While the city of Austin continues to find solutions to tourism issues such as hotel room shortages and transportation concerns, the region is providing something to visitors that other cities find hard to replicate, according to a panel of festival experts. Austin has the capability to offer a diverse array of activities and entertainment options in a technologically advanced social setting.
"I think the very nature of festival events is undergoing its own revolution, and I think we're very fortunate to be at the forefront of that," said Jon Roberts, a principal at the Austin-based economic development consultant firm TIP Strategies. "No other community I know of has hit that intersection between broader entertainment options that we're presenting and what the electronic media is able to do for it."
Roberts spoke as the economic development representative on a panel hosted by nonprofit group Leadership Austin on Feb. 7. Also on the panel was Geoff Moore, chief sales and marketing officer with Circuit of the Americas; Lisa Hickey, festival marketing director with C3 Presents; and Hugh Forrest, event director of South by Southwest Music and Media Conferences' Interactive festival. Together, the group touched upon several of Austin's strengths that have helped make its festivals international hits.
Moore said what Austin has smartly taken advantage of the instant connection social media websites provide that allow people around the world to participate in these festivals. When YouTube offered live Web streaming of C3's Austin City Limits Music Festival in September, Moore said he was thrilled to be able to watch it in Dallas with his daughter.
"The way you get exposure is that you have a product that people want to share with other people," he said. "This networking effect that technology has brought upon us is a fabulous thing for good products."
Aside from technology, Hickey said incorporating the city's culture, talents and hidden gems also help festivals to surpass expectations.
"When we created [ACL], we really wanted to infuse the personality of Austin into it, and I think that's what made our festival so successful," Hickey said, noting that ACL hosted local food vendors in its food court and a SoCo Art Market to offer selections from local retailers. "You get that flavor and personality of Austin, and it's a great showcase for what we're doing here in the city."
Forrest, who spoke on the measures SXSW organizers are taking to combat the hotel room and transportation issues, said that although these pressures still affect the festival, the growing turnout it sees each year is surprising.
"We're continually amazed that our numbers continue to grow given the lack of hotels, but this Internet generation is fairly smart and adept at finding places to stay," Forrest said, adding that websites like HomeAway.com have helped Austin house its increasing number of visitors in rental properties. "SXSW couldn't happen anywhere else. I've always said that we're a community event. What we've learned is this is not a franchisable thing. This is very much central to what Austin is all about, and central to all the creativity that's in Austin and that's what we try to emphasize at SXSW."
Forrest also noted that SXSW will offer a bicycle rental program during the festival in March to provide another method of transportation for visitors.
"One of the things we'll have this year at SXSW is a bike rental program for people to get around on bikes, but that's a fairly limited number of people that it will service," Forrest said. "So again, this is a challenge, and it's one of the downsides of the event."