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SXSW 2021: Inside the Tech Strategy for the Massive Virtual Festival

Baptiste Boulard, CEO of virtual event platform Swapcard, teases what attendees can expect at this week's massive online festival.

SXSW's VR Rendition of Downtown Austin
To honor SXSW's home of 34 years, the virtual event will feature a VR rendition of downtown Austin, designed by VRrOOm. Attendees will be able to "walk" the streets and visit various venues for events and panels.
Photo: Courtesy of SXSW

When the 2020 edition of South by Southwest was canceled just five days before it was slated to begin, it served as a bit of a wake-up call for the event industry. We all know what happened next.

So there’s reason to be extra excited for this year’s all-virtual festival, which takes place March 16-20 and will include a mix of keynotes, panels, music showcases, film screenings, networking opportunities and virtual brand activations, with speakers including the likes of Stacey Abrams, Willie Nelson, President George W. Bush and Ava DuVernay.

It’s certainly an ambitious undertaking for the event better known as SXSW, which drew more than 280,000 attendees in 2019 and comprises a variety of different events, including a conference, a film festival, a music festival, a comedy festival, award shows and a Professional Development Hub with job resources for the creative community. New for 2021 is the Creative Services Exhibition, a digital expo highlighting creative organizations and small businesses, as well as SXSW Online XR, an immersive, 3D experience that recreates downtown Austin.

Unsurprisingly, a festival this complex requires an experienced event partner. Earlier this month, AI-powered event and matchmaking platform Swapcard was named as the official virtual platform for SXSW Online 2021 (as well as SXSW EDU Online, an education-industry event that took place March 9-11). The company—which has offices in Paris, Seattle, Montreal, Dubai and London—will be facilitating the event's livestreamed sessions, virtual exhibitions, live Q&A components, chat features and networking opportunities.

BizBash chatted with Swapcard CEO Baptiste Boulard to learn what the team has planned.

Your company has experienced 400% growth in the last year. What has that been like? 
Last year was very intense for Swapcard, both in terms of emotions and growth. Swapcard was known for its matchmaking and event app for large, complex in-person events, so when COVID hit we had to adapt our business to survive. Over the course of four months, we worked hard to support all our clients in their move to virtual events. We have since powered over 1,700 virtual conferences and exhibitions all over the world. We opened new offices in new cities, grew the team from 40 to 150 employees and hired leaders like [EventMB founder] Julius Solaris, who joined us recently. We expect to power 5,000 events and host 10 million attendees on the platform, as well as hire 100 new teammates this year.

How did the partnership with SXSW come about? 
SXSW has been using the same provider for its mobile app for years. This provider isn’t currently able to power virtual or hybrid events, so the SXSW team set about looking for a modern platform to continue to deliver innovation to their audience. Swapcard was selected very quickly in the tender process because of the versatility of the platform, our look and feel, and our team’s experience in powering large events. We just finished NAMM Foundation’s Believe In Music Week, which is a similar event.

How much customization is being done to your standard platform for the festival?
Swapcard’s features cover all aspects of a virtual experience, so we didn’t need to do any customization. There are likely no other platforms on the market that can power events as complex as SXSW, which is both a music festival and a B-to-B event, without any custom development. This is Swapcard’s competitive advantage. 

Swapcard’s tools will drive the connections and networking recommendations throughout the event. The platform is also the home of the Creative Industries Exhibition, which is the epicenter of business for SXSW's online experience.

SXSW is one of the most anticipated events of the year, and everyone is eager to see how they pull off such a complex festival in a digital environment. Are there any specific details you can tease before tomorrow's launch?
It’s indeed more than an event, but a true festival being hosted on Swapcard this year. From the film and music festival to the comedy festival, in addition to all the conference aspects, it’s going to be big and busy. We cannot reveal much, but we can share that in order to offer the greatest experience possible, we brought different solutions together like Connected Apple TV, mentor sessions, VRrOOm and VRchat to SXSW Online’s main platform powered by Swapcard. 

What are you most excited about? 
When you visit SXSW in person, it encompasses the entire city of Austin. Everywhere you look is a part of SXSW, and you are truly immersed. How to replicate that feeling in a digital-first environment was a fun challenge to focus on, knowing that individuals consume media in many different ways.

Through Swapcard, we built five live “channels” for attendees to be able to watch and switch between, in addition to discovering, filtering and searching through the agenda. [It’s all] seamlessly connected through SSO with SXSW Online Connected TV apps and a Music Festival Showcase in VR.

At the end of the day, SXSW is in every sense a community, and they are dedicated to helping creative people achieve their goals. Knowing the importance of meaningful connections, a lot of the focus for Swapcard was to reduce all barriers to discovery for an individual attendee. With all of the distractions that exist in our world and at home, it was important to allow the attendee to be as efficient with their time as possible.

What do you think attendees are looking for at virtual events, now that we’re a full year into the pandemic? 
Attendees want an engaging experience. People are tired of attending virtual events on static platforms. This forces virtual event platforms to innovate and provide an experience as amazing, engaging and emotional as we used to see at in-person events. Many platforms offer a list of features without creating a truly engaging attendee journey.

The biggest challenge for the industry is to continue to offer a digital-first experience when we go back to hybrid and face-to-face events, as attendees really enjoy virtual event experiences. However, most virtual platforms were only developed to be virtual, whereas Swapcard was a physical event provider for a long time before pivoting to virtual. We’ve got the best of both worlds. Other platforms will have to adapt to upcoming trends, like hybrid event models, in order to survive. So we’ll see continued innovation and lightning-speed tech growth, which we’re excited about.

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