‘We Were Just Legendarily Cheap’ and Other Secrets to SXSW’s Success

Author: Barbara Palmer       

SXSW Executive Director Mike Shea, interviewed in NYC by Visit Austin Executive Vice President Steve Genovesi.

Visit Austin brought a taste of the city to New York City last Thursday, when the CVB hosted planners and media at “Austin House NYC,” serving up tacos and live music at a co-working space in Manhattan’s Flatiron District. A highlight of the event was an informal hour-long conversation with the affable Mike Shea, executive director of SXSW, the 31-year-old music, film, and technology festival which ranks as one of the event industry’s biggest success stories.

It was a homecoming in a way: Not many are aware, Shea said, that the roots of SXSW go back to New York and an event called The New Music Seminar, which, in the 1980s, was the second-biggest music-industry event in the world. A musician who also worked for a meeting management company, Shea was among a contingent of musicians and journalists who regularly came to Manhattan to pitch the Austin music industry at the event’s annual trade show.

At some point, realizing how many people were making the trek from Austin to NYC, the New Music Seminar’s organizers traveled to the Texas capital to talk to locals about whether they would support them in their efforts to produce a version of the music festival there, Shea said. He was at the meeting, held at the Continental Club on South Congress Avenue, and the response in Austin was positive. The New Music Seminar “was a big-ass deal,” he said.

But the New Yorkers decided to pass. A group of locals then asked, “Well, do you mind if we do it?” recalls Shea, and got the go-ahead. One of the reasons that New Music Seminar organizers dropped the idea, he added, is “that they could not imagine that any large number of people would come to Austin” for a music festival.

Which was, in hindsight, was a slight miscalculation. The very first SXSW, held in 1987, had 700 attendees. Last March, more than 70,000 people bought badges for the 2018 festival, which was held in the Austin Convention Center and numerous other venues. The event has expanded far beyond music to include education, technology, film, food, and much more.  There were 5,000 presenters and 2,100 sessions on an agenda that stretched for two weeks. Approximately 430,000 people attended some part of SXSW, which includes free community concerts.

 Shea officially joined the SXSW staff in its third year, and now oversees six departments, including managing staff, conference planning, festival production, registration, credential processing, and hotel contracting. Changes have come with the event’s massive growth and global popularity — about 25 percent of its attendees are from outside the U.S. — but Shea hews closely to many of the same basic practices and principles that have been in place from the start, he said. Some examples: 

Pay attention to the budget. From the beginning “we were just legendarily cheap,” Shea said. ”We decided we would operate on a budget, and spend as little money as possible” while still providing a good experience. For instance, reluctant to spend money on signage, Shea once asked volunteers to paint cardboard boxes white and stack them into large “signage towers.” “Everyone said, ‘Hey that’s cool,’”  Shea said. “I said, ‘Yeah, it costs $5.’” As the festival has grown in size and scope, paying attention to the bottom line remains a crucial part of the festival’s success, he said. In addition to doing things yourself, Shea recommends bartering for things. “When you do spend money, get multiple bids.”  

Be zealous about the schedule. “I go to a lot of events,” Shea said. “Some of them run on time.” But the ones that don’t “just drive me nuts. What is a schedule for if people can’t rely on it? We are just fanatical about having the trains run on time so that people can get from this thing to that thing. The experience of the attendee has always had to be as good as we could make it. Everything has to run on time.”

Keep the personal touch. When it comes to maintaining personal relationships, “’I’m not just old school, I am really old school,” Shea said. He’s worked with many of the same vendors for the last 30 years, and is on a first-name basis with many of people who are on front lines at the convention center, from the custodial staff to F&B operations, he said. “It’s good business practice. These are the people who can make or break an event, no matter how small or how big it is. I think that it’s super important.”

Develop technology in response to issues, not merely to add bells and whistles. SXSW’s popular “Panel Picker” — an online platform that collects user-generated session proposals and allows the public to vote on them — is a case in point. It was developed, Shea said, as a way to keep the conference content fresh and relevant to the people who come year after year. In 2018, SXSW received more than 70,000 submissions.  

Another is a “Red-Yellow-Green” app feature, developed after SXSW attendees found themselves stuck in huge lines outside of the most popular sessions. “It was just a clogged-up scenario with people trying to get in,” Shea said. “It was a big problem and we knew we had to address it.”  

One part of the solution was analog — more people were assigned at the doors to check credentials and physical lines were reorganized. The second solution is a system embedded in the app which alerts attendees in real time of the capacity remaining in specific sessions by assigning them color values corresponding to traffic lights. Red means a session is full; yellow means that it is filling up, but still has seats; and green means go, it’s wide open. The lights also appear on the online schedule listing and on a flat-panel “Event Status Board” installed around the Austin Convention Center and other venues.

A bonus tip? If you have the luxury of having staff, Shea said, “I found what really works is is to hire people smarter than you, that have more energy than you, and, certainly, have more engaging personalities. And then just kind of lead them from behind.”