By Tom Foster | March 12, 2015 | People
The SXSW Interactive Conference has risen from small spin-off to one of the world's most talked-about events, and lifelong Austinite Hugh Forrest has been at the helm all along. Here, he shares what's next.
South by Southwest Interactive conference director Hugh Forrest surveys a quiet Austin Convention Center, which will be a much different scene when thousands of attendees descend upon the home base for the conference March 13-17, as well as for SXSW Film (March 13-21) and SXSW Music (March 17-March 22).
A piece of paper taped to the window of Hugh Forrest’s office reads, in large type, 15 WEEKS. It is the official countdown clock to South by Southwest 2015. Inside the office, Forrest, the 52-year-old director of SXSW Interactive since its inception in 1994, absent-mindedly turns a bottle of 5-Hour Energy over and over in his hands. “I’m a reformed user,” he says. “It’s like in The Fault in Our Stars, where he has the cigarette he never smokes.” He pauses to look at the little bottle for a moment. “There will probably be a point between now and March when I get back on the stuff.”
It’s a brisk December morning, and Forrest is at his desk at 8 AM, before anyone else has arrived at the conference’s downtown headquarters on Bowie and Fifth Streets. Most days, Forrest rises between 3:30 and 5 AM, works for a couple of hours at home and then gets his 4-year-old son ready for the day before heading to the office. “My great skill that I bring to this job is that I’m a grinder,” he says. “I’m willing to grind harder than most people are.”
In the past four years or so, Forrest’s Interactive conference has officially become the king of SXSW, surpassing even the music festival that started it all. Interactive drew a little over 32,000 attendees last year and has essentially grown to full capacity. As anyone who lives in Austin knows, there’s not a hotel room or guest cottage vacant in town, nor a conference room or event space available to book. “We’ll have the new JW Marriott hotel this year, the largest hotel in Austin, and in two years we’ll have the Fairmont, so those will allow for a little growth…. But I think if you poll most attendees, they’d say they don’t want it to get any bigger. It’s big enough.”
Limiting the size of the conference must come as somewhat of a relief to Forrest, whose relatively small staff of 25 is overwhelmed with work. This year, with an expected attendance roughly equal to that of 2014, a different kind of growth tops the team’s agenda: It will build three subject-area verticals focused on sports, fashion, and food (SXSports, SXStyle, and SouthBites; see sidebar). These subconferences aim to better serve those who have attended the Interactive festival in previous years and to draw in new headliners, like chef and publishing innovator David Chang of New York’s Momofuku empire, Andrew Zimmern of the Travel Channel, and Victor Cruz, wide receiver of the New York Giants.
Forrest is most excited about a fourth new track that doesn’t have its own title, but parallels a big change in the city. “We’re doing more this year on health and med tech,” he says. “We’re going to have a two-day expo at the JW Marriott. It will be fun to see how that plays out, partly because it’s the result of a conscious decision to follow what Austin is doing with the new [University of Texas] med school and with the Innovation Zone”—the city’s planned med-tech corridor along the east side of downtown.
On top of this new focus is the mother ship: the overall SXSW Interactive conference. The event’s popularity is fueled by the attendees’ raging appetite for compelling and high-profile speakers, parties, and demos. With blockbuster talks in recent years by the likes of Chelsea Clinton and inventor Elon Musk, plus satellite appearances from fugitives Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Kim Dotcom, there’s a lot to live up to.
For this year, Forrest anticipates great things from Walter Isaacson, head of the Aspen Institute and author of two of the most important tech-world books of the past five to 10 years: Steve Jobs, the biography of the Apple founder, and The Innovators, a history of the digital revolution. He’s also looking forward to the return to Austin of the influential business author Daniel Pink. And the venture capitalist Bill Gurley, who will appear with author Malcolm Gladwell, should make waves, Forrest says. “He’s never spoken at SXSW before. He was one of the people who came out with this proclamation in late summer that the [tech] bubble was really in danger of bursting, and that sent the start-up community into something of a tizzy.” It goes without saying that, for Forrest, sending people into another tizzy is exactly what he hopes Gurley will do here.
It’s notable that two of the speakers Forrest is most enthusiastic about are authors; he harbors dreams of one day becoming an author himself, he says—“when I grow up.” He’ll certainly have the material. SXSW, and the Interactive portion in particular, has been on a wild ride, as has Austin in the last 20 years, but Forrest is a man who has learned to roll with the punches and handle chaos with remarkable aplomb.
If you’ve ever seen him walking the halls of the Convention Center during the conference, you’d be forgiven for mistaking him for just a local wandering through, not the power-broker mastermind of the whole event. At 6-feet-5, he has long legs and a relaxed stride. He favors jeans, comfortable shoes, and colorful dress shirts—today it’s a pearl-snap Western number with a faint yellow rose pattern and a sprawling, floppy collar—that make him look like your typical hip Central Austin dad.
An Austin native who grew up in Tarrytown and now lives in Hyde Park, Forrest is aware of the changes the city has undergone and of SXSW’s role in the transformation. He’s deeply attached to many of the local institutions that make the city unique, and he’s equally optimistic about its prospects for remaining distinct, only in new ways.
He offers an example: “From a conference organizer’s standpoint, I’m excited about the new JW Marriott and all the new guest and meeting rooms,” he says. “And as an Austin native, I’m disappointed that Las Manitas, the taquería that used to be there, is gone. That place was the epitome of Austin—you’d see Karl Rove at one table and somebody ultraliberal at the next—and it was paved over to make way for this hotel. That’s a parable of what has happened to Austin. Yet I think Austin is still a great place, a very creative place. And for every one of those quirky businesses that becomes a casualty of growth, there are two or three quirky businesses that pop up somewhere else with the new generation of Austin.”
SXSW has experienced a remarkably similar dynamic. Listen to any longtime attendee, and there’s a good chance he or she will tell stories of the glory days and lament the conference’s size today and the influence of major corporations. Forrest is not blind to this, and as with the city’s development, he’s come to accept it as a necessary change. “There is a degree of churn to the event,” he says. “People who have been attending for two or three years, they’ll say, ‘I don’t need to go to Austin this year.’ And that’s always kind of a bummer to hear, but if it were the exact same people attending every year, it would be like a high-school reunion—it just gets boring after a while.”
This is not to say that churn and change aren’t issues that require a lot of active management. “The strength of Interactive is that we have so many different things going on; it’s absolute sensory overload,” Forrest says. “At the same time, the weakness is that you have so many things going on that it’s absolute sensory overload, and that can make it hard for anyone to understand where they should be going, what they’re missing, and how it all works.”
The new subject-area tracks are one strategy SXSW has used to help people navigate the chaos. At the same time, Forrest argues that getting the most out of the conference requires being open to serendipity and having a willingness to explore the unknown. “One of the things we encourage people not to do is to go to sessions they know a lot about. Go to something you don’t know anything about; make a new connection.”
But besides managing the sheer scale of SXSW Interactive, the bigger issue is managing the growing cost of it. Not only has the price of a registration badge increased, but hotel rooms, Airbnb rentals, and airfares usually soar in early March. To some extent, that’s a function of one of the hallmarks of the conference’s success: the presence of larger brands, not just the Googles and Twitters of the world but also Subway and Oreo. “The irony is that these corporate people are coming here, and they can afford the higher prices, so they are essentially helping drive up the prices for everyone, and that can drive out the very people they want to connect with”—the young, upstart innovators.
To continue drawing new faces and thinkers and the next wave of start-up founders, the conference is establishing scholarship programs with leading universities, including Stanford, MIT, and Carnegie Mellon. Similarly, there’s been a big push to sign up a more diverse crowd of speakers, including three keynotes by women this year, the most ever, in hopes of drawing more diverse attendees.
Ultimately the goal of the conference is for people to find their own ideal mix of business and pleasure, drinking and learning, order and chaos. And that’s what keeps Forrest, in his 21st year on the job, motivated. “The most rewarding part of it all is hearing from people who have been to the event who say it had some kind of impact on them. They got a new job because of SXSW, married someone they met here, or started a business with someone. It’s neat to think you can have that kind of impact on people.”
photography by bryan schutmaat (forrest); jamil muhaisen (expo); by andri tambunan (bajofondo); nicole fara silver (band of skulls); nam chau (think sxsw); koury angelo photography (b.o.b.); shirlaine forrest/wireimage (white); scott legato/getty images (bruno); jean-francois monier/afp/getty images (barnett)