Are changes to seating policies causing friction and frustration at SXSW 2017? 

Posted March 13th, 2017

It’s certainly not a new problem at South by Southwest: for as long as there have been lots of people attending the conference, particularly the Interactive portion, there have been full panels and grumbling people waiting outside with hopes of getting in. (For high-profile speakers and keynotes there’s typically a spillover room or a screen outside for people to watch a video feed.)

This year, however, there have been a few changes to how seating for panels is handled and it might be affecting whether at-capacity panels are really full or not.

When a panel is filled, for instance, volunteers control the flow of who goes in and out. For a panel such as Sunday’s Bob Odenkirk interview with Fred Armisen, no one was being allowed to enter the room, even as attendees inside were leaving the discussion, presumably leaving empty seats inside.

Those who didn’t get in watched a video feed outside of the panel, but were not given any hope that they’d get in later, a change from years past.

SXSW organizers say fire codes are behind a new policy to not allow people to come back into a panel after they leave, especially if there’s a line. Fire codes are also behind the new rule that attendees can no longer stand in the back or sit along the aisles (which can be useful when you have a dead laptop that needs charging).

Hugh Forrest, SXSW’s director of programming, said on Sunday that the loss of the one-person-in/one-person-out panel policy is not set in stone. He said if volunteers notice a large clump of people are exiting a panel, they have the discretion to allow those still in line to get in. But he said that the goal this year was to avoid the distractions and disruptions that can be caused by people coming in during the middle of a panel.

Another issue that seems to be plaguing SXSW this year: video feed problems for some of its largest presentations. The feed to a spillover room reportedly cut out during former Vice President Joe Biden’s talk, as it did during keynote Jennifer Doudna’s presentation and a keynote from Cory Richards.

Have you had trouble getting into panels or adjusting to this year’s changes? Let us know in the comments section below. We’ll also update this post with any further comments from SXSW organizers.