Why is SXSW so cheap?March 11, 2006
The most expensive ticket for the 4-day interactive conference is $250. Most technology conferences cost $750 or more. In fact, some are $2,000. How does SXSW manage to produce a 4-day conference with a great line-up of high-profile, talented people for so little? I'll let you in on a little secret.
They put very little money into the conference itself.
The registration process is so painful as to be almost hilarious. Today is the first day of the conference. The first session is at 10am. The organizers are expecting the largest SXSW crowd ever. What time would you open registration?
Wrong! Try 9:30am. If you know that's it's impossible to process thousands of registrations in 30 minutes, build another process.
Guess what the registration workflow is. Wait in a single, incredibly long line on the bottom floor of the convention center, where small groups are periodically allowed up the escalator to enter another very long line. You are then told to work your way through a crowd of people to find "Station 4". You hand the person at Station 4 a green card of handwritten information, which they verify and then take your picture. Here's the really funny part. You then step to the back of the large crowd you just worked your way through and wait for someone to shout your name over hundreds of people so you can get your actual badge. Finally, if you want your conference bag and book, you need to return to the first floor and find the bag pick-up location.
Total time: 85 minutes.
What's sad is this is the exact same process that has been in place the last three years. Could someone really look at this process from beginning to end and not see a single thing to improve? You can save quite a bit of money if you put no effort into improving the conference and rely on volunteers to an unnecessary degree.
Next, organize a conference around keynotes where it is physically impossible for all of the attendees to attend. I find it hard to imagine that there is not a room at the Austin Convention Center that could hold more than 500 people. Yet each year, SXSW holds keynotes in rooms that max out at about the number, leaving many, many people on the floor or in overflow rooms. At some point, you have to decide to either cap the number of attendees or invest in a bigger room.
On the plus side, so far it appears that the sound, visual, and stage elements have been improved over previous years. And there is a good argument that a bare bones, cheap conference is a wonderful thing. If SXSW was $1000 and had a fancy, smooth registration process, I wouldn't be here to enjoy it. But there are innumerable ways to make the SXSW experience better that don't involve a lot of money. Hopefully, more improvements on are on the way.