Why The Formula For a High-Attendance Event Must Include Creativity, According to SXSW’s Co-President

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Why The Formula For a High-Attendance Event Must Include Creativity, According to SXSW’s Co-President

why the formula for a high attendance event must include creativity according to sxsws co president

Founded in 1987 in Austin, Texas, South by Southwest (SXSW) is an annual conference that brings together more than 300,000 professionals in the film, TV, music, education, and tech industries.

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In 2024 alone, featured speakers include include Jane Fonda, Dwyane Wade, Alex Cooper, and Daisy Ridley.

All of which is to say: It‘s a massive event centered around various creative verticals. So who better to speak on creativity than SXSW’s Co-President, Hugh Forrest?

As Forrest puts it, “Our north star has always been creativity. I’ve been with the event for over 30 years, and the event has changed a lot over that time period … But what hasn’t changed is our focus on creativity.”

Let‘s dive into some of Hugh’s top tips for injecting creativity into any event planning process. Interested in hearing the full interview? Check it out on the Hustle Daily show.

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How to Inject Creativity Into Your Next High-Attendance Event

1. Allow creatives to learn from other creatives.

One of the biggest benefits of large-scale events is the opportunity to network with professionals outside of your vertical.

As a marketer, I‘m not always interested in learning from other marketers. Sometimes, I’ve found the most inspiration in conversations with script-writers, educators, or social media creators.

Hugh Forrest believes wholeheartedly in the power of interdisciplinary networking.

He says, “In particular, we’ve seen how different kinds of creative people can learn from each other. If you’re a musician, you can learn a lot from connecting with other musicians … But you can learn even more from connecting with an innovator in the food space, or an athlete, or someone who’s doing a tech startup.”

If your event is overly-siloed, it will be difficult to foster the type of collaboration and creativity that your attendees crave. Instead, consider how you might merge seemingly-opposite groups of professionals to interact and learn from each other.

2. Stay focused on your community and what matters to them.

Forrest says that SXSW has always mirrored the creativity in Austin, Texas.

When SXSW first began in 1987, they entirely focused on music — and then, in 1994 when Austin became a burgeoning film scene, SXSW adapted and added film and multimedia.

More recently, when the University of Texas added a medical school, SXSW introduced health and medical technology into their content lineup.

As Austin expands and shifts its interests, so does SXSW. Ultimately, Forrest has discovered one critical component of long-term success in the event industry: Stay on-top of what matters to your audience, and find ways to pivot when appropriate.

Click here to listen to the full podcast episode here.

As he puts it, “I mean, if we’re relevant, if we’re compelling, if we’re improving, so much of that is because we are very in touch with our community or the various communities we serve—whether that’s bands and filmmakers for the film and TV festival, or entrepreneurs, innovators, and creators. The event has thrived for 35 years because of this focus on massive creativity in all its many forms.”

He adds, “If Austin continues to push into AI and becomes this world center for AI innovation, we’ll push a lot more into AI at South by Southwest. If Austin becomes the sneaker capital of the world, then we’ll see a lot more sneaker stuff in Austin.”

Similarly, when you consider testing out new content at your next event, keep your community at the forefront.

AI is a trending topic right now, but are you sure your community cares about it? Or are they more interested in learning how to expand their TikTok following? Leaning into the content that applies to your community will be key to creating a fulfilling and high-attended event.

3. AI is increasingly important … but don’t under-appreciate the face-to-face component that lets creativity shine.

“One of the themes that we always rediscover at SXSW is on the one hand, we’re an event about technology and celebrate new ways for people to connect,” Forrest says.

He adds, “But on the other hand, the most important technology is face-to-face interaction. And that hasn’t changed. Bringing people with diverse ideas together in a city that has always cultivated and celebrated creativity — in a time of year when you have the manifestation of rebirth and creativity (i.e. springtime) — has turned out to be a very strong formula for good things to happen.”

AI is all the rage right now. But the most compelling reason people purchase tickets to conferences and events is the in-person offering. With 65% of workers preferring a completely remote setup, face-to-face interactions are rare.

When given the chance, people want to jump on the opportunity to connect in-person.

So, while it can be tempting (and cost-effective) to create an entirely virtual event, you might want to consider offering attendees the opportunity to engage in real life — even if that just means an optional meet-and-greet after the main event.

As Forrest puts it, “Creativity is what makes us human. And in 2024, as we see more and more machines taking over, we really need to lean into our humanity.”

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