Here are excerpts from this week’s Studio Session between Todd and Mixing Board founder Sean Garrett. Todd and Sean talk about SXSW’s wild ride, the post-COVID future of events and what the next SXSW might be.
Mixing Board community member Todd Hansen spent the last decade scouting the next big thing as the Head of Conference Programming and Strategy for SXSW. In those ten years, he definitely saw some things as he interconnected the interactive, music and film worlds and the personalities therein.
SG: Tell us about your 10 years at SXSW. Your job is year round and it’s the programming, it’s the content, it’s the strategy behind it, but what are you actually doing once it starts? What’s the job once the chaos begins?
TH: Managing expectations and everything else. And also walking roughly eight to 10 miles a day. So it’s a lot of sore feet and a lot of running around. Putting out fires, checking in all the venues and all the staff that are running the venues and just making sure that everybody’s okay. It’s a lot of just management of not only the talent that’s coming in to talk, but also just everybody’s emotional state that’s supporting SXSW as far as the staff goes. So our big thing was working at SXSW means you don’t go to SXSW. You stockpile a huge amount of knowledge about the event that you’re going to be putting on and all the things that could go right and could go wrong. And then you just get shot out of a cannon at 7:30 in the morning the first day. And you just go.
SG: Obviously COVID changed everything last year, but looking back, what was it like experiencing the massive growth of SXSW as a brand, a thing, an event, but also the perceptions of it changing? What was that like?
TH: I remember specifically my first all-staff meeting at SXSW. Every meeting started with the number of badge sales. And I remember when they read the interactive number, and there was a collective “whoa” in the room. And that’s when I kind of knew, “This is really new for them. They’re really surprised. This is probably super scary. This has probably been a long time coming. And what do we do?”
How do you start building systems that are able to handle this crazy incoming? And what do you talk about? And where do you put all these bodies? And how do you expand the content? So it became kind of a survival mode, content play of, “Cool, let’s fire up this track of programming around space and space exploration because it sounds people are really into it and we can put them over there,” because we were just running into massive capacity issues. So it was really interesting to watch logistics play that role in pushing what honestly the conference really was about, because at the time, there weren’t all the hotels that there are now in Austin. So we were running out of space to put people. We just didn’t have the traditional conference space room to start producing this kind of stuff. I think we had the convention center and maybe three other hotels where we could actually do stuff. So watching that growth happen, it was just kind of a blur. SXSW at that time was like a 30-year-old startup. They’d been just kind of going and plugging away and staying honest to who they were and are, and really cultivating a super strong community and kind of what they were doing was product market fit. And then they just went.
SG: Let’s get to kind of this weird state we’re in now, this in-between state and where we’re going. I know you’re working with Fortune on some conferences that are coming up. What is your sense of when people are actually going to get on airplanes and go to conferences and wear lanyards again?
TH: I think it depends where you live. I’ll stay specific to the United States. I mean, I think small gathering kind of stuff, depending on how it’s pulled off, I would say late fall. I think that it depends on people’s comfort level, and I think there will have to be some sort of, obviously, protocol around proving vaccination or something like that. I don’t really know, but I would say late fall would be gatherings of maybe 100 to 200 people where you still kind of have control over how people are interacting. I think super large scale stuff — if South By were to be pulled off in person again, if they’re looking to 2022 as a possibility, I think that’s a pretty comfortable place. I think logistics of an event will change dramatically, at least in this weird gray area interim.
SG: What do we want conferences to look like moving forward? What did we learn from our time away from them that might inform kind of how we do it differently? Now that we’ve had this massive reset, what do people want to do?
TH: People really want to get back together in person. The pendulum will really swing hard toward people getting, getting face to face and getting their communities back together. How a conference is actually done probably won’t really change that much because there’s interesting ways to kind of create groupings, get people together, having mutual experience and creating, not just networking opportunities, but creating just abilities to meet new people and explore new ideas. And I think people will be so hungry for that.
At the same time, with the amount of money that’s been poured into virtual platforms for events and how most events have gotten pretty good at leveraging them, it will become more acceptable for people to join physical events virtually. I can imagine South By will continue to produce some form of virtual delivery mechanism.
SG: How do you recreate the sensory experience that in-person events provide in the new virtual environment? If virtual programming is here to stay, what best practices or ideas that you have that really stick?
TH: I’ve seen a few really bad examples of what can happen. The ones that make the most sense is, if you want to break people out into smaller groups, keep it to five, maybe eight top, make sure that it’s facilitated, make sure that it has a goal, make sure that you’ve thought through what you want those groups to be talking about, or at least kind of the cues, and put somebody on camera in there from your team, or that’s trusted from the outside who’s good at moderating things and pulling things out of people and steering conversation. I don’t think we replicate the in-person spontaneity, but I think if it’s facilitated properly, there are people who are really good at that, and it can feel a modicum of normal.
SG: So Todd, Clubhouse. What’s up?
TH: When I joined Clubhouse, I thought, “Oh cool. It’s live radio. That’s fun.” I’m old enough to know live radio I guess. It’s the reiteration of something else, that’s great. Obviously they’ve got moderation issues and problems, and there’s probably a lot of bad stuff going on that doesn’t make it to the surface. But I think if done with the right strategy, it’s a super cool passive experience people can have, an audio first thing that you can miss out on. So yeah, it will draw an audience, and almost like any panel, any kind of moderated conversation, having at least a lifeguard in there to help steer things, or be there in case naturally, the energy of the participants doesn’t flow right, is probably an important thing. It’s the next iteration of podcasts to a degree.
SG: I feel like the one thing we haven’t lacked for in the last year is panel conversations or interviews or content in general, but we obviously haven’t had that kind of human interaction or group interaction in person. But I’m curious whether panels just continue online. I mean, why go to a conference and watch three people up on stage talking to each other, if you could do that on a video and not have to deal with flying somewhere? And I think challenge/opportunity moving forward is, where people are striving for even deeper emotional connection, how do you create an experience that provides that? I think something interesting can come from it, but I’m not smart enough to know what that is.
TH: I think it really will put an onus on people who are doing events, exactly where you’re going to do it. What is the space? What is the place? The strength of SXSW, one, is SXSW, but two, Austin. Austin’s popularity grows right alongside SXSW. They’re symbiotic. And people, if they go to SXSW a few times, they develop a relationship with the city as much as they do with the event and the experience that they have at the event, kind of coming and seeing your favorite band and the experience that you’re having around it, and you’re just getting on the plane joyful.
I think one of the more fun conferences that I would go to just to check out was C2 in Montreal, which was put on by the nonprofit side of Cirque du Soleil. Think Cirque du Soleil production values, but also think taking one-on-one meetings in a netted tube hanging from 20 feet in the air that you have to crawl up to… that kind of stuff, where so much is put into the experience and the content is good, and it’s also in Montreal. This doesn’t mean that it fits everybody’s idea of what they want to do, but telling people to come to Vegas and try to have some sort of great cathartic experience at a conference, it’s probably not going to happen.
SG: So, is SXSW the next SXSW?
TH: I think so. SXSW has been doing what they’ve been doing for so long. It takes so long to get there, and they just have this wonderful symbiotic relationship with the city. A city that was doing and having the exact same thing happen to it.
We did one thing every year at South By. There’s no parent company. Everything was done pretty much in-house.
And so it was a staff of 180 people dedicated all year long to do a 10-day event.When you think about it, that’s crazy, in a good way, but if people are going to try to do events or spin up kind of an event series as part of their brand, I think I would say it’s worth hiring internally a team of people, even if it’s just one or two, that that is all they’re doing, don’t give it to somebody that’s like, “You can tackle this. This is your side thing.” People won’t get the result that they want, or as strong of a result as they could get by having some dedicated people.
SG: What are the characteristics of a successful event? If someone was planning an event, what are the things that you just need to do, in order to make it successful?
TH: It starts first with strong editorial on what you’re going to talk about and why, and how to carry that narrative through your event. Even if it’s just one day or if it’s three days, two days, whatever, I think that’s first. Second, balance between content and casual get together time, and freedom and space for people to just get away. So again, that goes back into the environment that they’re in, the location. And more is not better in terms of content. So if you think it’s really cool to smash together 17 sessions that are 15 minutes long because you think that that’s going to help keep people’s attention, your interviewer is going to get off maybe three questions tops. So think about that, too. Pay attention to those small details, and the greater good starts to just naturally unfold.
Do pay attention to how things look, and also the greatest value to get speakers in is to provide them with something, with a takeaway afterwards, so make sure that you’re capturing it.
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This interview is part of a regular series of “Studio Sessions” with Mixing Board members. The live interview includes the Mixing Board community and invited guests. We regularly share highlights of many of those conversations here.