JJ Velasquez / Rivard Report
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.