Westeros invaded Austin earlier this month. As part of the occupying force, a priestess demanded that all before her bend the knee and pledge fealty. Dothraki, Wildlings, and the stoic Unsullied Army threatened to erupt into a full-on melee while representatives of the Seven Kingdoms were literally out for blood.
Thankfully HBO didn’t bring any actual dragons it might have on its payroll. The interactive experience, one of countless so-called activations that corporations and brands mount each year during South by Southwest, was designed to promote the upcoming final season of fantasy television series Game of Thrones. The network also partnered with the American Red Cross to collect blood donations, promoting the event as an opportunity to “Bleed for the Throne.”
Yet George R. R. Martin’s fictitious world wasn’t the only place to take over a corner of Austin as the more than 75,000 visitors attracted by SXSW converged for ten days of screenings and panels and concerts and parties. Nearly twenty very real cities, countries, and regions unleashed marketing armies of their own to capitalize on all those eyeballs.
Japan set up an embassy on Congress Avenue. The city of Fort Worth dispatched a contingent to the Rainey Street entertainment district. Philadelphia temporarily claimed a piece of Sixth Street. Present too were Michigan, D.C., Australia, Scandinavia (which even flew in the Danish princess), Spain, Brazil, and both Germany and the German city of Hamburg. The list goes on. They came seeking to spur both tourism and economic development.
Fort Worth has had a sizable SXSW presence (notably, Dallas doesn’t bother) for the past several years. “Fort Worth is a bit of a blank slate for folks,” said Robert L. Jameson, president and CEO of Visit Fort Worth. “This is an opportunity with people from all around the world, all across the country, to be able to give them a sense of what opportunities exist, what the spirit and energy is for the city of Fort Worth.”
In 2018 Fort Worth and the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce went all out by booking a sprawling venue (Fair Market, where this year’s Game of Thrones experience took place) for two days to show off a replica of a new helicopter and vertiport from Fort Worth–based Bell Helicopter.
This year the city scaled down a bit, confining its two-day efforts to a smaller bungalow on Rainey Street. Fort Worth musicians performed. Tacos from celebrity chef Tim Love were served. Bell offered flight simulations, and T-shirts were screen-printed with advertisements of the city’s aerospace programs in stylish designs. Visitors also enjoyed free chips and salsa from Fort Worth brand Mrs. Renfro’s and whiskey tastings from Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co. The mayor of Fort Worth, Betsy Price, even led a bike ride along the nearby Lady Bird Lake hike and bike trail.
“We think we have an audience where a message of innovation and inclusion and creativity and technology and inspiration hopefully will resonate, and hopefully we will have filled in a picture of Fort Worth a little bit more clearly for them,” Jameson said.
Meanwhile, Japan erected a giant red-and-white upside-down Mount Fuji structure on the patio of the 800 Congress event venue. The country’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, along with artist Yoichi Ochiai, built out an experience they dubbed the “New Japan Islands,” meant to highlight the country’s history, spiritualism (tea ceremonies, monks), and technology (mechanical game pachinko).
Guests had to remove their shoes to enter and then walked along elevated platforms through the space. The centerpiece of the staging mimicked a traditional Japanese living room. Among the programming were an opening ceremonial prayer, zen sessions with monks, a comedy show, and a look at Japanese candy. Free ramen, wagyu beef (which comes from Japanese cattle), and sake were offered. The setup was so elaborate that it won SXSW’s official Creative Experience Arrow award for best immersive experience.
The Amplify Philly House on Sixth Street was comparatively ragtag in highlighting the city’s technology, business, and music scenes. David Silver, president and cofounder of a coworking space for creatives called REC Philly, was the lead organizer of Philadelphia’s SXSW presence. He decided the city should launch a centralized effort after he attended his first SXSW six years ago and found himself running from venue to venue to see Philly musicians.
Hence, Amplify Philly, which started as a music showcase and has grown this year into a house highlighting tech startups as well. The three-day-long effort was supported by 42 sponsors, as opposed to the city’s tourism board or economic departments (as are most of the other city and state promotions). It’s “this whole community-bootstrapped effort,” Silver said, “which is very Philly-like.”
The house was simple: programming, music, mural art, 3D printing, virtual reality displays, a lounge. It’s about “making sure that you understand that Philadelphia has a really vibrant arts and tech community that’s rising,” Silver said. The city’s own DJ Jazzy Jeff headlined one of the house parties. One panel discussion covered the benefits of launching startup companies in the city, and another covered it as a destination for film production.
Worth noting, however, is that one of the Philadelphia’s best-known figures, Flyers mascot Gritty, didn’t make an appearance at the house, even though he was in town. He popped by Philly-based Comcast’s SXSW’s activation instead. Supposedly, his schedule was tight.
“Gritty’s catching some flak from our community for not making a stop,” Silver said. “It was a bummer, but at the end of the day, the fact that he was just there and still representing Philadelphia was cool.”
Hockey mascots mixing with tech visionaries, creatives pitching their next projects, entrepreneurs hoping to connect with industry leaders, and those just looking to be entertained—it’s just that remarkable assemblage of people from varied backgrounds that draws the world to SXSW.