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Meet the Producer

Behind the Production of SXSW Interactive with Director Hugh Forrest

by Chris Carver
on March 6, 2017
Rodolfo Gonzalez

When you think about the most influential annual events over the last 30 years, what comes to mind?

For me, there is not one conference that has had more influence on culture, technology and entrepreneurship than South By Southwest. 

Check out some of their stats just from last yeaer:

If your friends were a little tipsy in a bar today, how would they describe you?
I would get described as tall because that's what I am. Tall and a workaholic.

If you had a spirit animal, what would it be?
A turtle. I've got a pretty tough shell. I go slow, but I eventually get there.

And if you were a piece of event equipment, what would you be?
I'm the table that you put the microphones on because what we do is we create a platform. That platform allows a lot of people to get some pretty interesting ideas out there. We are more about creating the platform than being the platform.

How many years have you been at this gig?
I was hired by South by Southwest in 1989.

Screenshot 2017-02-27 15.02.27.png
Director of SXSW Interactive Hugh Forrest doing what it takes, circa 1998. Photo Cred: Fast Company

When you think about your role, what are the three most critical components from a managerial perspective?

One: Trying to make sure that internally and externally we are following our deadline structure, keeping the trains mostly on time.

Two: Finding time to create as many face to face meetings with my staff as possible.

I spend a lot of time in meetings. That is less in terms of organization and more in terms of just letting them know that their experience is important to me. I'm here to listen to them.

Three: Pushing myself and the staff to think about medium-term, long-term future for programming the event.

In our best days at South by Southwest, we are a preview of what's coming in two or three years. Reinforcing that mantra to myself and to others, "How do we need to structure the event that will continue to encourage forward-thinking people to come to the event and lend their expertise?"

Screenshot 2017-02-27 12.55.42.png
SXSW Programs over the years. Photo Cred: Fast Company

If you weren't producing events, what would you want to be doing?
Going to an event! I would be doing more creative writing, reading, and absorbing of popular culture.

What do you think has kept you so interested for so long?
What keeps me interested and involved is the positive feedback that you get from attendees. If they've had a strong, enjoyable experience you get people telling you that this is the highlight of their year.

That's a pretty powerful narcotic in terms of reinforcement. Essentially, we work all year on putting together one event. It's a long, slow slog, but when people have a positive experience that is really powerful.

Screenshot 2017-02-27 12.42.27.png
Part of Hugh's Talk: The Three C's That Helped SXSW Grow: Can they apply to your business

Putting yourself in the start ups shoes, how has the experience changed over the last five to ten years?
The biggest change is that we've been lucky enough to continue to grow during that time period. People have the ability to make more connections, attend more panels, networking events, and parties, which are all  good things.

Plenty of people will say that there is also more noise at the event and it's sometimes harder to find people you want to meet, and they're entirely right because it has gotten to be a much bigger event. We thought achieving scale was difficult and then we realized that scale makes it even harder. 

"We thought achieving scale was difficult and then we realized that scale makes it even harder." twitter-128.png

Now that you've reached this size, how have the operational problems changed for you and your team?
As much as the event has grown, and as much as that creates new and different challenges, we're still fundamentally doing the same thing that we did twenty years ago. We are providing the platform where creative people come together and make new connections that can hopefully take their careers to the next level. We're just doing that on a bigger platform now than we ever had before.

We're trying to build a captivating, invigorating, inspiring experience for attendees by creating an atmosphere that attracts as many of those very creative people as possible. If you can do that, then you have something of value and size is ultimately irrelevant on that.

Keynote Address for SXSW Photo - Daily Dot.jpg
A typical SXSW Keynote Address. Photo Cred: The Daily Dot

What is your favorite part of the entire production process throughout the entire year? Is there a certain moment?
Over the last few years, we've gotten organized enough so there will be a day in the mid-fall where we will announce anywhere between seventy and eighty percent of our content for the upcoming year. That's a fun day. Revealing what you think is going to be really exciting, presentations or panels, showing the depth and breadth of the event. We create a lot of buzz that way.

As well as, the first day the event starts, simply because you've been working a long, long time on this thing, you're past your second wind, or third and fourth wind. You'll get re-energized by the passion of the attendees, so that's a neat thing also.

What do you think is the most underrated aspect of South by Southwest?
I think that with South by Southwest or with any event or with anything in life, we tend to focus on the big names, the sexiest aspects of the event. At this point in our progression, we're lucky enough to get more big names than we ever have had before. That's a really neat thing, but I think the heart of any event is the smaller connections that you make.

It's hard to make that sound all that sexy, but the people who get the most out of events like South by Southwest, like TED, are the people who try to meet as many people as possible. You never know where those connections will lead to.

"The heart of any event is the smaller connections that you make." twitter-128.png

When you're hiring, what are the three most critical traits you look for in a new team member?
Tim Ferriss interviewed Kevin Kelly in a podcast where he talked about attitude being more important than aptitude. Aptitude can be trained and developed, attitude can't.

I agree. I'm looking for people who have energy and enthusiasm. We're an exhausting event to work on. We have a lot of challenges, we deal with a lot of people who can be hard to deal with.

I'm also looking for people who are intellectually curious. In most cases, that means they read a lot whether that's books, magazines, articles online, but ultimately people who are interested in continuing to learn and stretch their boundaries.

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What do you look for in speakers or panelists?
In many ways, the traits that apply to the staff also apply to the speakers. 

A speaker who's got a lot of energy and can deliver an entertaining speech is a lot more interesting than a speaker who's really smart, but really boring.

Also, somewhat of an unwritten policy we have, we don't like to work with jerks. If someone seems unpleasant to work with, it's generally my call to stay away from them. We have enough headaches already, so we're not looking to radically absorb those headaches with people who have unreasonably big egos.

We're looking for speakers who have a unique, engaging take on current events. People who can make you see the world differently are the best speakers.

Just another typical speaker. Photo Cred: David Paul Morris - Bloomberg

"People who can make you see the world differently are the best speakers." twitter-128.png

What are a few things that you guys do to prep them for a great talk?
In terms of what we do to prep speakers, I wish we had more bandwidth to do more work with them. There is a direct correlation between the amount of time you work with a speaker or panelist and how successful that session will be.

I've seen from an organizational standpoint as well as experienced it being on panels, if you've got four people on a panel, everyone assumes the other three are going to prepare so they can wing it. The fact is that no one prepares and everyone's winging it onstage and it often comes out as a train wreck.

Given that you're one of the premier tech events in the world, how conscious are you and your team about constantly innovating on technology you guys use to produce the event? Is that something that you're constantly pushing yourself on?
We're always striving to have as strong a tech backbone to the event as possible. I think one of the ironies of an event like South by Southwest is that we're an event about technology, yes, but we're also an event about creativity.

Ultimately, with any event, what makes for a positive experience is customer service. If people come to South by Southwest and they're treated with care and kindness by the staff, the volunteers, and other attendees then they are very likely to enjoy themselves and want to come back. So much of it still boils down to the human touch behind the whole thing.

Photo Cred:

Sticking on the tech side of things, what technology do you think will be the most disruptive in the near future to the event world?
I think it's going to be fascinating to see how virtual reality plays out. Will the technology eventually grow and improve to a point where you can put on the headset and the goggles and physically feel like you're at an event? You can experience a South by Southwest, a TED, or a CES, sitting on the couch in your living room. Now if that happens, all our business models will have to change a lot.

There is a strong counter to that: As much as the technology will improve, the experience of being face to face will never really change. I hope that's the case, but I am also cautious that we said a lot of things about what technology would never do and it's often turned out to be fool's gold.

"As much as technology will improve, the experience of being face to face will never really change." twitter-128.png

It's interesting because you guys have really embraced live stream. What was your initial conversations about live streaming some of the talks and things like that?
Yeah. I mean, we had a lot of discussion internally about live streaming and there was strong concern that, "if you put this content out there for free, are you going to kill your business model?" What we found is that putting some of that out there for free in fact helps grow your business and your attendance.

It is great to go to a conference and see Jack Dorsey give a keynote speech, but the real value of an event, is being able to run into him and have a conversation with him. Live streaming gives you a taste of that expereince, but it doesn't replicate or replace being there.

Twitter Wins SXSW 2008.jpg
Jack and the Twitter Crew, 2008. Photo Cred: Scott Beale

What is your review process like immediately after the event? Are there certain things that you do every year to figure out how you can innovate on what you did that year?
We do a pretty formal review process. I am a strong believer in the importance of user feedback trying to digest that stuff. Get a better understanding of a portion of the event that they saw as opposed to the portion of the event that you saw. We all experience events differently. One person can say that this was the best session they ever saw in their lives and the other person can say it was absolutely horrible. They are both entirely right.

We have something called the feedback project, where all the members of my team are assigned three hundred feedback records to read. From that, they have to write fifty emails to people. Of those fifty that they write, thirty of them have to be responding to people who did not have a great experience at South by Southwest to try to dig a little more into what went wrong and how can we improve. People are really fascinated and impressed that someone was actually reading their feedback and took it seriously.

Screenshot 2017-02-27 12.42.08.png

How much do you interact with music and film? Are you constantly going back and forth with those teams? How is that structured?
Traditionally, we have been somewhat isolated, but we're working on pulling down those silos and trying to work together more. That's one of the big changes we'll see in 2017, that it is a more cohesive event and an event that allows the attendees more functionality and flexibility.

By contrast, when we started this event in 1987, film was one thing, multimedia was very different, and music was something else altogether. In the years in between that and now, all these things have merged together in a very compelling way.

What has been the positive or negative side of being 3 events in one or having the 3 events back to back?
I often hear from attendees that the most value they get is from meeting someone in a different industry. It was initially one of the challenges of the event because people would want to know what kind of event we were and wanted us to be focused on one.

I think the way the event has evolved, having so many different areas of coverage is a real strength. Another attribute of people who get the most out of the event is that they attend panels and networking events that are outside of their expertise.

SXSW7425 Ashley Landis Dallas Morning News.jpg
Just another SXSW eventing. Photo Cred: Redferns / Getty Images

As someone who is part of a team that is constantly on the forefront of culture, media, tech, etc. I thought I'd throw out a few topics I hear yo might be interested in and I'd love for you to say the first thing that comes to mind. 

Is that cool?

North Korean politics and its effect on their isolationist culture.
One of my first fascinations.

Smart cities and transportation.
We need more of it in Austin.

The state of journalism in a digital world.
Tenuous at best.

Your co-workers helped me with this one: The evolution of adult content on the internet. 
Here's my Jeopordy answer: What is a model for how all other content will eventually evolve?

The evolving role of media in politics.
Fascinating, but scary.

The technical advancements in health and the medical space.
A big area of growth for South by Southwest over the next few years.

The effects that AR and VR technologies will have on our way of life.
Profound in ways that we can't even understand or envision at this point.

The evolving role of major brands on our collective storytelling.
It is somewhat concerning, but it’s also inevitable. So many of the brands have financial and physical bandwidth to push a lot of these storytelling efforts. That is going to get even more significant in the near-term future, in my view.

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If you could interview anyone in the event world, who would it be and what would you ask them?
Chris Anderson of TED, because they've created such a global brand and they do so many things so well. I'd be really interested in hearing the logistics of it!

For example, I'd love to ask:

Do they really prepare their speakers for forty hours? 
... "Oh, come on, you don't really do that. That's not true" ... and "How did they execute the vision of TED Talks"?

As much as we're somewhat friendly competitors, I'm a huge fan of what they've done and I would love to interview him.

What is the best piece of career advice you have received and from whom?
The best piece of career advice is simple, "Grow where you're planted", meaning play to your strengths. Know what you're good at and continue to push on that.

Sheila Scarborough, on our advisory board for South by Southwest, said it to me in conversation and I stopped right then and wrote it down on a piece of paper. That advice has meant a lot to me.

"Grow where you're planted." twitter-128.png

Parting wisdom?
In my experience, events are really hard to produce. Two of the qualities that are most important in event producers are patience and persistence. You have to have a stomach to keep going through some really hard times, most of which will come in the beginning, probably when you're doing some pretty neat stuff but not getting a whole lot of return on it yet.

In that Kevin Kelly podcast I mentioned above, he was talking about how robots will replace a lot of human work. Anything that is a matter of efficiency, robots can replace because they don't need to stop every fifteen minutes for a coffee break.

However, what robots cannot do, is create new experiences.

In the future, the experiences that humans create will therefore become even more valuable. As much as technology will change the event world over the next five, ten, fifteen years, if we can continue to create experiences that are above and beyond the ordinary, then there will be a continued need.

"What robots cannot do, is create new experiences". twitter-128.png


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