sxsw chaos

There is nothing more disappointing than shelling out major money for an event badge, meticulously planning your agenda, and showing up to the event only to find all the sessions you were looking forward to are overbooked.

For attendees of the annual South by Southwest Interactive Festival, this has become a recurring disappointment. Last year, event organizers sold 24,000 Interactive badges, yet the keynote room only accommodated 1,500 attendees.

This has become a major thorn in SXSW’s side and a vocal frustration for festival goers who are actually there for the sessions, not just the parties — and there are more of us than one would think!

The problem is magnified as SXSW grows exponentially each year. Attendees often have to be in line an hour or more before the most popular sessions, yet all sessions are planned just 10 minutes apart. We are often left with two strategy options:

  • Pay $1150 (the current price for an Interactive-only badge) to get into maybe one popular session and another lesser session a day, or
  • Settle for a few less appealing sessions that may or may not be valuable to you.

SXSW Interactive has become one of the largest tech events in the world. Including free activities, the entire 2012 event had more than 300,000 attendees. But SXSW’s billing methods are prehistoric.

It might not be a silver bullet, but activity-based billing could surely help. You know those fancy badges with our pictures on them and drink tickets inside? Imagine if they came with RFID chips that could be scanned throughout the event to enable more pricing options.

Imagine this:

  • SXSW allocates credits to be used for access to sessions. The more desirable the session, the more credits they require for entrance (a real-time marketplace). Pay a market price for only the sessions, shows, or screenings you attend. The most popular activities cost the most, while the niche sessions are a great bargain.
  • Pay additional credits to reserve a seat at conference sessions.
  • Corporate or volume discounts would be available for those who are using badges heavily.
  • Earn credits for social activities like tweets, likes, upvotes, or shares that promote the conference.
  • The pricing options are infinite and stand to deliver significantly more value than the flat rate badges. And don’t even get me started on the wristbands, which arguably have been declining in value since 2003.

There is enough flexibility in an activity-based billing structure that SXSW could bring in optimal revenue while ensuring customers don’t end up feeling frustrated by the fact that SXSW overbooks like a flight on Christmas Eve.

If the Interactive portion of SXSW doesn’t take action to address the situation, the competition surely will continue to do so. We’ll see continued growth of unofficial, private SXSW events (renegade technology sessions, speakers, “nerdvana” parties, etc.) taking place in Austin in parallel to the official fête — not unlike what we’ve seen increasingly happen with SXSW Music.

James Messer is co-founder and CEO of billing startup Transverse. Messer has spent more than 18 years focused on the telecommunications and IT industries with a focus on billing. He is also a big music lover and attends the SXSW interactive and music events every year.

Image credit: Alfie Photography/Shutterstock