San Antonio’s top employers expect to see more than 30,000 attendees and participants during South by Southwest Interactive Festival in 2016. The annual event, held in Austin on March 11-15, has become a showcase for the best tech startups, companies and industrial experts in the world.

For years, local companies like Rackspace have participated in the festival to persuade millennials and young creative professionals that San Antonio is an emerging major city. But a new partnership between the City and Choose San Antonio, a local nonprofit, is expected to bring San Antonio’s presence to a new level.

City officials on Tuesday named Choose San Antonio as the lead coordinator for participating local businesses, advocacy groups and agencies at SXSW 2016.

This year’s showcase will include newer companies like Rhodium Scientific, a firm that provides governmental, commercial and private clients with laboratory, technical and scientific services. Founder Olivia Holzhaus previously attended the festival, where she found networking and education opportunities.

“I was blown away. It really changed my life,” Holzhaus said of her past SXSWi experience. She and her colleagues will be volunteering at the 2016 festival, in addition to networking and attending presentations.

Choose San Antonio was recently co-founded by local businessmen Eric Bell and Kevin Peckham, and supported by their respective companies Group 42 and Lightning Jar. The nonprofit aims to show millennials and young professionals that San Antonio is an engaging place to work and live.

Molly Cox, President & CEO of SA2020. Screenshot from Choose SA Video.
Molly Cox, president and CEO of SA2020, participates in a promotional video for Choose San Antonio’s #210Reasons campaign.

Peckham, a New York City transplant, introduced Choose San Antonio to Rivard Report readers with an op-ed piece published last month.

“San Antonio is the best-kept secret in North America, based on all that it has to offer. It’s a great place to be in. Attention is being paid to us but slowly,” Peckham said.

Choose San Antonio, through the combined efforts of Peckham and Bell, had worked several years to increase San Antonio’s presence at SXSW. The City of San Antonio, along with a handful of local civic, business and government organizations had tried separate yet similar efforts, but decided that the nonprofit should represent and spearhead the citywide effort.

“It’s an extremely exciting initiative,” Rene Dominguez, director of the city’s Economic Development Department, said Tuesday. “Here, Choose San Antonio has taken on the heavy lifting.”

That “heavy lifting” includes a mission to raise $600,000 to fulfill virtually all of what Choose San Antonio and its public and private sector partners hope to achieve in the way of programming for the trade show booth, sponsoring meetups, parties, select panel discussions related to San Antonio’s targeted industries, and other activities.

Choose San Antonio co-founder Kevin Peckman
Choose San Antonio co-founder Kevin Peckman

Peckham said $300,000 thus far has been raised; that amount includes $25,000 from the Economic Development Department for the trade show participation. Other sponsors and community partners in this initiative include Bexar County, the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation, Whataburger, Trinity University, Tech Bloc and Geekdom.

On Tuesday, Peckham told City officials that San Antonio’s official presence at SXSW Interactive is two-fold. The nonprofit helps to promote the city’s quality of life, efficient costs of living and doing business, and economic growth, while local public and private sector participants get to help with recruiting high-technology talent.

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), who is on the Council’s Economic and Human Development Committee, said that Choose San Antonio complemented the City’s economic development tactics in pursuing startups for relocation.

“This helps to get our voice out there, we really haven’t had a footprint (at SXSW) until now,” she said. “It’ll be great to have local talent talk about San Antonio.”

The City will present a 20-foot by 20-foot showcase developed to reflect “the friendly, community-driven, easygoing feel of San Antonio culture,” with little designs that pay tribute to the city’s icehouse culture. The Culture and Creative Development Department is contributing $15,000 to support local artist Cruz Ortiz’s new original work that will be found at the trade show booth, and on the City’s future promotional materials.

The official main logo for the City of San Antonio's formal presence at the 2016 South by Southwest Interactive portion. Courtesy image.
The official main logo for the City of San Antonio’s formal presence at the 2016 South by Southwest Interactive portion. Courtesy image.

Funds will also help train the 25 “ambassadors” who will educate SXSW attendees about life and work opportunities in San Antonio. Ambassadors haven been chosen from different career fields that range from architecture and business to civic leaders and fitness experts.

At the time of publication, Choose San Antonio had confirmed the participation of more than 15 ambassadors, including: Tech Bloc Executive Director Marina Gavito, filmmaker Sam Lerma, Puro Pinche’s Stephanie Guerra, Free Flow Research founder and Rising Barn President Peter French, SecureLogix executive David Heard, Chef Tim Mcdiarmid, and musician/multimedia artist Daniela Riojas.

“We’ll have a more collaborative atmosphere at the booth,” Peckham said. “The ambassadors will talk about what makes them passionate about San Antonio, what brought them here, and what makes them stay here.”

Choose San Antonio has also leased the Old School Bar and Grill, which for three days and nights during SXSWi, will be called “Casa San Antonio.” The two-story venue will host a number of daytime and evening activities, serving as what Peckham calls the City’s “cultural embassy.”

Activities at Casa San Antonio will include official SXSW panels with San Antonians addressing topics such as cuisine, technology and cybersecurity, ain addition to parties, receptions, meetups, and networking opportunities. Geekdom will throw a party for attendees, too. Casa San Antonio will offer coffee and tacos in the morning along with Mobile Om yoga, as well as lunch, during the three days.

Local firm Grok Interactive has volunteered to develop an app that will help attendees seek out SXSW events specific to San Antonio. There are also plans for a bus to shuttle attendees from San Antonio to Austin and back, free of charge. Additionally, the San Antonio Film Commission will co-sponsor a reception for filmmakers attending SXSW.

Choose San Antonio and the City will formulate metrics to measure San Antonio’s success at SXSW. Peckham envisions the City expanding their reach from SXSW to similar large-scale conferences such as the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and the World Maker Faire in New York.

Other Council members expressed excitement for San Antonio’s SXSW expansion plans.

“This is one hell of a presentation’,” said Councilman and Committee Chairman Joe Krier (D9). “I wasn’t familiar with Choose SA. I am now. I am pleased with your enthusiasm for our city.”

Councilman Ray Lopez (D6) said that the consistency in messages from the public and private sectors could help the City to capitalize on connections made between investors and startups.

“That’ll ensure leverage for everyone’s investment,” he added.

The new level of  San Antonio participation at SXSW fits within the City’s long-range economic strategy, Dominguez said. He encouraged elected City leaders to join the San Antonio contingency at SXSW Interactive, if even for one day.

“Traditional economic development involves the recruitment of companies, but as economic development has evolved over the last 20 years, you have to start focusing on entrepreneurship, startups and the ecosystem that involves bringing City leadership with us,” Dominguez said. “We have to tap into all this in a different way. What I’m really excited about is, this will provide an opportunity for us to give a different message, a message that we’re a flourishing startup community where there’s a tremendous amount of growth.”

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*Top Image: The City of San Antonio will have a trade show booth at South by Southwest Interactive. Courtesy image.

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Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.