Clint Wilkinson’s business is not exactly high-tech.
The bearded entrepreneur, based in the Texas city of Denton, sells handmade leather goods, like wallets or belts, through his company Bell & Oak. But visitors to the South by Southwest Interactive festival could find him Monday on the trade show floor at the Austin Convention Center, situated amid all the latest tech gadgets and apps.
Wilkinson came to the festival as part of a contingent of 28 people from Denton, which is about 40 miles northwest of Dallas. The city's visitors and convention bureau doubled its budget for SXSW Interactive this year, spending $80,000 to showcase Denton and its entrepreneurs, through both its trade show booth and an off-site event.
"We have a firm belief here, and I believe it's true everywhere, that tourism is the front door to economic development," said Kim Phillips, vice president of the Denton Convention and Visitors Bureau. "A person's experience of your sense of place will guide everything about whether you will pursue anything beyond that."
Denton's decision to double down on SXSW Interactive is a microcosm of a bigger story happening at the tech conference. SXSW Interactive has increasingly become a key economic development and tourism event for American cities -- and for other countries that want to be seen as not only a leader in the technology industry, but as welcoming to millennials, the driving force behind many of today's startups and businesses.
This year alone there were dozens of cities, states and countries with a presence at SXSW, such as Germany, Japan, Great Britain and Argentina as well as Tulsa, Atlanta, San Antonio and Amsterdam.
Some cities or countries bought space in the SXSW Trade Show, which can cost anywhere from $3,400 to over $40,000, while others hosted expensive parties off-site that functioned as their own mini-SXSW, with panels featuring tech companies, musicians, celebrities and the all-important free food and drinks.
These events are typically paid for through a combination of corporate sponsorships and local chambers of commerce.
"Part of the attraction is obviously some cultural caché with SXSW as an event," said Peter Lewis, deputy head of sales and exhibitions for South by Southwest. He said the cities and countries that do come "understand the importance of branding."
'Key part of our strategy'
The explosion in the number of cities and countries coming to South by Southwest Interactive was partly organic. But it was also nudged along by SXSW itself, which employs about six people around the globe whose job it is to sell the event to other countries.
"It's imperative for us, we want to be known as an international destination, not only for people wanting to have fun and experience bands and films and the latest technology, but also a business standpoint," Lewis said. "It is a very key part of our strategy."
What that means is the SXSW Trade Show in the Austin Convention Center feels a bit like Disney's Epcot theme park, where visitors sample a given city's or country's culture.
At the SXSW Trade Show's Ireland booth, for instance, there was Guinness beer on tap. The Sweden booth could be confused for an Ikea showroom. Brazil had headphone stations where visitors could sample Brazilian music. And at Denton's booth, there was Wilkinson in a cowboy hat, hand-tooling leather goods.
The festival programming itself featured many panels devoted to international issues or startups, and there were at least 16 U.S. mayors in attendance who were speaking at panels, from cities such as Tacoma, Wash., or Mesa, Ariz.
Outside the trade show, more countries this year took the step of having pop-up events off-site.
What Austinites know as the Wanderlust yoga studio on 4th Street downtown became the "Great Britain House" during SXSW Interactive. Though the United Kingdom has had an official presence at SXSW for many years, Daniel Rutstein, the director of the West Coast of the United States for UK Trade and Investments, said this was the first year they put nearly all of their events off-site. They also have a trade show booth inside the Austin Convention Center.
The Great Britain House was swathed in images of the British flag and functioned like a miniature SXSW, with opening and closing parties, an elevated stage for company demos and lots of free tea.
"South by Southwest is a noisy and busy place," Rutstein said. "It's difficult to make the splash you want to make. We wanted to create this haven of Britishness just down the road from Sixth Street where you can drink tea and hear about British companies."
Mexico, meanwhile, decided to host a four-day event called "Casa Mexico" that included an array of top-level diplomats, business leaders and startups, and popular musicians. And, of course, there were two free drink tickets for every attendee. Casa Mexico was held at the Mexican-American Cultural Center near Rainey Street.
"For us, it's an opportunity to display Mexico's status as a global leader in technology, entrepreneurship and innovation," said Carlos González Gutiérrez, consul general of Mexico in Austin. "At the same time, it will show what people in Texas already know: That Mexico is a country with a vast culture and very diverse traditions."
Other countries that had pop-up events include Germany, which for several years has hosted a "German Haus" at SXSW, and Japan, which had free sushi and karaoke at its Sixth Street headquarters. TV personality Anthony Bourdain also popped by on Monday night to talk about Japanese cuisine. And the countries of Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway, which banded together to create a "Nordic lighthouse" at the Waller Creek boathouse on Lady Bird Lake.
Civic leaders in cities like Atlanta view SXSW Interactive as a chance to woo milliennials.
One way to capture their attention during the carnival-like atmosphere of SXSW is through celebrities. At Austin's Speakeasy club on Congress Avenue, SXSW badgeholders stood in line last Sunday morning for the chance to have a "hangover" brunch with rapper Killer Mike. Only the first 50 SXSW badgeholders in line were allowed in.
Killer Mike -- whose real name is Michael Render -- is from Atlanta, and he was celebrity bait for "Choose ATL," an economic development initiative run by the Metro Atlanta Chamber.
Choose ATL took over Speakeasy for a two-day period during Interactive, hosting their own panels that play to the Southern city's strengths, such as one centered around popular messaging company Yik Yak.
And though the Killer Mike event might seem trivial, there was a strategic purpose behind it: Get milliennials in the door.
"The next generation of economic growth is built on talent attraction, which requires you to go to where the talent is," said Kate Atwood, who leads the ChooseATL effort. "And I think we all can agree that SXSW has become a bit of a mecca for tech talent, music and film talent and the convergence of all three."
Telling their story
For Atlanta and many of the cities and countries that came to Austin for South by Southwest Interactive, being at the conference is a crucial component to "telling their story," a way of re-branding themselves.
Take Washington, D.C., for example. City leaders know that D.C. is primarily associated with politics and the federal government. So for the second year, our nation's capital brought a large contingent of people to SXSW, renting out an entire restaurant outside the Austin Convention Center.
The "WeDC" House had its own panels and events, food and drinks, but with a D.C. twist, such as having a high-ranking official from the U.S. Patent and Trademark office come to speak.
"We want to let people know that D.C. is open for business, that we have a growing, engaging and really supportive tech community," said Julie Weber, director of marketing and communications for the Washington, D.C. Economic Partnership. She said SXSW makes it easy to communicate this message to a worldwide tech audience. A trade show booth makes it a little more difficult to tell that story, Weber said.
"This just gives us a great convening area for all of us to talk about Washington, D.C. in a very authentic way, just because you came in and grabbed a beer," she said. "There's no hard sell, it's not even a soft sell," describing their events as "just a conversation" about D.C.
It can be challenging to accurately measure a "return on investment" on throwing a party at SXSW.
Phillips, head of the Denton tourism agency, said calculating a return on trade shows can be hard to pinpoint. She views SXSW as a valuable opportunity for Denton to gain national and international exposure.
"You look at SXSW as a fertile field," Phillips said. "We are farmers while we are there, and we are casting seeds. Some might have immediate results, some might even take months or years. That's the nature of promotion in that forum."
At Casa Mexico, event organizers told the American-Statesman that some events struggled with poor participation and they probably won't do a four-day event again. Still, Casa Mexico organizers vowed to return next year.
Other cities said they look at measurable activity, such as use of event-specific social media hashtags, or attendance at their events, as a way of determining success.
Weber, from Washington, D.C., said they input all of the business cards they receive into a Google spreadsheet and then follow up with everyone afterward.
She also noted more anecdotal evidence that their efforts were bearing fruit, such as a conversation she had with a Japanese businessman who was interested in bringing startups to the United States.
"They were looking at New York and Boston, and he said 'I never thought about Washington, D.C. for being a community for startups,' " Weber said. "That in and of itself is a successful metric."