Chief Programming Officer
Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer for South by Southwest (SXSW). Scheduled March 8-17, 2019 in Austin, this event brings together more than 70,000 industry creatives from across the United States and around the world. These creatives are inspired by nine days of panels, presentations, brainstorming, networking, deal-making, socializing, creating, innovating, and fun.
Forrest was named "Austinite of the Year" in 2012 by the Austin Chamber of Commerce (along with fellow SXSW Directors Roland Swenson, Louis Black and Nick Barbaro). In 2014, Forrest and these other SXSW Directors were named Austin Entrepreneurs of the Year by Ernst & Young. He recently received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Kenyon College, his alma matter.
In addition to his work at SXSW, he has previously served on of the National Advisory Board for the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida. He is currently part of the Board of Directors for Austin Habitat for Humanity and also serves on the Board of Directors for the Austin-based accessibility company Knowbility. Additionally, he is a trustee for the Austin Awesome Foundation.
Before joining the SXSW team in the dark ages of 1989, he founded a small monthly alternative publication called The Austin Challenger. He also wrote for several other newspapers and publications, including the Austin Chronicle, the Texas Sports Chronicle, the West Austin News, Willamette Week and the Seattle Weekly.
HTA - Tell us about your personal/professional background?
After growing up in Austin, I got an English Degree at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. I came back to Central Texas after graduation. I tried to make it as a writer for a few years, but I eventually stumbled into a job at SXSW in 1989. So, I’ve been working for the event for more than 25 years.
HTA - What’s new and different this year for the interactive part of the festival?
We’ve added a couple of new tracks for 2019. These two new tracks are “Blockchain & Cryptocurrency” as well as “Cannabusiness.” Both of these tracks run from March 14-16, which aligns with our strategy to create more tech-related content later in the week.
For 2019, we’ve also added the SXXpress system to the Conference portion of the event. This will allow badgeholders to reserve front-of-the-line access for at least two sessions per day. We think this SXXpress will significantly improve the user experience for attendees.
HTA - With so many sessions, what tips do you have for badge holders to maximize their time and enjoyment?
I think the most important tip is to spend a little time planning your SXSW strategy. So, what do you want to achieve at the event — and what panels and networking events can you attend that will help you achieve those goals. The online schedule as a very robust search feature, so use this resource for whatever planning you do. And remember it’s never too late to plan. If you haven’t already spent some time on the online schedule, spend a few minutes there before you go to the Austin Convention Center to pick up your badge.
HTA - What sessions are you most excited about? Can you point us to any “hidden” gems?
From the Health and Med-Tech portion of the event, I’m really excited about the “Making the Fight Against Cancer Even More Personal” panel that we added in February. Scheduled on Saturday, March 9, this session features Dr. James Allison, who was one of the Nobel Prize winners at 2018. A documentary about his life titled “Breakthrough” also plays on Saturday, March 9 as part of the SXSW Film Festival.
HTA - What speakers do you think will attract the biggest crowds?
The keynote speakers are always some of the biggest names in the industry. So, they draw particularly well. This year, there is also incredible buzz about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, so her session on March 9 will be very crowded. Although focusing on big crowds is not necessarily the best way to experience SXSW. It is often smaller sessions in smaller rooms with a speaker that you have never heard of before that will make the most impact on your career.
HTA - Are there any new tracks this year?
The two new tracks for 2019 are “Blockchain & Cryptocurrency” as well as “Cannabusiness.” Both of these tracks run from March 14-16, which aligns with our strategy to create more tech-related content later in the week.
HTA - Which one of the 25 tracks is generating the biggest buzz this year and why?
I think there’s a lot of buzz on all 25 tracks at SXSW 2019. But one that we’ve seen a lot more interest in for this year’s event is the “Future Workplace” track. This makes sense because people are very anxious about how artificial intelligence, increased automation, digitization and robotization will impact the jobs of tomorrow
HTA - What issues are dominating the Health & MedTech track?
A lot of the themes that run throughout all the programming at SXSW 2019 are also very prevalent in the Health & MedTech track. These are issues like the impact of artificial intelligence, data privacy and data security, as well as the transition to more blockchain-powered systems. There’s also the strong theme of increasing empathy and compassion in a world where this trait is increasing rare.
HTA - Can you share more about the Intelligent Future track?
The Intelligent Future track includes some of our most popular sessions. Scheduled March 8-14 at the Austin Fairmont hotel, panels and presentations in this track focus on artificial intelligence as well as other smart systems that are increasingly prevalent in our daily lives.
HTA - What are some traits that innovators have, when they successfully promote their ideas?
Innovators are sometimes smarter than the rest of us. But, more often than not, innovators are people who are just more patient and persistent in pursuing their dreams and passions (however far-fetched those dreams and passions may seem to be).
HTA - How do you learn? What are you reading?
I do most of my reading in the off-season for SXSW — so the months of April through August. I get a lot of good ideas about how to make SXSW from reading magazines like Wired and the New Yorker. Its a simple thing — but I always find I am a lot smarter when I spend time exercising my brain via a good magazine or a great book.
HTA - SXSW has had some of the biggest speakers/presenters in the world come to Austin, and 2019 is no different. Can you share a few names that have never made the trek to SXSW that are on your wish list?
There are so many massively creative people that we’d love to get to SXSW, but haven’t succeeded at yet! We’d love to have Alibaba founder Jack Ma come to Austin in March. Terry Gross from NPR’s “Fresh Air” is another one we have always wanted at SXSW. I know our community would also love to hear the insights of JK Rowling. On the music side, Bono has been a long-standing target. Jay-Z is someone who would also be a great speaker.
And the list of massively creative people who haven’t been to SXSW yet could go on and on for quite a while. Said another way, we have lots of challenges ahead of us for the 2020 event!
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