Gallaga: What it took to launch a SXSW Interactive spinoff conference in Las Vegas

5:13 p.m Monday, Aug. 12, 2013 Lifestyle

When it’s your job to organize a growing event that attracts more than 30,000 people each year and has hundreds of pieces of programming, setting up a much smaller conference of 1,200-1,300 people with a narrower focus would seem like a cinch, right?

But what if the smaller conference was in a different city and you were tasked with giving the new event a unique identity while still retaining the qualities that made the original a success?

That was the challenge that Christine Auten, event producer for the new South by Southwest V2V in Las Vegas, and other SXSW Interactive staffers faced when the spinoff conference was announced in October. V2V, which began Sunday and runs through Wednesday, is focused on tech startups and entrepreneurs.

SXSW V2V is meant to take some of the pressure off Interactive’s rapid growth, which has been problematic given downtown Austin’s limited infrastructure for supporting such a large event, but it’s also a flag planted in a city that fest organizers believe could have a lot in common with Austin in the future. Startups led by Zappos chief executive Tony Hsieh are working to revitalize downtown Las Vegas; what downtown Austin is like in March during SXSW Interactive has been cited as one of the chief inspirations.

The task of keeping SXSW Interactive’s year-round machine moving while setting up the first year of an entirely new event has not been without speed bumps. Organizing a business-focused conference in August when many prefer to go on vacation has been a challenge, said SXSW Interactive director Hugh Forrest. And while the SXSW name opens plenty of doors and has cachet in the tech industry, it doesn’t exactly carry the same buzz in Las Vegas as it does in Austin.

That said, Sin City appears to be embracing V2V with open arms. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority supported the conference with a check that, Forrest said, “paid for a lot of the organizational work for the first year.”

Las Vegas is a town with plenty of infrastructure set up for such a conference; in managing the details, Auten said some of the organizing has been less stressful than the team was expecting.

“Vegas has been easy to work with in a lot of ways,” Auten said. “They speak the language, and it’s been quite exciting to see how quickly a lot of these things can come together.”

Aside from the logistics of making sure the conference venue, the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, could accommodate the conference, a lot of the planning for SXSW V2V involved getting to know the city and meeting with locals in the startup community.

Gabriel Shepherd, a Las Vegas-based community liaison for SXSW V2V, said Interactive staffers have done their homework. “They have a pretty good pulse of the scene here,” Shepherd said. “There’s definitely a cultural fit.”

Part of Shepherd’s involvement with SXSW was helping bring more than 100 people to the Austin conference in March and getting the word out about V2V with a trade show booth, a party and a cocktail hour. “We had Vegas volunteers handing out Vegas tech-branded Elvis sunglasses,” Shepherd said, “little plays on Vegas, trying to get attention.”

Though it’s much smaller than Interactive in terms of the amount of programming, it features a familiar mix of keynote speakers including Hsieh, AOL founder Steve Case and fashion entrepreneur Lauren Bush of FEED Projects, evening parties, mentor sessions, a V2Venture startup competition and “20/20 Vision,” a set of 20-minute presentations.

Unlike SXSW Interactive, panels for V2V were not chosen through a crowdsourced Panel Picker process because of time constraints. Instead, some panels submitted for Interactive 2013 that didn’t make it into the festival were revived and other new content was curated by SXSW staff. Auten promised, “There will be a Panel Picker for V2V next year.”

Because it’s South by Southwest, V2V also features opening and closing parties, music showcases and a movie screening hosted by Alamo Drafthouse founder and CEO Tim League. Auten said the idea behind that, as Interactive has demonstrated, is that artists and business people can learn from each other.

“It all ties together,” she said. “Filmmakers, a band — those are all startups. They’re also facing the same challenges.”

Though it’s a smaller event, Forrest believes the work put into making V2V its own will pay off for both conferences. “We think we’ve put enough fun things to give (V2V) its own personality, but parallel with what we do in Austin,” he said. “We’re really excited to see how it turns out.”

It’s unclear so far if launching V2V will curb some of the growth at the Austin Interactive fest. Forrest said that until next March, that question will be unanswered, but the first day of registration on Aug. 1 for SXSW Interactive, Film and Music was the strongest yet.

“There’s continuing high demand for all things Austin,” Forrest said.