What’s new for SXSW 2022?: Q&A with chief programming officer Hugh Forrest
There’s no festival in the world like South by Southwest. Founded in 1987 by staffers at the Austin Chronicle, the festival brings the best in music, film, tech and culture to the booming creative hub of Austin, Texas. After being canceled in 2020 and going virtual in 2021, SXSW is back for 2022 bigger, brighter and more star-studded than ever, with appearances from Chrissy Teigen, Lizzo, Neal Stephenson and so, so many more.
Last year, Penske Media announced that it was buying a 50-percent stake in SXSW, making this the first year of a partnership with the media brand responsible for Variety, Deadline and Rolling Stone.
We caught up with Hugh Forrest — SXSW’s chief programming officer for 33 years and Boston Red Sox fan extraordinaire — about this year’s fest, including going hybrid, COVID-19 protocols and why you should stop for a chili burger on your way home.
Maylin Tu: What was the first festival you ever attended? What made you want to go into the industry?
Hugh Forrest: I am a hopeless life-long fan of the Boston Red Sox — it’s an addiction I’ve never been able to shed. I trace this addiction to summer vacations on Cape Cod during my boyhood; my mother’s parents retired in Yarmouth Port.
Cape Cod also provided my introduction to the fascinating world of festivals, via a small arts and crafts festival at a local church a few blocks from where my grandparents lived. Spending a few hours there is always one of the highlights of my summer.
MT: SXSW has set the standard as an industry event with both business and consumer appeal. The team has also maintained control over outside brands coming in to activate (unlike, say, Art Basel). What’s the secret sauce?
HF: I’m not sure we have any kind of secret sauce at SXSW. But I do think our focus on creativity has helped us evolve and change and remain relevant for the last 35-plus years. We are less about any one specific industry or vertical; instead, we try to highlight people and companies and ideas that reflect the most creative approaches possible in a wide variety of pursuits. Mix these highly creative people from different industries together in a highly creative city, and the results have proven to be very compelling.
MT: What’s new for 2022?
HF: Every year, we try to add in new elements to SXSW — doing the same thing year after year would be boring. We have two new tracks this year, Climate Change and Transportation. While we have had climate-focused content at the event for more than a decade, 2022 is the first year we’ve included a track that is solely focused on this topic. We have also covered transportation-related topics a lot in recent years. Pushing these topics to their own tracks reflects the growth of the transportation industry in Austin, just as SXSW is always a mirror of the trends in this city.
I am also excited about the addition of new summits for the 2022 conference. Summit topics for this year range from “Connecting with XR” to “The Future of Work” to “The Space Rush” to “The State of Psychedelics.”
MT: What has the virtual/hybrid model allowed you to do that maybe couldn’t have been achieved pre-Covid?
HF: The 2021 event brought in a worldwide community that might never have been able to otherwise participate in the excitement and energy of SXSW. We hope the hybrid nature of the 2022 event will continue to help us reach new audiences who are not able to physically attend.
MT: How are you planning for the safety and health of attendees in Austin (including testing and vaccination requirements)?
HF: In order to ensure the safety of our attendees as well as the Austin community, we have implemented a very strict and comprehensive policy regarding Covid. All registrants will be required to be fully vaccinated or to show proof of a recent negative test.
MT: What did the SXSW team learn from going fully virtual in 2021? What were the highs and lows?
HF: We learned a ton by producing SXSW Online in 2021. One of the big learning points and highs was realizing how the virtual world empowered our community to experience a lot more of the convergence aspects of SXSW. In other words, the online nature of last year’s event allowed registrants to move from a panel to a music showcase to a movie, with just a few mouse clicks.
As for the lows, we had a few minor technical glitches during SXSW Online, as well as during SXSW EDU Online. These glitches were solved quickly, and the online audience was generally very patient. But the problems were a reminder of how challenging it is to translate real-world experiences to virtual — even with months and months of preparation.
MT: We see a lot of media brands hosting events, but SXSW was an experiential brand from the start. What does having a media brand as a new owner change about the experience of SXSW?
HF: SXSW is really excited about having PMC (Penske Media Corp) as a partner. Their involvement opens up lots of new possibilities for the event for this year and for the future. But having a forward-thinking media partner is not uncharted territory for us. I say this because the driving force behind the launch of SXSW in 1987 was the Austin Chronicle, the city’s alternative weekly publication. In fact, the original name of the event was the SXSW Music & Media Conference. So in many ways, the involvement of PMC takes us back to our roots. As the saying goes, “Same as it ever was.”
MT: Austin exploded as one of the fastest-growing cities in 2020 and has grown by 500K+ residents in the past decade. How has SXSW changed and evolved with the city?
HF: The growth of SXSW very much parallels the growth of Austin (and vice versa). When the festival first launched in 1987, Austin was a sleepy college town. The city is now one of the ten biggest in the United States and has enjoyed tremendous growth during the pandemic. Likewise, SXSW has boomed over the last decade, expanding far beyond the music-only focus of 35 years ago. But ultimately these are superficial changes. All this growth aside, Austin is still a city that celebrates and cultivates creativity. And three decades later, massive creativity is still what powers all things SXSW.
MT: What advice would you give to other XP professionals balancing virtual and IRL experiences in 2022?
HF: We are incredibly proud of the XR content and experiences we offered attendees at SXSW Online 2021. This content promises to be even more robust in 2022. That said, one of the themes we see year after year at SXSW is the power of in-person connections. While a significant portion of the event focuses on new technologies that can connect people in new and different ways, SXSW attendees are inevitably reminded that face-to-face, real-life interactions are an intrinsic part of the human experience.
MT: SXSW has seen the launch of tech products like Twitter and Uber. Which product launched at SXSW do you think has the most potential to change the world?
HF: Yes, we’ve had some really cool tech products launch at SXSW, and that’s something I’m very proud of. But ultimately I think the most world-changing aspect of the event is the inspirational thought leaders we try to showcase each year. I am a huge believer in the power of inspiration — all the more so now, given the current state of this country and the world.
We also deliver loads of inspiration via movies at the SXSW Film Festival and bands at the SXSW Music Festival. When attendees leave Austin inspired by what they’ve seen and heard, there is really no limit to the world-changing accomplishments they can achieve.
MT: What’s a question no one’s ever asked you that you wish someone would?
HF: How do you celebrate the end of SXSW?
After the Sunday softball tournament concludes, one of my favorite ways to celebrate the end of SXSW is with a chili cheeseburger (maybe two) from Sandy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers. Not the healthiest of meals — but I think it’s acceptable once a year. Sandy’s is located downtown, and it’s somewhat a relic of the old, pre-boom Austin. If you want a taste of that, I highly recommend a brief stop here during your SXSW experience.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.