Some would call it the most important social and professional networking event in the world this weekend, and right smack dab in the middle of it all was San Antonio’s “cultural embassy,” showcasing not only the city, its food, music, and people, but also its clout among the giants at this year’s South by Southwest Conference (SXSW).
Just blocks from the Convention Center on Austin’s trendy Rainey Street, Choose San Antonio’s base camp, Casa San Antonio, neighbored international brands like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Nerdist, Intel, and even destinations like Mexico and Japan.
And on Friday, the first day of the conference that annually brings more than 72,000 creatives from around the world to Texas’ capital, more than 2,500 festival goers visited Casa San Antonio for an official SXSW lineup at the Half-Step Bar.
According to organizers, that number already far exceeded the weekend total at Casa San Antonio when it was located on Sixth Street last year, the first time Choose San Antonio activated at SXSW to showcase the city.
From a stage set up in the courtyard of a vintage-cottage-turned-bar, presenters like Peter French, CEO of Rising Barn in San Antonio, talked about the future of a city that’s the envy of others in many ways. San Antonio is very clearly courting developers, he said. Places like Austin are not because they don’t need any more development.
“The future of San Antonio real estate,” French said over the sounds of construction all around, “is the future of other cities that’s already passed.”
Molly Cox, president and CEO of SA2020, addressed San Antonio’s future and how SA2020 is working to measure progress in 11 cause areas and 59 community indicators. Since starting the process in 2010 to identify causes and measure improvement, and working with 145 nonprofit partners, the County, and City, progress has been made in most areas, she said. Ultimately, “we believe the rate at which we’re moving will get us to where we want to be.”
“It’s unusual for us to attend conferences like this,” said Catherine Buell from the Atlanta Housing Authority, who was one of several whose hands shot up with questions following Cox’s presentation. “But we are trying to get unique ideas, both in terms of our workplace and equitable development and seeing how people are tracking their data so we can better do our jobs, particularly in the data space.
“Because it’s one thing to say you’re doing it,” she said, “but once you can track it and show it, that says everything.”
Buell added that she enjoyed Cox’s straight-shooting approach, and that’s exactly what Choose San Antonio organizers intended. “It speaks to the way we in San Antonio engage in conversation,” Choose SA Executive Director Meghan Garza-Oswald said.
“However, our ultimate goal in inviting SA2020 to SXSW was to explain how we approach measuring progress from a digital perspective,” she continued. “After all, we’re at an interactive conference, and I think one of the things we have embraced about SA2020 is the idea that we should invest in sophisticated ways to measure progress that can be shown in real time.
“The fact that our city is coming around to the idea of measuring progress in real time, then taking initiative on that is the message we wanted to convey.”
Another of the day’s SXSW Official Panel presenters, Hotel Emma’s former culinary concierge and Trinity University‘s current Alumni Relations Director Hugh Daschbach, discussed the Pearl development and the hotel.
“That project in particular is a catalytic, near-term transformation that could happen anywhere if you have the right mix of community leaders and private citizens coming together to create what was once a locals’ destination into a locals’ and tourists’ destination,” said Eric Bell, who co-founded Choose SA with Kevin Peckham. “And it’s truly a culinary destination that came together in less than 10 years.”
When the sun set on the day’s programming, and attendees had had their fill of the first day of SXSW panels and talks, all of Rainey Street came alive. Badged crowds lined up at the area bars and parties and visited Casa San Antonio for “the best in San Antonio music,” presented by San Antonio Sound Garden, including Lost Project, Dolphin Dilemma, Carlton Zeus, and White Elephant. Trinity University hosted an alumni mixer.
On a rain-soaked Saturday, and true to the SXSW goal of “fostering creative and professional growth,” there was something at Casa San Antonio for everyone – from journalists and artists to entrepreneurs and techies.
That day’s programming kicked off with breakfast and a talk by Cured restaurant’s Steven McHugh, and later New York Times reporter David Philipps discussed “Staying Human in the Digital Age of Reporting.”
Geekdom CEO Lorenzo Gomez spoke about the companies that make up the evolution of San Antonio’s startup community.
“The currency of the startup ecosystem is stories,” he said.
A group of about 50 gathered under the tent and umbrellas to quiz Gomez about startup communities. One woman from São Paulo, Brazil, asked about civic involvement in helping startups; another attendee inquired about the startup forecast for San Antonio. Soon, Austin and San Antonio will be a mega-region, Gomez answered, as big or bigger than Silicon Valley.
Saturday’s programs also included Half-Step Bar’s owner Chris Bostick talking about the rebirth of the cocktail culture, and NPR correspondent Sam Sanders, who described his first-hand experience of covering the 2016 presidential election. A San Antonio Spurs vs. Golden State Warriors watch party followed.
“We are the only city to essentially compete with multi-billion dollar social media marketing companies,” said Bell of Casa San Antonio. “I’ve heard people say, ‘I wish we could do this.’ But it’s an easier thing for larger organizations to do. Or a country can throw dollars at this in a way that’s challenging for a city. There’s a lot of appetite to do it, but it’s really expensive.
“In the end, we fundamentally believe it’s incredibly worthwhile for people who are not from here to come and spend some time at our embassy.”
San Antonio’s presence at SXSW continues through Monday, March 13.