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Bursting at the seams, SXSWi confronts explosive growth

While many conferences are shrinking, the Austin, Texas interactive fest is expected to grow at least 20 percent. Here's how organizers are handling the uptick.

Conference attendance may be in a recession-fueled funk, but this week's South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, Texas, seems primed for a steep boost in turnout, one that will dwarf even last year's record numbers and challenge the throngs who stream into packed keynotes, panels, and parties.

If you were among the 9,000 people who crammed into the 2008 SXSWi, which had grown a rumored 80 percent over the 2007 edition, there's a good chance your experience included a series of over-capacity talks, endless lines for parties, and sardine-can hallways.

The 2009 edition of SXSWi may lack a marquee name like last year's headliner, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg--though notable blogger Nate Silver is keynoting this year--and may be taking place amid an economy in meltdown, but it still is expected to grow between 20 percent and 30 percent. And while some may be tempted to freak out at the promise of teeming crowds, those in charge of the conference and many of its satellite events say the best bet is to just relax and go with the flow.

"Panels (and other sessions) will be overcrowded, and that's a fact of life," said Hugh Forrest, the director of SXSWi. "But to annoyed people, at SXSW, there are always five or six or seven things going on at once, and...inevitably, the most interesting, the most intellectually stimulating thing is something you never planned on, the party you just stumbled into. So we encourage people to be flexible."

Still, while gridlock is almost certain at many of the conference's panels, keynotes, parties and other associated events, organizers say plans are afoot to handle much of that human onslaught, spreading it out to more venues. And that's important for those hoping for the maximum amount of immersion into innovative discussions about the latest interactive technologies and long evenings socializing with the digerati at Austin's leading clubs and bars.

That SXSWi could be growing at all may shock some, given the state of the economy and the bloodletting at other conferences. But for those familiar with the annual five-day geek bacchanalia, there's no mystery in the promised crowd increases.

"It's always been about emergent technology, but now, with the social media explosion, it's only natural that SXSWi would grow in popularity," said Julia Gregory, a Web administrator for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in Austin and an eight-time SXSWi attendee. "And it's still a good deal even for those coming from out of town if you compare the price to other conferences."

Forrest agreed.

"I think the formula of our success in recent years is that we have been better able to tap into this vibrant and creative and inspiring community," Forrest said, "and the more we have learned to listen to and work with this community," the better the event has done.

Indeed, it looks like "South-by," as many people call it, may well be a must-attend event on many geeks' 2009 calendars.

"Every year is bigger, but...I can name so many more people who are going for the first time than (veterans) who are not going anymore," said popular Laughing Squid blogger Scott Beale. "I haven't talked to a single person who says they're not going 'because my company's not paying.' It's, 'I'm going to take time off and go on my own.' This year, there's so many people who've been saying they're going to go for years and they're finally going."

To Forrest, one of the reasons that attendance will be up is that airfares to Austin are cheap right now. He said it's possible to score $200 tickets from Los Angeles and similar prices from the Bay Area, two of the most common home bases for SXSWi participants. Add the fact that a conference pass is relatively cheap--they started at $375 and are now $495--and that many attendees save money by crashing on friends' couches and eating and drinking free at parties, and the event definitely seems like a good deal, even for the unemployed.

In fact, said Beale, some without jobs, and even many with current employment, see SXSWi as key to their next gig.

"If you're out of work," Beale said, "what a great place to meet your future employer."

Dealing with the crowds
There seem to be many ways that organizers are going to deal with the large crowds, even if those efforts won't alleviate all the overcrowding.

One way, Forrest said, that the conference plans to move some of the masses out of the Austin Convention Center is by locating a number of panels, discussions and even a day-long track of premium programming for "platinum" passholders--those who bought more expensive badges that grant admittance not just to the Interactive festival, but also to the adjoining Film and Music festivals--to the Hilton hotel across the street. Also, for the first time, the conference registration desk will open up Thursday, the day before the official opening, to help alleviate one of the more frustrating lines.

"I haven't talked to a single person who says they're not going 'because my company's not paying.' It's, 'I'm going to take time off and go on my own.'"
--Scott Beale, blogger,
Laughing Squid

In addition, he explained, there are more planned parties this year than ever before, gatherings that can serve as de facto networking sessions. There are also multiple approaches for attempting to get everyone who tries to go to specific parties past the gatekeepers.

For Beale, who is a co-sponsor and organizer of the so-called 32bit party, the key to attracting a manageable crowd is not to release the name of the venue until the evening of the shindig.

That's important to Beale because last year's version of the party was already at capacity when the doors officially opened. In part, that was because the venue was smaller than expected, and in part because there was no secret about the location. This time, while Beale has been promoting the date of 32bit--it is scheduled for Monday night--he will only release details about the venue that night, and only on Twitter.

"When we're ready to go," Beale said, "then we will slowly introduce information on it. No Web site, no Facebook, no Only on Twitter."

Beale is also likely to host at least one informal meetup, and that, too, is likely to be announced solely on Twitter.

Another approach is the one Digg is using for its widely promoted Saturday night blowout at Austin's famous Stubb's bar.

The party, which should get going around 8 p.m. local time that day, is open to the public and doesn't even require a conference badge, as do many others. In the past, this has ensured horrendous lines, but Beth Murphy, Digg's senior director of marketing and communications, said the company has ways to make life easier for those standing and waiting and waiting.

"We've developed a couple of ways to communicate with our crowd and keep them posted," said Murphy. "We use everything from Twitter to Facebook to Digg when we announce (information and) to suggest that folks get there early. We give them real-time line update status from our Twitter account."

In addition, she said that Digg will have someone answering questions about the party on Twitter, in real time, in order to give people even more data on their chances to get in. Plus, Stubb's is three times as large as the venue Digg employed for the 2008 version of its party.

Even more unusual, Murphy said, Digg will also be using its top executives, founder Kevin Rose and CEO Jay Adelson, to help out. "It's kind of first come, first served, for folks in the line," Murphy said, "so we often send Kevin or Jay out to work the crowd and hand out swag."

Go with the flow
Despite all that, there are still likely to be times when even those who get somewhere early are going to find themselves locked out of an event they want to go to, or where hallways are too crowded to find the friend they're looking for.

For those moments, the best advice of veteran SXSWi attendees to the first-timers sure to be a little overwhelmed by it all, is to chill out.

"I think it's important to pick your spots--there's always so much to do and so many things going on at once that if you try to do it all you're only setting yourself up for disappointment," said Mike Barash, marketing communications director for on-demand book publisher Blurb.

"Attend the things you really want to attend, and don't try to be everywhere or do everything," Barash said. "You're also going to need to know when to cut the cord--if you're committed to the Facebook party but you've been in line for an hour, do you stay in line, or do you bail for an alleged second-tier spot that may end up being a better time?"