SXSW Diaries Part 1: Key Takeaways from SXSW Interactive Trade Show 2012

I am back in NYC and better than ever after seven exhausting 18- hour plus days at SXSW. The show was a smashing success and there are a number of key takeaways I want to share with other companies, agencies and brands looking to throw a party, exhibit at a booth or employ guerilla-marketing tactics in and around the city of Austin during SXSW Interactive. Below is the first in a series of three posts I am going to share, which detail the pros and cons of exhibiting at the convention center during the interactive portion of SXSW.

Background

This was my 2nd time at SXSW, but it was my first time as an exhibitor and the first time that I threw a party or did a sponsorship. Although our party was a tremendous hit and our sponsorships worked out great for the most part, our booth was a disappointment. I should actually say that our booth was great, but the trade show was a bust for exhibitors. Yes we made some good contacts on Monday, but Tuesday through Thursday traffic dropped off dramatically and meaningful conversations were nowhere to be found.

This isn’t my first rodeo when it comes to trade shows. Fluent does close to 20 trade shows a year and I probably attend half to three quarters of them as an attendee, speaker or exhibitor, so I know how to gauge traffic, quality of conversation and overall value. At the end of the day, the SXSW Interactive Trade Show feels like a sham for the exhibitors inside the main convention center’s inner hall. The companies and brands that can secure booth space in the outer hall (the ring around the inner hall) which is open to everyone with or without a badge, do considerably better. This is because the outer hall is open from Thursday through the following Thursday, to align with the SXSW Interactive Festival.

Overview

An Interactive Festival by definition means that people should be able to interact and engage with a specific piece of content, a booth or an exhibit. The outer hall was filled with such exhibitors and they all did a great job providing badge holders and the general public with a highly interactive experience. The inner hall, although it did feature some interactive displays and exhibits, was largely about showcasing digital companies, agencies or brands. And because the opening of the inner hall Trade Show didn’t align with the Interactive Festival, it seemed more like an afterthought as opposed to an intricate part of the SXSW experience.

Just to recap for those who have never been, the SXSW Interactive Festival starts on Thursday night but the first full day is Friday. The Interactive Festival then runs Saturday, Sunday and most people either leave sometime Monday, or early Tuesday morning. For those reading closely, I understand you might be confused because I just noted that the Interactive Trade Show runs from Monday through Thursday. This means that you are just getting started as an exhibitor in the Trade Show, when everyone else there for the Festival is leaving. To validate my point, all you have to do is look to the top of SXSW.COM, the official site for the show, and you can clearly see the dates for Interactive. The 9th – 13th is Friday through Tuesday.

It’s perplexing I know. The Trade Show should start on Friday and end Monday or Tuesday afternoon, to align with the actual days of the Interactive Festival. To all those exhibiting, it feels like you’ve been taken by SXSW. The amount of money it costs to exhibit isn’t worth the booth traffic you receive on the best day, which is Monday.

Takeaways

The net net here is that unless you have a booth in the outer ring of the convention center, that’s highly interactive, you are paying to exhibit for three days after your core audience has left, assuming your audience is people who are attending the Interactive Festival. Why the Trade Show doesn’t align with the Festival has eluded me, but what I do know is that the $7,500 I paid for setup and to exhibit wasn’t worth it. Next year I’ll be more wisely spending that money on platinum badges for my team, then sending them out to proactively network during day. We will skip the hours spent loafing around a booth talking to UT students and faculty about how great the new Wi-Fi hotspots are on campus – it’s simply not worth it…

This week look for SXSW Diaries Part 2: Key Takeaways for Throwing a Party or Doing a Sponsorship

Next week look for SXSW Diaries Part 3: Key Takeaways for Guerilla Marketing

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