Lounging at SXSW

Until the South by Southwest Interactive festival, it had been a while since I'd thought about Blackberry, the company. I'll confess that I have one of their old phones, the kind with keys that displays a bizarre version of the Internet as slowly as possible on a non-touch screen. In my daydreaming about iPhones and Androids, I'd forgotten that somewhere, somehow, the company that made my cruddy phone still exists.

But on the first day of the hipster conference known for launching start-ups and showcasing technologic innovation, I found myself  walking, with a friend, into the Blackberry House. Yes, that's right—house. Blackberry took over an entire property to remind someone, anyone, that it still existed. The house wasn't exactly easy to spot, being a few blocks away from the convention hall and the center of downtown. But upon arriving, it was hard to miss. The modest home suddenly had a giant "Blackberry" sign on it. Inside, the rooms had been painted blue and black (the company's signature colors, evidently), and featured various new (!) Blackberry devices. While there were fire marshals to handle any crowd excesses, I only saw a few other people milling around. There was a yard with a stage, and another garage-like building out back set up as a lounge, complete with couches, tables, and a bar. The drinks were free, as were the plastic sunglasses. We went outside and sat on a picnic table, also decked out in a black and metallic blue paint. Almost immediately, one of the Blackberry crew sat down with us. He eagerly started telling us about the company's new phones and seemed embarrassed when I pulled out my clunker. He had to use his own phone to show us the new features, however; the van sitting in the yard, where all the new phones were hooked up for onlookers, had run out of gas. It was a little awkward.

A couple days later, I found myself back at the house. This time, there was a definite crowd. We got two drink tickets and waited in line for our free beer. The hipsters for which SXSW is so famous danced to a DJ in the yard. Some were actually wearing the plastic sunglasses. But when it came to texting or making calls, everyone I saw had an iPhone or a Droid.

Who knows how much Blackberry spent on its house, free drinks, entertainment, crew. For eight days, the place was open from noon to 7 p.m. For the last four, there were concerts scheduled throughout the afternoon. Even with the limit of two free drinks, it was a heavy investment just to try to persuade some hipsters the brand is cool again. Yet Blackberry was hardly alone—back at the convention center, a number of "lounges" offered festival-goers a place to sit, recharge their phones, and usually grab or eat or drink some free stuff. It's hard to figure out why. Each place I asked, company reps told me it was about raising profiles, re-branding an image, or introducing new products. But rebranding ain't cheap. Companies spend thousands for their lounges (if not houses). Those that opt to sponsor the event usually pay six figures for the privilege. That means companies that you’ve either rarely thought of or have never heard of spend untold sums to convince festival-goers that they’re hip, cool, and relevant. What with the free drinks and swag, most attendees seem to feel they're welcome to try—after, maybe, giving them the obligatory eye-roll.

American Airlines certainly spared little expense. The airline giant that less than two years ago declared bankruptcy was a festival sponsor, hosted a lounge and—get this—actually tried to appeal to people. An enormous screen projected tweets tagged #NewAmerican; displayed as a mosaic, they formed the image of a new American Airlines plane. Pretty girls in red pants and gray shirts offered digital tours of the new 777-300 planes. (Key selling point: there are bars in business and first class.) They informed visitors about the various programs the company was sponsoring to help start-ups at the convention, like mentoring sessions and a hackathon for developers designing travel tools. There were special stations to recharge your phone. Free massages! It would have been stunning—except that so many other lounges were even better.

Most famous was the Circus Mashimus lounge, which even has its own website. The carnival theme was cute. Big posters modeled on freak shows advertise various “mash-ups: the mermaid that’s half-woman, half-fish; the mullet; the Camaro; the list goes on. Happy hour started at 4 and offered free beer and wine. There was a photo booth, T-shirts and popcorn, even some places to sit down. Not surprisingly, the lounge was almost always packed. The inexplicable thing about Circus Mashimus is that it was never quite clear what it was advertising. It was easy to ignore the different brand displays set up around the edge of the room—and the reps at each one had to explain that the lounge was sponsored by Mashery, an API-management company, whatever that might be. This wasn't unique; another SXSW tent offered free grilled cheese and beer for downloading a group-texting app that no one seemed to know anything about.

For some brands, of course, creating buzz is more straightforward. Free six-packs of Oreo cookies were practically ubiquitous during the weekend. Milk’s favorite cookie was usually getting washed down with alcohol at the registrant’s lounge, where people in official Oreo T-shirts seemed to have an unlimited supply. At the convention center, however, you had to earn your free cookies. At a giant display, known as the “Grab n’ Go Lounge,” you had to pose with your pack in front of a camera; afterward, the image was superimposed on an Austin locale you had to identify. The line was constant, because apparently there’s nothing people won’t do for free cookies.

Not that swag guarantees success. Samsung was everywhere at SXSW—entire storefronts were taken over to showcase the company's claim that “the next big thing is already here.” The Samsung lounge was beautiful—long white tables and chairs on white carpet and a display of major Samsung products. At each chair was a free one-shoulder backpack, each filled with extras: a stress ball, a packet of mints, a notebook. It was among the only lounges with a consistent table of food and a refrigerator full of drinks. Cheapskate heaven. But apparently not everyone is obsessed with free stuff; every time I peaked in, there were empty chairs. Few reviews of the festival even bothered to mention the brand. And those suckers at the Oreo station seemed to have no idea they could get unlimited free cookies just a few yards away.

Sometimes, the lounge scene gets downright awkward. Take the BBC America Roadhouse lounge, a tent just outside the convention hall. It had all the makings of something great—free booze, TVs screening clips from various shows, booming Brit-pop. It also was a bizarre British nightmare of what Texas must be like. Burlap was everywhere. Inside the tent, mason jars with unlit candles hung from wagon-wheel chandeliers. There was a mechanical bull-dog (get it?). Instead of woodchips on the ground, the shavings underfoot appeared to be from a hamster’s cage. Perhaps most offensively, next to giant troughs of Doritos (another heavily sponsored SXSW food group) were jars of salsa. Because in Texas, apparently, even cool ranch flavoring is better dipped in some salsa. “It’s all tongue and cheek!” I heard one BBC America representative explain to some disgruntled Texans.

Perhaps most truly lounge-like was the PayPal space. Tucked away in a less-trafficked corner of the convention center, the brand went all out in creating a comic-book fantasy for web designers and developers. Blue lighting around the room showcased giant graphic storyboards. On nearly all of them, Lichtenstein-style characters were wowed by the advantages of PayPal. You could superimpose your face into a superhero comic in which a hero proudly stops evil zombies by announcing "I DEVELOP!" The comics printed out as stickers, perfect for laptops. In another part of the room was a competition to see who could install the company’s API fastest. The winner got a MacBook. Best of all, once you downloaded a PayPal app, you could get a blue slushy, alcohol optional.

It was an impressive display. It was also for one-time-only use. John Lunn, the global director of developer relations for the company that designed the lounge, explained that the PayPal set-up would likely not be appropriate in any other setting besides SXSW. He seemed pleased by that. “We wanted to make developers feel like superheroes,” he said. “You’ve got to get into the spirit of South-by,” he said. “It’s a conference crossed with a rock festival.”

There's no doubt the lounges and parties add a splash of fun to the conference. But while encouraging thought leaders to tweet about a brand or a product can certainly help raise a profile, I never seemed to find a satisfying answer to why big brands spend so much money trying to get 25,000 or so attendees to tweet about them. One PR lady told me her brand was there because everyone else was. For companies as big as American Airlines, Blackberry or even PayPal any bump is surely tiny at best; even giving out a couple of free drinks isn't enough to convince partygoers that Blackberry is now hip.

Of course at this point, who's going to tell the companies not to throw a fun party? After all, free drinks, as the interactive demographic seems to generally agree, are free drinks.

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