Parties at SXSW: Where ‘business’ gets done

By Steve Winter, special to

AUSTIN, Texas — South By Southwest is a festival that has been described as a week full of innovation, pushed to excessive limits.

You want instructional sessions? There are more than a thousand of them in the interactive festival alone.

You want celebrities? South-By 2015 brings us Sally Field, Ryan Gosling, Jimmy Kimmel, Jonathan Frakes, Melissa McCarthy, Will Ferrell, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Al Pacino and Steve Carell.

Looking for newsmakers and visionaries? MoMA curator Paolo Antonelli, Saudi Arabian Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud and Google(x) “captain of Moonshots” Astro Teller headline the list of keynote speakers who cover everything from the empowerment of women in the Islamic World to technology-focused solutions to transportation issues.

But if you really want to know where business gets done at SXSW, you need to wait until 6 p.m., when South-By’s legendary party circuit roars to life inside the bars, restaurants, nightclubs and juke joints of downtown Austin.

In truth, the parties really operate on two levels. The early circuit – from 6:00 until 9:00 p.m. – typically provide companies with the opportunity to effectively showcase their products, services and features. Octagon Sports, for example, launched the official start of SXSports with their happy hour reception on Friday; Zendesk hosted an early evening party on Saturday to showcase their desk ticketing, issue tracking and customer support.

But when the sun drops below the Texas horizon and the complimentary cocktails kick in, you might think that by then, it becomes simply “all about the brand.”

At the Friday night Deloitte reception at Maggie Mae’s, for example, you would be hard pressed to believe that any legitimate business could possibly transact, given the massive din, rockin’ live music and sensory overload, while the branded bartender t-shirts, GOBOs and signage left little doubt as to the identity of the host.

But according to Tech Cocktail’s co-founder and COO Jen Consalvo, those “party til you drop” extravaganzas are just as valuable as a highly-personalized, one-on-one encounter. “This is our sixth annual event at South-By-Southwest and after every one, we’ve stepped back and evaluated its worth and so far every year, the decision has been ‘yes,’” Consalvo said.

“And it’s for one simple reason – all the startups, the people who are our core audience are here … and that’s a critically important market,” said Consalvo.

Consalvo said it can be a challenge to keep customers’ focus once the drinks start flowing.

“It’s hard to do but it’s possible,” she said. “I continue to travel the country and hear from people who say ‘I first heard about you or met you or met someone from Tech Cocktail at South-By-Southwest,’ so I know it’s an important tool for us.”

On Saturday night two related companies combined resources to merge their message with a night of goodwill. Through a blowout event at the Highland, early arrivals enjoyed an exclusive on-screen look at Syfy’s highly anticipated drama “The Expanse,” set to a “lighting track” from Philips Hue bulbs’ that matched the action on screen with a connected lighting experience

“Even the late arrivals got the message,” said Matthew Chiavelli, Syfy’s Vice President of Digital Media and Strategy. “Once the party got going, and attention spans dwindle, there were still corners where you could sit down and experience our programming and the Philips lighting.”

From a business perspective, throwing a SXSW party makes good business sense. From an attendee perspective, how can you beat the opportunity to select from literally a dozen different parties each night, every one of which includes dinner and drinks, completely free of charge?

And at the end of the night, as long as you remember who hosted your good time, everybody wins.

Editors Note: Longtime trade show attendees Steve Winter and Kenny Fried are contributing reports from SXSW. In their day jobs, they are public relations professionals with Sage Communications. During SXSW they will not be reporting on any of their clients’ products or those of direct competitors.

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