Greg Galant of Sawhorse coined a term yesterday that captures perfectly what I thought of my 8th SXSW. We were having a discussion about big brands taking over the scene and he called it "conference gentrification". That's exactly what has happened down in Austin. The small startups and individual creatives were early to SXSW and created a great, authentic experience over many years--a "neighborhood" if you will--with a certain attractive vibe.
Brands, in search of interestingness, flocked to SXSW in search of the next cool place to be, like young executives moving into the big glass luxury buildings on the Williamsburg waterfront. What was once the GroupMe Grill--a stunt to buy out a little food shack across from the convention center that gained conference-wide attention--has become the Citrix GoToMeeting grill. Deloitte had a booth in the convention center where Twitter flat screens once stood seven years ago before anyone knew about the startup service.
I might sound like I'm shaking my fist saying "Back in my day!" and "Get off my lawn!" but this isn't necessarily all a bad thing. It's just different. New York neighborhoods that experience growth and change may lose that authentic feel, but they gain much needed economic activity while crime tends to drop. SXSW has become a fun way for lots of brands to interact with startups and creatives--different but not the same.
Every conference has its own neighborhood. The Collision Conference, for example, sold out right away because it comes from the same folks that put on The Summit. Those conferences feel a lot like a planned suburban neighborhood. They have no long organic history, but everything is beautiful and setup exactly the way you want it. A park near a lake, a school, and a three car garage--complete with Bill Clinton, Elon Musk and Snoop on stage prognosticating the future of civilization.
Other conferences will always feel like Red Hook--out of the way and tough to completely gentrify because of a lack of public transportation. Those are the hacker and designer conferences and the Bar Camps--not easily accessible to the general public but quite worth going to.
I love Red Hook and I love conferences like that. I'm looking for more. I want to spend more time with people who aren't big names where everything at the conference isn't perfect. I met Raul from Tinybop at the first Brooklyn Beta--a community run conference that had two investors and 148 designers, devs and creatives in attendance. Like the stereotypical white dude that has little interest in living next to other boring white people I'm the VC that wants to find out where the other VCs aren't.
I'm fully aware that makes me the conference gentrifier, but my hope is that where I go can stay under the radar for at least a little while before my kind changes things.