Transportation is prime marketing turf at SXSW

Both car and non-car companies were willing to seize the opportunity at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival, where events are sprawled all over downtown and cabs are in short order.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
2 min read
Two of Fast Society's founders pose with the shuttle drivers that the company hired to transport people from the Austin airport for SXSW. Matthew Rosenberg
An Uber pedicab driver at SXSW. Caroline McCarthy/CNET

AUSTIN, Texas--Marketers are everywhere here at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival, but this year they've discovered some prime new territory: private transportation. The annual geek gathering is nominally headquartered at the Austin Convention Center, but in reality sprawls all across the city's downtown, and given the amount of late-night revelry taking place, cab rides are commonplace. Luckily for this year's attendees, a whole lot of those rides are free--or cheap.

Social-networking site Tagged decided to intercept travelers as soon as they landed at Austin's airport, setting up a display for a "Tagged Wheels" campaign and e-mailing press and bloggers beforehand to prearrange rides in limousines. Mobile messaging company Fast Society had a similar plan, renting three shuttles and offering free rides to anyone who had RSVPed for the start-up's Sunday night party or downloaded the Fast Society application on the spot. The three founders were at the airport all day to greet incoming festival-goers.

Upon arriving in Austin, sponsored transit is even more ubiquitous. Limousine booking service GroundLink said that all SXSW-area rides booked through its new iPhone app would have a flat fee of $10. General Motors, a big festival sponsor last year as well, has branded Chevy vehicles flitting around the streets and a "Catch A Chevy" stop outside the convention center.

But perhaps the most inventive branded transportation at SXSW comes from Uber, a car-booking service (and GroundLink rival) eagerly looking to expand outside its home base of San Francisco. For the duration of the festival, Uber has corralled 100 of Austin's "pedicab" drivers and hooked them up with iPhones and the app. Rides aren't free, but the colorful, Uber-branded rickshaws are unmistakable on Austin's streets. They're also far easier to book than regular cabs. Maybe the company should stick around here.

Tagged.com's airport limo transport was pretty flashy. Caroline McCarthy/CNET

At least one member of the pedicab corps concurs: "I love this thing," a female driver said of the Uber iPhone app and the map interface used to track down people looking for a ride. "It's like I'm in a video game, a little blue dot chasing all these people."