President Obama gave the opening keynote at the 30th annual South by Southwest (SXSW) Music, Film & Interactive conference in Austin last week, capping a process that was 10 years in the making.

Hugh Forrest, director of SXSW Interactive, was responsible for bringing Obama to the media and tech industry event to speak about citizen engagement. In his position since 1994, Forrest has witnessed many signature sessions over the years, ranging from Twitter’s coming out party in 2007 to Meerkat last year.

A decade ago, he made a personal connection during SXSW with someone who eventually moved into an influential government role with access to the president. That connection led to Obama’s conversation at this year’s event with Evan Smith, editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune.

Click here for the full video of the exchange.

However, while the presence of the president provided unprecedented media coverage for SXSW, Forrest says that the high-profile programming is not the driving purpose of the event.

“The real meat of the event is the interaction you have with speakers and people in the rooms, and other attendees in the hallways and restaurants and bars and networking events,” he said yesterday during a SXSW Q&A session with digital marketing consultant, Stephanie Agresta. “It’s neat to have a breakout app like Meerkat. It helped with a ton of buzz but those are the anomalies. Really what happens at South by Southwest is you make small connections, follow up on those connections, and those can lead to big, big things.”

The evidence of that, Forrest summed up, was how a random introduction many years ago led to President Obama’s arrival last Friday.

We spoke with Forrest just before his session yesterday to dig a little deeper into his thought processes and priorities behind the development of South by Southwest.

Skift: Why is the South by Southwest brand so strong?

Hugh Forrest: I think the brand is strong mostly because of longevity. This is our 30th year when you go back to when it started as a music event. I think every year it gets a little bit stronger, and this year having the president speak at the event certainly gave it an authenticity and validity that we’ve never had before. So it’s neat to see the brand continue to grow and open new doors.

Skift: At the session about how data is impacting the music festival industry, one of the panelists said that people aren’t coming as much to see the musical acts, as they are for the overall experience. That seems to parallel South by Southwest. It’s maybe not so much about the content for attendees as it is the totality of the experience, including all of the programming at the tech company and destination pop-up venues. Do you hear that a lot?

Forrest: That is something we hear consistently that the experience of Austin and everything going on around the city adds so much to everyone’s time at South by Southwest. We work really hard on putting together what we think is very, very strong content, but we would be naive to think that’s the only reason that people come to South by Southwest. There’s a lot of great networking events, a lot of great restaurants, and great weather that gets people outside.

Some of those venues you mentioned are official, some of that is unofficial. As organizers, our job is always to try to bring that together inside the tent, inside the fence line. Some people don’t want that, so as much as we bring events into the official program, there are always new events that spring up in their place.

Skift: Can you comment on how your participation in Interactive has evolved over the years, and where you see the most movement looking ahead to 2017?

Forrest: Well, we’re talking light years. I started working on this particular side of the event in 1994 when it was called “Multimedia,” and at that point we were really pre-Internet. We were mainly focused on CD-ROMS, and we went through a brief period when we were basically just teaching people what the Internet was. That seems so foreign to us now because the Internet is like air, but there was a time when we didn’t know what it was.

Today, it continues to evolve. We’re getting more and more into mobile devices. We’re seeing more and more, particularly this year, virtual reality content at the event. We’re pushing a lot more health and med tech stuff, whether that be pure health and med tech or wearable devices that feed into that. I would say that South by Southwest is a very strong reflection of what is hot and trending and buzzing and captivating in Austin and the rest of the world.

Were also seeing, in terms of Skift’s particular space, more interest in virtual travel with virtual reality and 360-degree cameras. That’s what makes South by Southwest somewhat unique. It’s not just travel professionals, or health professionals, or social media professionals, or government. It’s all of these things combined in one place, so it’s a great place to network in your own industry, and it’s a great place to meet people outside your industry to make new connections that lead to really neat things.

Skift: So the first time you come to South by Southwest it’s completely overwhelming…

Forrest: You say that like it’s a negative thing.

Skift: Well, I was going to add that the sheer volume of programming and all of the energy is part of the allure. But regarding the content, what are you really proud of in terms of the quantity and quality of educational sessions and networking events? And what do you feel needs to evolve more in terms of the overall user experience?

Forrest: It’s satisfying when we get bigger names like a President Obama, like a J.J. Abrams, who’s speaking today. At the same time, 98 percent of the speakers are probably people you haven’t heard of but you might someday. That’s always what South by Southwest is about, whether it’s Music or Film or Interactive, is showcasing up-and-coming talent.

So, again, as much as we’re proud to have President Obama here, I’m really proud when we find out that someone who spoke here a couple years ago had some huge success. Not that we’re always brilliant in picking everyone, but we have over 3,000 speakers here, and some of them will go on to great things, and some of them not so much.

Skift: And where do you see opportunity for improvement?

Forrest: Things we need to improve on is just allowing the event to be more virtual. We have a degree of live-casting but we need to try and add more to that, so more people can experience the event from home if they can’t get here.

Skift: That leads to a big conversation in the conference industry among those who worry that virtual experiences will encroach on face-to-face events. What’s your take on that?

Forrest: You know, I think there’s still a fundamental difference between virtual and live, in the sense that with a live event, I can sit right next to you and have a conversation and look you in the eye. So there’s a kind of connection you can have that you can’t have in the virtual space. Now, we know that virtual reality technology is here and improving very rapidly. It may be in two years where I can put something on my head and you can put something on your head, and we can feel like we’re right next to each other.

At that point, maybe that hurts the events or travel industry. But I was on a panel Thursday and someone said, “Yeah, you’ve still got to have that exchange of molecules, and you’re not there yet with virtual reality.”

Tags: sxsw
Photo Credit: Stephanie Agresta (L), digital marketing consultant, and Hugh Forrest, director of SXSW Interactive. Skift