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‘Howdy’ from a new Fort Worth SXSW: A look back at Fort Worth Now

Even the stairs said “Howdy” to the more than 2,000 festival goers as they entered the Fort Worth Now house in Austin.

The large metal building boasted bumping music, flight simulation and a main stage. Images of local talent from musicians to creatives were plastered on the walls. Out sweeping side doors was a lawn with a cornhole game, a full bar and a live music stage.

This is how the City of Fort Worth debuted Fort Worth Now at the 2018 South by Southwest festival in Austin. SXSW was founded in 1987 to help creative folks achieve their goals and share their passion with others. The event now brings together expert panel conferences with the interactive, film and music industries.

The 16th-largest city in the United States, Fort Worth has long been known as a center of cowboys and Western culture, but it is also experiencing development and growth in technological innovation and the arts.

It is this evolution that the city hoped to showcase through Fort Worth Now, created in partnership by Visit Fort Worth, the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, Fort Worth Film Commission, Hear Fort Worth and local businesses.

Robert Sturns, the city’s director of economic development, explained that a survey completed by the city in 2017 found that Fort Worth was not very well known nationally and that people across the country pegged it as the country’s 45th largest city instead of the 16th.

“When people do think of Fort Worth, it is typically tied to our history as a small town with a strong Western heritage,” Sturns said. “Our thoughts about SXSW was to ‘flip the script’ in a way and show that while Fort Worth does have a strong Western heritage, it also has a strong and growing collection of innovative businesses, creatives and entrepreneurs that call our city home.”

The 32,000-square-foot Fair Market venue for the Fort Worth Now house in Austin was just what was needed to share the city’s story, says Mitch Whitten, vice president of marketing for Visit Fort Worth (formerly the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau).

“It was a great location for all the elements we had planned: a stage for six official SXSW panel discussions, a music stage, the Bell Air Taxi experience, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 flight simulator, a makers market, photo booth and a business lounge for the mayor and business leaders to host guests,” Whitten said.

“The cost was approximately $500,000, funded by Visit Fort Worth, Fort Worth Chamber, private sector partners and a $100,000 grant from the Fort Worth Promotion Fund — its largest since the Super Bowl,” Whitten said.

Visit Fort Worth aims to have specific statistics on outcomes from Fort Worth Now’s presence at the festival but says the city had potentially 2 million impressions from social media and advertising alone.

“Our goal was to gain greater visibility of Fort Worth as a city of choice for visitors and a creative, educated workforce at one of the world’s premier conferences for trendsetters and influencers,” said Brandom Gengelbach, executive vice president of economic development for the Fort Worth Chamber.

“The highlight for me was hearing a variety of folks comment about how this was the best community house they ever visited,” he said. “Our ability to combine film, music, art and technology was a true differentiator among other communities.”

Many involved in the two-day extravaganza said they felt SXSW offered the right opportunity to feature Fort Worth’s technology, innovation and creative strengths to a broader audience.

“One of the biggest overall results of Fort Worth being at SXSW was the exposure. Being at SXSW allowed Fort Worth to showcase all the great opportunities our city has to offer,” said Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price.

She added that for her, the best part of the Fort Worth Now house was all the partnerships that came together “to debut a successful activation that told Fort Worth’s story.”

“This goes to show that there are opportunities for Visit Fort Worth and the Fort Worth Chamber to team up to promote our city,” Whitten said. “The private, public and creative sectors brought powerful stories to the event.”

Overall, the city’s first large-scale venue and entertainment center went as planned. While it didn’t ditch its Western roots, a new Fort Worth emerged with a modern focus on technological innovation and the arts.

“I think we accomplished what we set out to do and that was to show a different side of Fort Worth,” Sturns said. “Our history and pioneering spirit just goes to show that anything is possible in Fort Worth. I think that was shown by the number of people who came by the market and told us they had never thought of Fort Worth as this hip, vibrant place to be.”

But if you think Fort Worth went big this year, just wait for SXSW 2019, Sturns said.

“If anything, I would say that we have enough space at Fair Market and talent in our city that we could do it even bigger if we decided to go next year,” he said.

Gengelbach added that not only can this experience be a guide for how to do SXSW bigger and better next year, but it can be used as a scalable model in other key markets where the city wants to be known for its innovation, creativity and talent.

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