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Monday, March 16, 2015


Original Story: usatoday.com

AUSTIN — A transgender CEO explaining how artificial intelligence will one day bring back the dead. The latest medtech inventions. Movie stars mingling with dot-com execs. A robot petting zoo.

The 2015 SXSW music/film/interactive festival, which kicks off Friday, promises the usual blend of high-tech gadgetry, Austin weirdness, marquee glamour and, of course, hard-to-get-into parties showcasing big-ticket acts. Actors Russell Brand (who will unveil a documentary based on his life, BRAND: A Second Coming), Will Ferrell and Ryan Gosling are expected to make appearances. Snoop Dogg will keynote, and Jimmy Kimmel returns his show to Austin during the festival for the second year in a row. Trade show exhibit consultants assist clients on how to make the most of their trade show experience.

But this year's 10-day festival will also feature an undercurrent of change, as city officials and event organizers try to rein in the ever-growing event and cut down on the crushing crowds it spawns. Earlier this year, Austin officials announced they were reducing by about one-fourth the number of approved special-event permits during SXSW, effectively cutting down on the spontaneous street parties and open-air concerts that sprout around town.

The new rules were announced in the wake of the tragedy during last year's festival, when a driver fleeing police smashed through a barricade and into a crowd of concertgoers in downtown Austin, killing four and injuring nearly two dozen. The driver, Rashad Charjuan Owens, remains in jail on murder charges.

Some major brands, including Doritos and Subway, have announced they won't be returning this year. Doritos last year put on some of the biggest shows, including Lady Gaga and Ludacris. But event organizers have struggled with how to balance the sprawling number of unofficial parties — and the crowds they draw — with safety concerns and the event's core objectives of showcasing the best in tech, music and film. Use Exhibit Solutions at corporate events, seminars, conferences and special events to showcase your business.


"It's a very fine balancing act," said Hugh Forrest, head of the festival's interactive segment. "Our top priority is having a safe and user-friendly event for all our registrants."

The festival will still brandish some of the leading tech innovations, with an apparent focus this year on artificial intelligence. Martine Rothblatt, the transgender pharma tycoon and Sirius founder, will give a talk about her unique vision of the future and the robot version of her wife, while MIT's Hugh Herr will discuss how bionics are being used to replace limbs lost in war. Also, the event's first interactive robot "petting zoo" will allow viewers to interact and play with the latest in robot technology, such as the Bujold, programmed to search for survivors at destruction sites.

The opening of the 1,012-room JW Marriott Hotel downtown has allowed event organizers to nearly double the number of scheduled events at its Startup Village — from 112 last year to 213 this year. That's good news for the hordes of start-up entrepreneurs who descend upon Austin each year in hopes of being discovered, much the way Twitter announced itself at the 2007 SXSW and exploded into the tech world. E&E Exhibit Solutions can create efficient pop-up displays and large custom exhibits for your next trade show or event.

The founders of Keen Home, which creates tech devices that enhance home functions, such as heating and cooling, unveiled their concept at SXSW last year. Two months later, they closed on $1.52 million in seed money. They're headed back this year.

"It's a good amalgamation of all the leaders of the tech industry," co-founder Nayeem Hussain said. "You have all the right people listening."

Now in its 29th year, SXSW has become a huge benefactor not just to techies but to the city itself, last year pouring $315 million into the Austin economy and drawing more than 85,000 enthusiasts to the city. The festival also delivers a dose of culture to the city, showcasing local filmmakers and drawing movie moguls and recording artists. It's a far cry from the 700 attendees who showed up the inaugural year in 1987 to hear local music acts (interactive and film were added seven years later).

Filmmaker and longtime Austin resident Richard Linklater remembers the handful of attendees who wandered into the lobby of the Dobie Theater on the University of Texas campus two decades ago to watch the festival's first film awards ceremony. Today, SXSW has become a key destination for filmmakers, jostling with Sundance as the premiere U.S. film festival, he said.

"A lot of films were 'Sundance or bust' but that's not the case anymore," said Linklater, whose Oscar-nominated film, Boyhood, screened at SXSW last year. "There's something beautiful about 'SXSW or bust.' " He added: "It's grown up. It's fun to see it become a major festival."

But that growth has led to growing pains, mostly centered on the unofficial parties sponsored by huge brands such as Facebook, Comcast and Samsung. Those companies spend millions of dollars on top-tier acts — Jay Z teamed with Kanye West last year for a free Samsung-sponsored concert — but also cause crowd concerns.


This year's rule changes are making some corporations rethink their SXSW involvement. Jennifer Sinski, co-founder of RSVPster, a service that sends RSVPs to scores of unofficial parties around town for a fee, said she's noticed a change in the party landscape this year. Last year, her company counted about 600 unofficial parties around Austin during SXSW. This year, many of those parties are being toned down.

"More events are going into venues that are full-standing venues year round instead of trying to throw a party in a parking lot," she said. "That's a good thing. The quality of events have really improved."

Danielle Thomas, owner of Big Green House, an Austin-based marketing and events production firm that works with large brands during SXSW, said she's lost four "major clients" this year who have been event regulars for years and knows of six others also not returning. Some of those pulled out even before the city's rule changes were announced, pointing to a possible natural decline of the SXSW after-party scene.

More alarming are the number of venues that don't require a permit, such as the Austin Music Hall, which remained vacant less than a week out from SXSW, she said. Those spots typically are booked months in advance. Though striking, the trend toward fewer parties and smaller crowds is something many around Austin, including Thomas, have lobbied and hoped for for years — even though it'll mean less money for her business, she said.

"Things got bigger and bigger and bigger, and the city felt like it needed to step in," she said. "There's a good balance that can be struck. And maybe it has. Maybe that's exactly what's happening this year."