Here it comes.
In less than a month, downtown Austin will again be transformed and foot-trafficked into exhaustion when South by Southwest begins on March 9. How many people will there be? Last year, SXSW conference events attracted 70,696 attendees and the entire event, including festival shows, had 421,900 direct participants, according to SXSW.
With a schedule in place, a heavy roster of major keynotes and featured speakers announced, and the city of Austin’s permit list released, it’s becoming clearer some of the things we can expect from SXSW 2018. We also had an inside source: the event’s director of content Hugh Forrest and others from the staff visited the American-Statesman to give us some more insight into changes, highlights and what they hope to improve this year.
Changes and what’s new
One word you will never stop hearing at SXSW is “Convergence.” It’s been a topic for about two decades at SXSW: How technology, music, film and other industries continue to cross over. SXSW itself has been converging as it has expanded the ways badgeholders can access events.
Last year was the first time, for instance, that Interactive badgeholders could attend more film screenings and music showcases.
Forrest said there was some confusion on who could access what. “We’re becoming more accustomed to it and attendees are becoming more accustomed to how that works,” he said.
More attendees having access to more events means less availability for some wristband holders and those trying to buy single passes for music shows or film screenings, he acknowledged. To that end, SXSW plans to roll out a tool that shows how much space is available at panels, screenings and some music shows.
Forrest said full panel rooms have been a point of frustrations and the new tool, which SXSW plans to launch and test starting Monday, will for the first time give a better sense of whether it’s worth walking to a venue to try to get in.
Also new for 2018: Assuming the new Fairmont Austin hotel opens on time, it will provide 1,048 new hotel rooms and lots of conference space for SXSW, making it one of the top venues for the event. Forrest said content that has typically been found at the Hyatt Austin Downtown will move over to the Fairmont.
In a written statement, SXSW said: “We’ve had daily updates and site visits with the Fairmont executive team and we’re confident they’re on track and will be ready for SXSW. While we don't expect the opening to be delayed, we do have contingency plans in place."
Last year, Austin was dealing with the absence of ride hailing companies Lyft and Uber. This year, both companies are fully operational in town.
SXSW also plans to do much more podcasting, making audio versions of some sessions available as early as the next day, Forrest said. There will also be a podcast stage at the Convention Center for live recordings.
Some sessions will also be scheduled to repeat: Forrest said encore presentations of some panels will be offered and SXSW wants to do a better job making sure attendees are aware of them in advance.
Health has been an increasingly important topic at SXSW. For the first time, South by Southwest will host a free Wellness Expo at the Palmer Events Center March 10-11.
Last year, politics dominated SXSW with sessions under the title “Tech Under Trump” and keynote speakers including former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.
This year, it’s likely the #metoo movement will be a hot topic throughout SXSW. SXSW hinted it will be adding more content related to that in the weeks leading up to the fest. Currently, some panels around the subject of women’s rights include a keynote from philanthropist Melinda Gates, a panel on sexual misconduct in the music industry, an opening session from Techfugees CEO Josephine Goubet and a panel on female voices of film Twitter. A session featuring Christiane Amanpour and tech journalist Kara Swisher is also expected to delve into the subject.
Cryptocurrency will be a major tech track this year, so much so that SXSW is doing a blockchain set of programming March 14-15 in addition to other related panels throughout the week.
Other stuff to look out for
City permit information has given us an idea of what some of the big downtown installations will likely be (these are typically unofficial; SXSW doesn’t run them).
The Fader Fort will return, no surprise, and the new reboot of TV’s “Roseanne” and a Warner Bros. TV & DC Comics Pop-Up Shop are listed.
If we had to bet on big installations to come, I’d say “Westworld” is likely to have a big presence given its big panel of stars and creators and upcoming new season on HBO.
(Update: this has been confirmed)
And given that author and “Black Panther” comics writer Ta-Nehisi Coates is a keynote, would it be too much to ask for a Marvel/”Black Panther” pop-up?
If you’re a coffee addict, there’ll be a Roasters Village at Southbites with brews from around the world.
And if you want to seem smart in the hallways of SXSW venues, you could talk about artificial intelligence, international relations and immigration, or why you care about local politics and will be attending the City Summit track on March 12-13.
More updates? Past announcements? You can find them on our 512tech SXSW page, or visit Austin360’s for Music and Film-related news. We’ll be drilling down in more detail on this year’s event in the coming weeks.
Update: an earlier version of this story stated the wrong number of new hotel rooms that The Fairmont will bring to Austin. The correct number is 1,048.