Get All Access for $5/mo

Breaking Down the Business of SXSW How this global cultural festival rakes in cash while churning out opportunities for those who make the most of it.

By Carlos Gil

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

From 700 registrants in 1987 to over 75,000 conference attendees in 2018, South by Southwest (SXSW) has transformed from a relatively small music festival in Austin, Texas, into arguably the world's most important creative convention celebrating and connecting innovators in technology, art, food, politics and more.

With total attendance that approached 289,000 at all official 2018 SXSW events, the conference made a $350.6 million economic impact on the city of Austin. To put into context the business that SXSW has become, consider that this economic impact through direct and indirect revenue topped the economic impact from the 2017 Super Bowl that took place in another Texas city, Houston.

"What hasn't changed amidst all that growth is a strong focus on creativity. Our mission statement now is the same as it was back in 1987: We help creative people achieve their goals," says Hugh Forrest, Chief Programming Officer for SXSW. "The fact that it happens in a very creative city is one of the things that makes it work."

Having just wrapped up my fourth annual attendance at SXSW, I can say that the 2019 conference looked even stronger, and I'm taking a look back to see what makes this festival so successful and inspiring.

"You have people who every year say SXSW has jumped the shark, but yet every year there's more hotels being built, more and more people coming, more traffic. That change is one of the reasons I love this event so much. It keeps you plugged into what's relevant and cultural now, but also plugs you into what's on the horizon," says Brian Solis, an author, digital analyst, anthropologist and futurist, as well as one of the many amazing speakers at the 2019 conference.

Attendees often spend $5000+ out of their own pockets on the festival, considering ticket prices of around $1,500 plus premium fares on flights and hotels, along with food and other expenses. Even if you snag a free drink at a VIP brand party, the conference is a considerable investment. Yet SXSW continues to grow with a cult-like following.

That's because the conference provides an exclusive forum for everything from learning how to become a better marketer to getting funding for your tech startup to networking with potential business partners or colleagues.

"There is a large contingent of folks that are trying to drive innovation in new and exciting ways. You have to make it a point [to find them]," says Bonin Bough, a marketing expert, investor and author, who is also a veteran SXSW speaker.

However, Bough notes that finding these individuals often requires more than gaining access to exclusive party; in fact, these innovators are sometimes the ones at more general SXSW events because they're new to the conference and don't know where to go per se. So, conference attendees that want to get the most out of their investments in attending SXSW need to find ways to network with all sorts of different groups everywhere from the registration booth to hotel lobbies.

"The only way you make great stuff is when [there's a collision of ideas] and there's friction and there's difference. And in the absence of that, it just becomes another place where you can go and get a drink on Twitter's dime or pay a lot of money for a badge," says Bough. But, if seek out diverse networking, "you can turn this into a very valuable opportunity for yourself."

Going forward, even as SXSW incorporates new technologies such as augmented reality and virtual reality -- which could perhaps bring the conference virtually to more people outside of Austin -- the festival looks to continue to be the place for creative people of all stripes to meet and spark new business opportunities.

"In a future that is increasingly automated, where AI has a more significant role, creativity has never been more important," says Forrest.

Watch more videos from Carlos Gil on his YouTube channel here. Follow Carlos Gil on Instagram @CarlosGil83

Carlos Gil

Author of The End of Marketing

Carlos Gil is the author of The End of Marketing: Humanizing Your Brand in the Age of Social Media and AI, an international keynote speaker, and award-winning digital storyteller with over a decade of experience leading social media strategy for global brands including LinkedIn.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

More from Real Talk w/ Carlos Gil

As Social Media Evolves, Do Marketers Need to Jump on New Platforms Like TikTok?

5 LinkedIn Growth-Hacking Strategies for 2020

Follow the 3 Ps to Grow Your Social Media Influence

Editor's Pick


ChatGPT is Becoming More Human-Like. Here's How The Tool is Getting Smarter at Replicating Your Voice, Brand and Personality.

AI can be instrumental in building your brand and boosting awareness, but the right approach is critical. A custom GPT delivers tailored collateral based on your ethos, personality and unique positioning factors.

Business Ideas

63 Small Business Ideas to Start in 2024

We put together a list of the best, most profitable small business ideas for entrepreneurs to pursue in 2024.

Business News

Apple Reportedly Isn't Paying OpenAI to Use ChatGPT in iPhones

The next big iPhone update brings ChatGPT directly to Apple devices.

Business News

Is the AI Industry Consolidating? Hugging Face CEO Says More AI Entrepreneurs Are Looking to Be Acquired

Clément Delangue, the CEO of Hugging Face, a $4.5 billion startup, says he gets at least 10 acquisition requests a week and it's "increased quite a lot."

Business News

Sony Pictures Entertainment Purchases Struggling, Cult-Favorite Movie Theater Chain

Alamo Drafthouse originally emerged from bankruptcy in June 2021.

Growing a Business

He Immigrated to the U.S. and Got a Job at McDonald's — Then His Aversion to Being 'Too Comfortable' Led to a Fast-Growing Company That's Hard to Miss

Voyo Popovic launched his moving and storage company in 2018 — and he's been innovating in the industry ever since.