Post Pandemic and SXSW 2021: An Interview with Hugh Forrest
We talk to Hugh Forrest, Chief Programming Officer at South By Southwest (SXSW), about the challenges of putting together a festival with 250,000+ attendees in the middle of a pandemic and about the future of SXSW in a post-COVID19 world.
ActivateenCC is a series of community chats that seeks to bridge the intergenerational gap and promote greater understanding. We speak with parents, influencers, subject matter experts and connect the dots through the lens of generation Z. Our subjects range from well-being, work and everything in between.
Hugh: I’ve been at SXSW for 30 years, and I was actually the first paid employee when I first joined in 1989. Some people have told me I should call myself the founding employee, which sounds a little bit bogus [laughs]. When I started at SXSW, I had no idea that the event would grow into the scale and size it has now, so it has been an incredible ride to watch the transformation up close and to see how the event has shaped the city [Austin, TX].
Shaku: COVID-19 has disrupted our world as we know it and our lives. What were some of the hurdles and what was the silver lining? I would love to hear about how you all worked through this.
Hugh: I appreciate your confidence that we have worked through it, but I think we’re still very much in the process of trying to work through it with everyone else [laughs]. I sometimes say that, in our best days, SXSW is the place where we come to learn about the future; where you see the trends that are shaping the world. Unfortunately, that was the case this year with COVID-19, in the sense that we were one of the first big events in the United States to be cancelled. SXSW always happens in the second week of March, and we were certainly aware of COVID-19 in February, monitoring it closely with Austin Public Health (APH) in terms of whether the event was going to be able to go forward, and it seemed like we were going to be able to slide in before it. Things rapidly started changing in late February, early March and the city ended up cancelling us on March 6th. Looking back at it 4 months later, it was absolutely the right decision. It was devastating, both personally and professionally to not put on an event that you’ve worked on so hard for so long. We also had to lay off some of the staff, which was incredibly hard to do.
As painful as this pandemic is for some people, I think we’re going to learn some new skills and come out even stronger. — Hugh Forrest
Two months ago we announced SXSW Online 2021. This is next year’s event and it will largely be virtual, but there’s a small chance that we will have a physical event. We’re very cognizant and aware of the challenges of an online event. We have done live streams, but have never put together a full significant online event like we’re planning to in 2021. But we’re also very aware that there’s opportunity in every crisis! One of the most relevant silver linings is that, with the online event, price points come down significantly, making it more accessible to people that may have been shut out in the past years due to the increasing prices. We are also excited about the fact that an online event will make it easier for more international people to be involved, taking away the factor of having to travel all the way to Austin and having to pay for a hotel room. And the third thing about an online event that I think will mitigate one of our biggest pain points is that, in the last decade, some sessions, screenings and showcases were too crowded. But with an online experience, if there are 5,000 people who want to see the same speaker, they can all get in, whereas the biggest room in the Austin Convention Center could only hold 1,800 people. And we’re also excited to have a hybrid event moving forward into 2022, assuming that the vaccines go as planned.
We also need to think about how to create great, robust networking opportunities within that online experience. People come to conferences and seminars for many reasons. One of them is simply information, but beyond that is the ability to network and meet new people that can help your career, who can inspire you, who can be mentors to you, who can counsel you or who can invest in your company. That kind of network is not quite as intuitive in an online space, so we’re working on a couple of strategies to facilitate that as much as possible. — Hugh Forrest
Santiago: You already mentioned that one of the things that was going to change and that was going to make next year’s event easier was the amount of people that could attend a session. What are some other things that are changing? What are some other adaptations that you guys are doing?
Hugh: The footprint of SXSW 2021 is simply smaller than what we’ve done in the past 10–15 years. Whereas we had been 9 or 10 days, for 2021 the event will go for 5 days. We will also have slightly less content from a conference perspective as well as from a music festival perspective. Less means that, in a real world event, we had over 2,000 panels, and for 2021 it will more likely be 500 or so. It’s still more than what only one person can absorb, but it is significantly less than before. And again, that is a result of the challenges of producing all of that online when we don’t have much experience.
Sarah: This last year, technology has been evolving so rapidly and we’ve had to adapt to it so quickly. What do you think we should be focusing on as far as tech trends?
Hugh: If we have learned anything in these past years is that technology is incredibly empowering, but we also need to be more mindful about all the potential negative consequences of it. That is something we should focus on as we move forward. And it terms of technologies that I think will be very relevant, where we start is where we are right now. Technologies such as Zoom that have powered us through the pandemic, work from home technologies and technologies that bring us together.
I have been at SXSW for far too long and I’ve seen it move from a mainly music event to covering film and technology to something that now brings together politicians, athletes, chefs, people from the gaming industry, and all kinds of people from all these different industries. And the commonality amongst these speakers, attendees and community is extreme creativity. That’s the thing that hasn’t changed in 30 years. SXSW focuses on very creative people, bringing creative people together. And it certainly goes without saying that if we’re going to make it through the challenges covid, the challenges of a pandemic, the challenges of working from home and being socially isolated for so long, we’re going to have to be incredibly creative in terms of our process and approach to the life we knew for so long. — Hugh Forrest
Santiago: Moving forward, as far as the skills that the world needs, what skill sets should young listeners get to be able to offer the world what it actually needs?
Hugh: I always say that you are better prepared for many opportunities in the world if you know about a lot of different things as opposed to knowing a ton about just one particular topic. And one of the things that we encourage at SXSW is that, if you’re involved with social media and you come to SXSW, great! But avoid the panels on social media. Instead, go to the sports-related sessions or the food sessions and that way you’ll expand your network, your knowledge, and your number of opportunities.
Shaku: Hugh, I’m always amazed at how gracious you are. Whenever we email you, and I’m sure your inbox has thousands of emails, you’re always the first to respond. What are some of your life hacks to stay on top of things?
Hugh: I don’t think I have too many life hacks [laughs]. The thing that I’ve embraced a lot more in recent years is waking up early during the week and trying to get in an hour or two of processing emails before my day starts. Everyone hates waking up early, but I convinced myself that it’s painful to wake up whenever you wake up, so just get it over with!
Santiago: If you could give any advice to your teen self, what would you say to him?
Hugh: My two-point advice would be to just be patient, it’s a journey. I didn’t know at 18 or 19 what I wanted to do with my life. Other people did and that was great, but for me it has been a journey. I think that the most interesting people with the most interesting careers are the ones that have embraced that journey. And the other thing that I would advise, and that I totally dropped the ball on, it’s being more aggressive in learning foreign languages. I believe that that is a really important skill, to be able to communicate with different cultures. And that has never been more important than it is now.
Shaku: Hugh, this was fantastic! Thank you so much for joining us.
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