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MediaTech Ventures’ Community Spotlight Ep.16 – Hugh Forrest

Meet the programming legend, synchronistic collision expert, conference guru, Hugh Forrest – Chief Programming Officer and first paid hire, at SXSW.

From his humble beginnings in the late 1980’s at SXSW, Hugh finds himself dusting off memories of fax machines and defining the framework, nostalgia that has set in, heading into 2021. As only a nearly 30 year expert in helping define the standards of conference programming would be, Hugh is calm and collected navigating through a very new SXSW experience, rooting the success and continued pursuit of excellence in creativity and audience engagement. After all, Hugh states, “Austin is always a city that’s prized and celebrated, and generated creative people.” The entire idea of creativity is carefully woven throughout all elements of SXSW, from their approach to identifying speakers, forecasting trends 6-7 months in advance, to carefully crafting two weeks of optimal value for the almost half million attendees, they continue to push the art of the possible, and blur the lines of innovation.

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Find out how SXSW has helped shape Hugh’s view of the world, what his methodology is for programming, and why if he had a super power it would be to learn a foreign language.

What was South by Southwest like back in 1989, and what are some of your earliest memories?

Hugh: It was exactly like it is now except infinitely smaller. In many ways, I think your question is spot on to where we are for 2021. Because we didn’t have a framework, to pattern ourselves after. So that was a huge challenge and stressful in many ways. And again, that’s very similar to where we are in December 2020, as we move into 2021, of not having a framework, but certainly in 1989. Those first few years were entirely focused, on music. It was a little more of a regional event, although still there was always this idea that it wasn’t just Austin, that we are trying to be national and international. Again, you’ve done your research that I was hired, because I had a computer and they didn’t or had a printer, and they didn’t. Certainly our technology tools were prehistoric compared to what we have now we are beyond my little Mac plus, we had a fax machine. And that was where so much of the business was done by the fax machine. So, all those things very, very different than what we are now. Beyond the idea of not having a framework to pattern ourselves after. A commonality between then and now is a focus on creativity, trying to get wow, this is a really creative band. This is a really creative singer-songwriter. This is a really creative, music, and industry professional. And as much as the event has changed and morphed and gotten bigger and covered new verticals and expanded and all those good things and some not good things, that focus on creativity is still very much the heart of the event and works because Austin is always a city that’s prized and celebrated and, and generated creative people.

As these industries continue to blur the lines right between what once made them so different on top of a global pandemic now, what does the next evolution look like for SXSW?

Hugh: Well, I think the next evolution is the one we’re being really forced to undertake for 2021 which is developing a much more robust online offering and they’re still on in early December 2020. There’s still a small chance we have some kind of in-person gathering, small in-person gathering in March again small chance, and if it happens, it would be small, will largely be virtual. The upside here is that assuming the vaccines work, assuming we’re back to a relatively normal world in late 2021, we’ll have an in-person event in 2022. On top of that, will be a very robust virtual event. So we’ll have, hopefully, best of both worlds. And it would have been great. And in a perfect world, we would have been developing these very robust online solutions for the last five years, we’ve done a little bit of that in terms of just live casting of keynotes of bigger speeches, but haven’t done as much of that as we probably should have. Certainly, this crisis forces us to do that. And I think that’s for better for worse, that’s life in a lot of ways, you keep meaning to do something, you keep meaning to do something, you don’t do it, and then you’re forced to do it by some kind of circumstance. So, again, this circumstance is really painful for South by Southwest, it’s even more painful for a ton of people out there. But the end result, I think when we eventually get to the other side of this, South by Southwest will at least be stronger in a lot of ways.

What do you believe is the main contributor to the continued success of South by Southwest? And how has being a global leader in your space shaped your view of the world?

Hugh: Well, the first question, how have we done this, to the extent that we’ve done this, and I very much appreciate the nice words there, I think a lot of this is the fact of having a very engaged community and working with that community, getting ideas from that community, largely through the panel picker, but also just informally connecting with people, whether that’s at a meetup, whether that’s through an event, we’re traveling to whether that’s by email or some other channel. So again, understanding that what we do best is create a space in the platform for these kinds of conversations and dialogues and meetings to occur. What other people probably do best is, is tell us what the most relevant conversations are. And that that that kind of division of labor has worked pretty well now, it’s not quite as black and white is that we do a lot more curation at this point than maybe we did 5 10 years ago. But again, having those connections within the community is one of the things that has helped us stay very relevant. And certainly having the panel picker interface which has some limitations, of course. But it is just very clear, I think, Northstar to the community that, hey, we want your input, We value your input, we treasure your input, your input is a big part of the event. So that that attention to the community, I think it is one of the primary ways we’ve stayed relevant.

Well, how it shaped my view of the world I mean, I’m a strong believer, certainly in the that, that what makes us compelling at South by Southwest or at the other 50 weeks of the year is strong international participation. I on a number of levels did not like the America first dialogue, because I just don’t think that’s realistic. So, that is very much one of the things that shaped our approach to South by Southwest and one of the things from South by Southwest that continues to shape my understanding of the world and my personality and outlook and I am incredibly proud that at this point, a quarter of our paid attendees are coming from out of the US and coming to Austin. And so many of them have this perception that Austin is the coolest place in the world, because of South by Southwest and Austin is really cool, although often it’s not quite as cool the other 50 weeks of the year, as is during South by Southwest; when there’s just so many cool creative people here and so many things happening. That’s really fun. Another aspect to mention here is that it’s as South by Southwest has been forced enough to grow and evolve and change, and scale. It’s been harder and harder to keep really track of what’s going on here a full understanding of what’s going on here during March because there are just so many different things happening at any given time. And that’s what makes it compelling. But that’s also what makes it sometimes completely overwhelming. Whether you call that FOMO or just too much noise or whatever. But somewhere, someplace any given time, someone’s having a fascinating discussion, someone’s debuting some new technology, someone’s meeting a co-founder, someone’s finding someone to invest in their company, someone’s brainstorming on something that will be the next cool technology in a year or two years. It is just that kind of cosmic energy that makes March in Austin so special, and even more so because it’s not just, quote-unquote, tech people. We’ve got music people in town, we’ve got film people in town, we’ve now got athletes and chefs and politicians. Well, maybe they’re not cool, but we’ll let them anyway.

Having President Obama and Michelle Obama, that’s huge right?!

Hugh: Well, they’re pretty cool. But just that energy, and that vibrancy in the air in March. I’m certainly not too objective on this. But it’s something that’s palpable. It’s something that really contributes to what makes Austin Austin and I am so proud to have played a small role in doing this.

I know, there’s a lot of people that you look up to. And you’ve talked a lot about Bruce Springsteen and Seth Godin in particular, but what companies inspire you and why?

Hugh: I’m gonna frame this back to one of the things that just happened and is, unfortunately, a 2020 thing. But the passing of Tony Shea last weekend, who’d been a big part of South by Southwest was an opening speaker in 2009 and spoken on a session in 2008 he spoke at the event we did in Las Vegas called South by Southwest VDV. And that whole ethos that he established at Zappos of customer service above everything else, that customer service is our main goal. I think that is always been very inspiring. And just reading the various bits and memories of Tony, this past week, have kind of jumped back into that and thought about that a lot. I think also, the other thing to mention about Tony, which is really interesting, given our current climate is that he pushed this thing in Las Vegas called the Downtown Project, which was this idea of revitalizing Old Town, Las Vegas and trying to make it an incredibly vibrant community. I don’t think it quite ever reached his potential. But when you think about that, versus thinking about where we aren’t now we are locked up inside our houses. And there may be synchronistic collisions online, but nothing face to face. And that was, what he wanted to do was to create businesses, spaces where again, people would meet and connect in the physical world. And that is all the more of a profound thought in terms of where the pandemic is left us in December. I heard Tony speak a couple of times specifically about the downtown project. And he talked about how he wanted to create a space that replicated what happened at South by Southwest where you’re walking down the street, and you ran into someone who you always wanted to meet and had a conversation and there you go. And that was really neat that that, that we helped inspire that vision and that that project, so that was cool.

When it comes to programming a conference, what does your process actually look like? And what are some best practices you would recommend? And what are some common mistakes that you often see?

Hugh: Well, for South by Southwest in a traditional year, meaning a non-COVID year in 2021 or 2022 we’re starting that programming process is essentially, June or July when the process, of planning speaking proposals, begins. We are also kind of at another parallel layer, talking about who we want to curate, who we want to reach out to what we think that the trends are going to be in six months from now. I think that one of our challenges at the scale of South by Southwest, is that we do have to start this process seven or eight months ahead of time. So that leaves us a little less able to focus on what’s actually happening this week. There’s still some of that, or this week or this month, but I also think that what we invariably find, is that the most interesting speakers are often the ones that are talking about bigger trends as opposed to just the meme of what last week.

In terms of best practices, I think, again, just the more discussion we can do within our staff on this and trying to poke holes in every idea, the better we are. I think that what has also become more challenging in recent years is the social media backchannel, how ever you want to phrase that, the fact that we know more about everyone out there and essentially canceled culture and bringing someone on who we didn’t fully vet and oh no, they’ve got this thing in their past the skeleton in there closet and how do we deal with that? We’ve been better I think we’ve gotten better systems to avoid those kind of problems. But that doesn’t mean we’ve completely eliminated those problems. 

And so again, my tips or suggestions for people who are doing this trying to do this? Well, tip number one it’s not brain surgery. Anyone who wants to put the work in can pull together some incredible speakers, whether that’s for your, for your meetup in Austin, or for something that’s a slightly bigger event and scale, is quantity does not equate the quality. But again, I just think be very intentional, very strategic, think through the speaker’s thinking exactly what you want. One of the benefits that we have in 2020 that we didn’t have in 1987 as you can basically find a YouTube video of anybody out there. So it’s no longer that you could say, well, I really like this person, but I wonder what kind of speaker she is. Now you can find them through the YouTube video through social media, you can also find out if they’re good in front of an audience.

What are some big mistakes that you see often though when people are putting on events and conferences?

Hugh: I think that big mistakes are putting together sessions that are kind of too general, that try to cover too much ground. It’s one of the biggest problems we find throughout is that, wow, this person looked like she was going to be a great speaker, but she tried to cover so much that it wasn’t particularly as compelling as what we thought, I also think that mistake you find is, or tip is that fewer speakers are better, meaning solo presentations, or two-person presentations often are better than a four-person panel. I’ve seen this as an organizer. I’ve also seen it in terms of being on panels myself that if you’re on a panel with three other people, you tend to think well, the other three people prepare for what they’re doing. And I can kind of just, wing it when I get on stage, unfortunately, everybody on the panel thinks that so no one prepares. Everyone tends to wing it. So when a panel is great, it is phenomenal and the analogy that I’ve heard many times it’s like a great string quartet, but that the ratio of home runs grand slams, to use your previous analogy to strikeouts on panels is much higher than in solo presentations or two-person presentations, where if you’re doing a solo presentation, you’re probably gonna have to put in some effort to prepare for it beforehand, because most of us can’t go on stage and completely wing it. Now some people can do that. And they’re really good. As an organizer, as someone who is fortunate to be asked to speak more often now. I’m still learning that science, if you can call it a science of energy and engagement. There are some times when I’m speaking where, wow, I feel like the crowd is largely engaged at times, I just don’t have them. And, I have some cheats that I bring now that helped do that we will ask a trivia question. And whoever wins, whoever answers the trivia question first wins a free badge or something like that. I mean, that’s a total hack and total cheat, but it does create that interaction between you and the audience, which is what you want in a conference, which is what you want when you’re a band playing on stage in any kind of atmosphere you want to be able to connect with the audience.

Are there other daily routines that hold near and dear, what’s that look like for you?

Hugh: I think my biggest daily routine at this point is I am pretty good at waking up really early in the mornings during the week, I sleep in like crazy on the weekends. Enjoy that like hell, but I can get in, particularly during the busy season South by Southwest I can get in a couple of hours of email of thought time before the meeting start. And that’s very valuable. 

And to be clear I hate waking up early in the morning, whether it’s five o’clock or six o’clock, I somewhat justify this with the realization or with the cheat or that I can give to myself that, well, it’s equally hard to wake up at eight o’clock or nine o’clock, waking up just sucks one way or another. So if you do it early, you can get out of the way. And after a cup of coffee, you’re kind of good. So that got through that first five or 10 minutes. But that’s been my particular hack is just trying to get a lot of productivity in the early part of the day. And that that helps a whole lot.

When people think of South by Southwest, what do you hope comes to mind for them?

Hugh: I hope that they think that one of their main associations is creativity. Again, I think that’s the bottom line of everything we do. It’s what the event still focuses on and what it focused on 30 years ago. And it’s what makes Austin special. It’s what makes humans special as compared to the machines that can do so much. And so I hope that’s one of their first primary associations with the event.

If you had a superhero power, what would it be?

Hugh: I would love to be able to learn a foreign language that’s not even a superhero power but it has completely alluded me, being my numerous decades on this earth so far. And partly at this point it’s just not having the time to devote to it. And it’s difficult and when there’s something difficult and you don’t have time for it, you got to push it to the back.

There are a few startups that are already figuring that out for us. So probably the next three years in our Apple air pods when somebody speaks to us in a different language, it’s just gonna translate automatically.

Hugh: Yeah, yeah, there is that. But I think that and maybe that’s, that’s the answer. This is just something we shouldn’t worry about. We don’t need to waste our time. But I think there is a process to learn that. My understanding from afar is the process of learning a language, a foreign language, again, immerses you or better immerses you in that culture and gives you a better appreciation of this global society we live in.

Anything else that you want to share with SXSW coming up not too long from now, and what to expect in the next few months?

Hugh: I will just reiterate some of what we talked about previously, I mean 2021 is going to be a very, very different year. As with everything else, 2020 and 2021, it’s going to be a smaller footprint for South by Southwest, there’s going to be slightly less content, it’s going to be a different kind of networking. That’s it again, we’re very excited about a lot of the opportunities here, there’s a lower price point to buy a pass this year, much lower. So we think that opens us up to a new audience, the fact that you don’t have to travel here, you don’t have to worry about a hotel, you don’t have to worry about all those kinds of challenges will open us up to a new audience also. 

And another thing that we’re really excited about is that the virtual space pretty much eliminates one of our biggest pain points over the last decade, which was that you can’t get into a room with blank blank in it. I really wanted to go see Obama when he spoke, but I didn’t win the lottery, so I didn’t get in. Now anyone can get into those sessions. It’s certainly a little bit different experience online than then being in the same room. That changes things in a lot of ways, and really excited about how that will play out.

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John Zozzaro

Thinker, Tinkerer, Problem Solver, Entrepreneur, Musician, Husband, Dad.

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One Comment

  1. I am looking forward to Hugh Forrests appearance on Office Hours on 1/6/21.

    On Office Hours on New Years Day I asked Alex Lindsay “What’s your prediction on what SXSW will use for their meeting platform? Zoom, Teams, Meet or Roll Yer Own?” Click on the link above to find out.
    What is Alex’s answer? I think you’ll find the answer provocative and fascinating. Next Wednesday on January 6 we’ll have Hugh Forrest as our guest on Office Hours and we’ll find out a whole lot more. Alex said at one point “If Grant, Blue [Melnick], Jef Kethley and I did this it would change the world.”
    Sign up now to be on the panel or be in the gallery as a participant. https://us02web.zoom.us/…/reg…/WN_740bLrO-RuGJ59Quk4WZdw

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