A mainstay on many marketers’ calendars, SXSW, and especially SXSW Interactive, has changed a lot, right alongside the industries that meet within it. Beyond being a showcase and meeting place for those in entertainment and marketing, brands continue to leverage the event due to its sheer mass. SXSW runs from March 13 through to the 22nd with its Interactive, Film and Music segments overlapping, with other events running under those banners.

Hugh Forrest, Director of SXSW InteractiveHugh Forrest, Director of SXSW Interactive, photographed by Rusty Hodge

Take, for example, the Gaming Expo, which is free and open to the public and attracts brands, games and gamers alike as festival-goers rove from one event to another.

“I think that’s strong testimony to the strength and power of the geek community in 2015,” says director of SXSW Interactive, Hugh Forrest. “Said another way, its really exciting that so many of these brands are using the power of the SXSW platform to expand their reach.”

In an exclusive interview with [a]listdaily, Hugh talks about the growth of the event, what the hottest areas of growth are, brand involvement and how SXSW has evolved over the years.

How has festival attendance grown in the past few years? Are you seeing certain parts aspects of the festival grow faster in comparison to others?

We have a 10-year growth cycle from 2004 to 2014. Much of this growth was fueled by startups and social media — people were coming to SXSW to learn (what we now consider) very basic aspects of social media. The social media side of things has cooled off a little in recent years, simply because we are no longer in the discovery phase of this industry. But, SXSW Interactive still remains an incredibly relevant event for the digital creative community, particularly as this community tries to understand the impact of the rapidly-changing hardware ecosystem. Indeed, verticals like 3D printing, the Internet of Things, drones, robots and autonomous vehicles have probably replaced social media as the hottest areas of growth at SXSW Interactive.

“The social media side of things has cooled off a little in recent years, simply because we are no longer in the discovery phase of this industry.”

What is the expected turnout this year

We will have somewhere between 30,000 and 35,000 total registrants for SXSW Interactive for 2015. But, quantity is far less important than quality. The people who get the most out of SXSW are the people who use the event to make a couple of dozen very solid connections. One-on-one connections that help take your career to the next level is what SXSW is all about.

How has the event evolved, are there any major changes this year?

The event has changed a lot in the last few years — and change is a good thing. What I mean here is that there are always some people who will bemoan that “SXSW was so much better five years ago.” Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. But the event would be really boring if it stayed exactly the same every year. The tech industry changes and evolves and transitions — and so do we. Again, change is a good thing. As for the biggest new developments for 2015, look no further than the new JW Marriott hotel which opened in February 2015. Located on Congress Avenue in the heart of downtown Austin, this new hotel gives us a ton more flexibility in terms of meeting space (as well as a 1000 more sleeping rooms). The addition of the JW Marriott has lots of far-reaching consequences. For instance, it has allowed us to add a new SX Health & MedTech Expo (on March 16-17). The new JW Marriott has also allowed us to double the amount of space in Startup Village — thus accommodating even more entrepreneurs at the 2015 event. Again, the JW Marriott is a game-changer on many levels.

“The event has changed a lot in the last few years — and change is a good thing.”

What kinds of brands are getting involved this year and how

Lots of different brands involved in SXSW Interactive 2015. Some of these brands are larger multi-national companies that most of us are very familiar with (companies like McDonalds and Phillips). But while those larger companies draw a lot of media attention, the bulk of participation comes from smaller up-and-coming entities who you probably haven’t heard of yet. These up-and-coming entities are leveraging the SXSW platform to reach the cutting-edge audience that can help take their product or service to the next level. That’s essentially the same strategy that bands, filmmakers and tech developers have employed at SXSW since it started in 1987.

How important was it for gaming culture to be represented at SXSW?

Gaming is certainly a big part of the digital creative lifestyle that we celebrate at SXSW Interactive. It took us a little bit longer to building up the gaming side of the event (mainly because there is so much competition from other gaming events and conferences in the spring). But, SXSW Gaming is now on very solid footing. Over the last few years, this has become one of the most popular aspects of the SXSW Interactive experience.

SXSW covers a whole lot of ground in everything entertainment, but what are you most looking forward to seeing this year?

There are a lot of speakers who I am really excited about for 2015. One of these is David Weinberger, who was a keynote at SXSW Interactive about 10 years ago. He was one of the co-authors of the book The Cluetrain Manifesto, which still serves as a bible for much of the online world. I could give you a list of a dozen more speakers who I am also really looking forward to seeing. But ultimately, its the attendees who are the most exciting part of SXSW Interactive. Their energy and passion and enthusiasm is what makes this event so much fun to be involved with. Feeling that energy and passion and enthusiasm always makes all the hard work of preparing for SXSW completely worthwhile.