Mar 14, 2022 - Technology

SXSW marks return to new normal

Attendees enjoying the hospitality of the German booth in the expo hall on March 14, 2022 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Travis P Ball/Getty Images for SXSW)

A slew of packed parties and panels at Austin's annual SXSW (South by Southwest) festival this year demonstrated that the tech and entertainment industries still crave in-person events, even if they don't look the same as they used to.

Why it matters: The conference marked the first large-scale industry event to take place without big restrictions in the COVID era, and hardly anyone wore masks.

  • While vaccination was required to enter official SXSW panels, most exhibitors and venues didn’t have any serious COVID protocols.
  • Typically, dealmakers and top executives convene at the start of the year at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. But the Omicron variant pushed thousands of people to cancel their CES plans last-minute.

Yes, but: A significantly reduced footprint suggests people are choosier about their travels than they used to be.

  • Cab drivers, hotel staffers, restaurant workers and local business owners all remarked that the festival seemed less packed this year, although it was still a welcome opportunity to draw people back to their city.
  • Rainey Street, Austin's famous road lined with party houses, featured fewer branded bars and smaller presences from Big Tech firms that typically rent out massive houses for dozens of events and parties.

Driving the news: The metaverse, NFTs and blockchain technology dominated the event, with at least two dozen officials panels dedicated to those topics.

  • Michael Winkelmann, a digital creator known as "Beeple" who gained fame for selling the world's costliest NFT, was a featured speaker.
  • Fox's Blockchain studio served as South by Southwest's first-ever blockchain sponsor and created the first-ever SXSW NFT, per Axios' Tim Baysinger.

Streaming players went all out. CNN and NBCU both had major exhibitions touting their new streaming products.

  • Amazon, Roku and others made big splashes this year, a nod to their investments in original programming and film.
  • The sponsors of most of the city's famous pedicabs were streaming services like HBO Max, Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video.

Be smart: This year was the first SXSW festival under its new ownership.

  • Hollywood news giant Penske Media acquired a 50% stake in the festival last year via a joint venture that's parent to several music and entertainment publications.
  • The event, which started out as a music and film gathering, has since evolved to include more tech components.

The big picture: The festival reflected the ongoing tensions between the entertainment industry and states with less progressive policies.

  • While Austin is considered much more liberal compared to the rest of Texas, there was still debate over the role brands should play at the conference given the state's recent abortion law and measures against trans kids.
  • Clubhouse, for example, pulled out of the festival shortly before the event citing Texas' record on transgender rights.

The bottom line: SXSW's return represented a new normal for conferences and major events, where COVID measures are mostly ignored, but the lingering effect of the pandemic still impacts attendance.

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