Fairfax / Newcastle Herald column March, 2015
I HAVE just returned from the South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive festival in Austin, Texas and, despite having attended previously, I was still astounded by the impact this event has on the city.
SXSW is actually three different festivals rolled into one 11-day period; SXSW Film, SXSW Interactive and SXSW Music.
Interestingly, it is the five-day interactive section that is the biggest, attracting start-ups, tech gurus and geeks from around the world for hundreds of keynote presentations, panels, demonstrations, parties and an enormous trade show.
Since I last attended about five years ago, the city of Austin has boomed, with several major new hotels opening, dozens of new restaurants launching and old sections of the CBD being totally revitalised.
During SXSW Interactive, the city was buzzing with about 30,000 visitors filling every nook and cranny.
The positive vibe reflected the goodwill Austin has generated over the past few decades via major events. But my anecdotal analysis was reinforced by recent figures for the 2014 event.
The impact of SXSW 2014 on the city of Austin’s economy was revealed following a study commissioned by the festival by Greyhill Advisors, to be a staggering $315million.
SXSW Interactive director Hugh Forrest told the Austin Business Journal that the figure was roughly 65per cent of the impact that a city like New Orleans saw from hosting the Super Bowl.
It’s nearly a third of the net impact that the 2012 Olympics had on London.
The difference is that SXSW happens in Austin every year, which means that both the economic impact and the cultural cachet that the festival brings to the city are permanent fixtures.
The impact of SXSW trickles down throughout the entire Austin economy – waiters make a typical month’s wages in a week; cab drivers can work round the clock; restaurants near the Austin Convention Centre can charge a massive premium to close their doors and become sponsored venues; pedicab drivers can make enough to pay for an entire year’s worth of tattoos on a good weekend; local taquerias, pizza places, and barbecue joints can basically just keep cranking out the catering tickets for 11 straight days; videographers who have to otherwise hustle for work can find their phones ringing as Samsung asks them to shoot a pop-up performance by a famous pop star. And so on. The flow-on effect is simply staggering.
It is no coincidence that Austin is consistently ranked as one of the fastest growing cities in the US, attracting thousands of new residents and businesses each year.
No doubt, many arrive after experiencing the excitement of SXSW.
Which brings me to Newcastle, a city crying out for world-class events and a world-class convention centre in the CBD.
Imagine thousands of visitors experiencing all the great things Newcastle has to offer; a fabulous waterfront and working harbour, amazing beaches and hundreds of quality cafes, bars and restaurants.
Melbourne and Sydney have known for years that holding major events is the best way to market a city. Newcastle’s corporate and political leaders should be working together to create and support unique events that will showcase the city to the world.
The benefits to the city can be undeniable.