March 13, 2023  •  3 min read •  By Kristina Monllos

Ivy Liu

Last March, South by Southwest returned in-person (and online) after taking place online in 2021 and being canceled completely in 2020 due to the pandemic. This year, the festival’s expected in-person attendance is closer to pre-pandemic levels, according to marketers and agency executives. They said they’re sending more employees to the event this year, and there’s more interest in experiential efforts on the ground now.

“In real life [experiential marketing] was lighter last year compared to pre-Covid years, certainly,” said Peter Lewis, chief partnerships officer for SXSW. “We’re witnessing strong interest and seeing activities that are on-par with previous years.”

Brands like Amazon Prime, Paramount+, Slack and Porsche will have immersive experiences for festival attendees. It’s unclear exactly how many attendees or brands will be there this year. SXSW did not share specific figures, but noted that the festival “will be significantly larger than last year based on registration numbers, hotel bookings, and client, exhibitor and sponsor activations.”

Marketers say they are returning to the festival with in-person experiential efforts, as people are more comfortable with in-person events and travel than last year. At the same time, many are focusing on experiential efforts at the festival because of its status as a “cultural tentpole for all things entertainment, tech and culture,” as Jen Verdick, head of partnerships and consumer events for Amazon Prime, explained in an email.

Per Verdick, while Amazon Prime returned to in-person experiential efforts at the festival last year, the streamer is “kicking it up a notch this year” by creating a faux city, Prime, Texas, to immerse attendees in experiences for nine different titles, including newer additions like “Daisy Jones and the Six” as well as more established ones like “The Boys,” among others.

Paramount+ is taking a similar approach to SXSW this year. The streaming service will use an experience called “The Lodge” at the festival to highlight “a broad mix of experiences inspired by popular series and franchises including ‘1923,’ ‘Star Trek,’ ‘Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies,’ ‘School Spirits,’ ‘Fatal Attraction’ and more,” Domenic DiMeglio, evp and CMO of Paramount Streaming, said in an email.

Slack, meanwhile, is leaning into its experience at SXSW as part of a retooled approach to marketing efforts for this year, according to Colin McRae, head of brand and creative at Slack.

“We’ve historically focused on driving awareness via a top-of-the-funnel, always-on approach,” said McRae, who added that with the current economic headwinds the company is being “much more considered with our brand marketing efforts.”

Slack is focusing its efforts on tentpole moments like SXSW, with the festival being of particular interest to the company because its target audience of “software decision makers and small business owners” congregate at the festival, McRae said. This makes it “an awesome opportunity to talk to both and do it efficiently,” McRae added.