Hugh Forrest sounded like he just did a spit-take on the phone. I was telling him how I wanted to explore South by Southwest Conference (SXSW), the music, film and interactive event that kicks off March 10 in Austin, Texas, in a fresh way. Imagine, I explained, a guy walking up to you on the streets of Austin and saying, Why does SXSW still matter, man?
Forrest, who has long served as SXSWs chief programming officer, collected himself and quickly rattled off five big-picture reasons why the long-running conference that sometimes seems over-stuffed with brand activations cans still pack a punch.
Full disclosure, Mashable is a SXSW partner. In fact, you can find us daily (March 10-12) hosting a Twitter Live show from the heart of Austin.
SXSW, which has 11 keynotes and over 2,800 sessions, is, predictably, about information. I think our role now is similar in many ways to what it has been throughout: To inform people, said Forrest. He added that SXSW can give context to developments in our rapidly-changing world, especially as they relate to music, film, startups and technology.
There will, for instance, be two days of panels devoted to Technology Under President Donald Trump, even though no almost one from the Trump Administration will be attending the event in any official capacity.
Whether you like or dont like Trump administration, he said, theyre still in a state of flux, trying to figure out what theyre doing, pulling things together, pulling their cabinet together. Given that kind of flux, I think SXSW is the last thing on their mind, at least I hope it is.
SXSWs most popular speakers are the ones who inspire people with creativity innovation, new ideas, and new ways theyre connecting ideas, said Forrest. Its especially inspiring when they present innovative ways of pulling all those threads together to create something new.
That need for inspiration is more vital in 2017 than ever, said Forrest.
SXSW is networking heaven
SXSW offers unparalleled networking, Forrest told me. Meeting new people who may or may not be directly connected to your area of interest, but can still offer insight and inspiration, makes the networking aspect one of the most valuable pieces of the SXSW experience.
Its a great venue to meet creative people from all over the world, said Forrest.
SXSW helps you discover
SXSWs 24 content tracks have not changed much in the last few years, but they all offer an opportunity to find new ideas and people in your area of interest.
However, Forrest offered some seemingly counter-intuitive advice for SXSW attendees. If youre an expert in health, dont go to health panels, go to startups, foodGo to where you will get new ideas, outside your expertise.
SXSW is still about serendipity
Owing to the scale of SXSW, Forrest always encourages attendees to look at the schedule, download the app and arrive with a plan.
That said, most likely the most meaning you will get at the event, is something that will happen serendipitously, he added.
You might meet someone in person whom youve long-followed on social media. Or you cant get into one panel (a common occurrence), so you wander into another and learn something completely new.
Its hard to plan for those moments at SXSW, you must let them happen.
Most others I spoke to echoed Forrest’s sentiments.
When I asked internet entrepreneur and Vayner Media CEO Gary Vaynerchuk, whom I spoke to via Twitter DM, if he thought SXSW has been overrun by brands, he said, “Everything gets overrun by brands.”
However Vaynerchuk, who this year marks a decade of SXSW attendance, still sees value in SXSW:
[SXSW] matters cause of the scale of people that attend.
At the end of the day Conference’s and events are hugely ROI positive if you are capable of networking and being efficient with maximizing your meetings in a weekend that would have taken 6 months to accomplish.
It may not be as indie, but it’s made up in scale of serendipity of networking and new connections.
Chief evangelist of Canva and former chief evangelist of Apple, Guy Kawasaki has been attending for 6 years and told me via email SXSW is his favorite conference “because there are no billionaires and few venture capitalists. Most of the attendees are doers, not pretenders. Its the people who really do the work, not their bosses nor their investors. Brands arent ruining SXSW. Theyre providing the food and drinks that power it.”
Hilary Corna, five-year SXSW vet and author of One White Face was no less positive about SXSW in 2017 and told me via email:
The multi-faceted nature of SXSW means the more you go into the festival knowing what you want to get out of it, the better.
The festival is relevant if you wish to have access to people and meet people in person that you otherwise would have a hard time meeting. Its relevant if you wish to be exposed to the most extra-ordinary projects, thought-processes, and cross disciplinary technologies and conversations being had in some of the most upper echelon organizations (and also the coolest startups youve never heard of). Its relevant if you have specific goals in current companies or solo adventures you are pursuing such as knowledge transfer, networking, or understanding competitors.
Knowledge, opportunity, serendipity remain linchpins of SXSW. And even amidst all the brand activations, crowded streets, and surfeit vats of queso, there will be some show-making moments.
For his part, though, Forrest is most excited about Professor Jennifer Doudnas keynote. The chemistry and molecular and cell biology scientist will be talking about her groundbreaking work in CRISPR-mediated genome-editing.
When I asked him why Doudna’s talk so intrigued him, Forrest offered a surprisingly personal reason:
Ive been doing SXSW for way too long and have some built up some proficiency over the years in slotting panels, but my dad [Dr. Hugh Forrest], who is now retiring, was a geneticist for 50 years. So having someone like Jennifer Doudna at the event is like the closest to me having a similar trajectory to my dad. Its something he and I can talk about.
Which may be the main reason why SXSW still matters: It invariably starts a conversation.