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Beyond Music: How SxSW Became The Hottest Conference For Mayors

Written by Amanda Maher

The annual South by Southwest (SxSW) festival, held last month in Austin, is unquestionably a premier event for those in music, media and technology. The conference and interactive festival attracts celebrities from John Legend to Sofia Vergara. They’re joined by some of the nation’s most innovative tech companies, eager to show off their new products and concepts.

Over the few years, SxSW has started drawing a new audience: city leaders.

No doubt, some attended to learn more about emerging technologies that are reshaping our urban landscape. Panels like “Metro Mobility Revolution,” “Policy Crowdsourcing: Innovators Find a New Voice” and “Better Living Through Data and Evidence” drew policymakers from across the U.S.

The festival’s Interactive Mayoral Sessions web page features a quote from Austin Mayor Steve Adler, whose city hosts the annual festival: “As mayors face growing challenges, there is no greater opportunity for mayors to meet with such a diverse and deep pool of thought leaders in the issues that drive our agendas, whether its transportation, smart cities, clean energy, or any of the million other innovations that change our lives.” Indeed, panelists for these sessions included the Mayors of Atlanta, Baltimore, Washington D.C., Saint Paul and Albuquerque.

But there’s no denying that the mayors were also hoping to pitch to America’s most innovative companies.

John Barros, chief of economic development for the City of Boston, hasn’t been shy about attending SxSW to attract tech companies. Barros routinely cold calls tech companies, but knew that SxSW was a great opportunity to pitch to them face-to-face. “We had some good conversations, met with some folks,” Barros told the Boston Herald. “We were really well received” by companies, he said, many of which are currently based in Silicon Valley.

Despite previously cutting the District’s budget to attend the festival, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser also went to the festival to pitch to companies. Even with the cuts,the District spent $350,000 to transform a downtown Austin restaurant and sushi bar into a “We DC” lounge and workspace during the day, and a provide a party venue for attendees at night.  Mayor Bowser’s predecessor, Mayor Vincent Gray, had attended for years, and cited SxSW as one of the reasons Washington D.C. has been able to lure new startup companies, business incubators and accelerators to its new tech corridor.

In order to compete with these larger cities, smaller metros are throwing their hat in the ring by sending delegations to SxSW, too.

“Austin’s achieved something here that Phoenix wants – to be a leader in tech, to have this amazing creative class,” Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton told The Guardian. “As Silicon Valley companies grow, Phoenix is one of their biggest expansion locations, but our challenge is to not just get the back office of eBay. We want the engineers, too.”

It wasn’t just mayors pitching to startups, though. Companies turned around and pitched to the mayors, too.

Amazon, Google, HomeAway and Maven (General Motors’ ride sharing service) all used SxSW as an opportunity to privately pitch to mayors. During a startup “Shark Tank,” smaller companies followed suit.

The SxSW festival has become so popular among mayors that The Guardian recently called it “the secret festival gathering for 20 US mayors with tech agendas.”

Some have criticized the steep costs of sending local officials to the event, but entrepreneurs stress the value in doing so. “It helps growing companies feel like the perception is we’re part of a hot, growing corridor here,” explained Neil Kataria, founder of StockUp Commerce, who attended SxSW as part of the District’s delegation in both 2013 and 2014. “That helps with attracting talent, and that helps with raising capital.”

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