and STEM based programs like several of our local high schools’ award winning cyber and robotics programs. However, we must overcome the reality in the comments from Alex. Things take time and to make ourselves more marketable to the outside, we must turn inward more and continue to develop the synergy between our local tech communities to a greater degree. We also need to work towards making the ability to create new technologies more diverse. I agree with Mr. Jimenez in that the lack of cross-company and cross-industry communication. I see many efforts from here in the trenches. There are many people I work with in the tech community working within the federal government, in the city and in the commercial sector that are trying hard to promote tech in our city, but it sometimes seems the efforts are disparate and I hate to say that some of those efforts are scored by the disparity between the income levels; by those that came from and still live in low-income areas and those who were born with greater opportunities. But let us not allow that disparity to dissuade us from what must be done. We all need to work together if not by monetary donations then by volunteerism. My final phrase; let’s keep on truckin’.
      P.S. I too wish we had a rail system from here to Austin as I and others I know travel there much, but the that cost is far too great at this point. I have been seriously considering taking the megabus like my son does. It’s cheaper and you can accomplish some work on the way. You just have to plan ahead. (Shouldn’t we all plan ahead?)

  4. I’ve always thought we should have a South by San Antonio (SXSA). An event that is held either before or after SXSW. This could be a festival that mixes art/ live music & pitches from tech startups. I don’t know how the city thinks it can compete nationally with other tech hubs when it doesn’t invest in events like these. The return may not seem like much (in dollars), but it builds a brand and creates awareness for the growing tech scene in San Antonio.

  5. The leaders of this city are always saying how we’re about to be the next, great American City but I’ve been hearing that my whole life and we’re still not there. For the past decade I’ve been hearing we’re going to be the next big, tech city but in truth, we seem to be getting further and further away from even making an attempt at that goal. I see other cities that are similar to SA or smaller making big gains while we make minor ones. This city seems to have the problem of dreaming big but implementing small. While for some things this might be a smart strategy, it lets everyone else with the same goal pass us by.

  6. The problem is that the PR shtick doesn’t fly when you go to events like SXSW. No one is fooled by the whole “San Antonio is the 7th largest city” nonsense—everyone has a phone in their hands, so the second you throw out that garbage, they’ll just Google it and see how misleading it is. Nor are they fooled by the city leadership’s constant attempt to portray San Antonio as a tech city. Out of the 50 North American cities, we were ranked 46th—and *falling*.

    We have very little to offer. We’re decades behind other major cities in essentially every metric possible; public transportation, infrastructure, income equality, education. People talk about the “nice weather” but ignore the fact that it’s humid and 95+ every day from May to October. They then say that it’s cheap here—which is true—but it’s not like these highly skilled and well-paid tech workers are struggling to make ends meet. They can afford to live in expensive cities that offer a better quality of life than San Antonio.

    We’re not the next great anything. We’ve got no chance if we’re up against Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, DC, New York, Denver etc etc. And apparently from this article we can’t even compete with Las Cruces and El Paso.

    Instead of pretending we’re some amazing tech city, perhaps it would be wiser to have a frank discussion as to why we’re so far behind *and* getting worse on top of that. That would do a lot more than sticking our heads in the sand and trying to convince people that we’re a viable alternative when we’re not.

  7. South of SXSW-2020- Pre or Post Event.
    Local industries ranging from Medical to Auto repair from our local Bio Tech to General Construction-technology related. If it relates to our local and/regional economy and employees and significant workforce then it could participate. The close proximity is convenient for interested parties.

    While the event transpires, our local Tech Sector will have an opportunity to learn how their industry might contribute to increasing local companies bottom line.

    Both sides win-Diversified Local Industry gets their convention and Local Tech attains valuable information that could expand San Antonio Tech talent.

  8. Hey Alex. I was born and raised here. Will die here. Unfortunately you are spot on with everything you said. No body here with any power gets it. Sad.

  9. San Antonio’s greatest asset is the Riverwalk, and yet there is no water taxi to shuttle locals from Southtown to downtown, and then to the Pearl. Huge wasted opportunity to me, even if the revenue/traffic won’t be there for another 5/10 years.

  10. San Antonio doesn’t need any help, and we don’t need to go begging for talent in Austin. I figured out this place was really cool 35 years ago. In fact, let’s keep San Antonio one of the best kept secrets in the country! Why mess with what awesome things we have in the name of economic development? We’re doing just fine, folks…

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