AUSTIN - Fort Worth kicked off its second year of hosting a house at the giant South by Southwest festival here Friday, inviting patrons to take their hand at flying an F-35, taste local whiskey made by Firestone & Robertson, listen to local emerging bands, and test their DIY spice-making skills with Chef Tim Love.
Last year, the Visit Fort Worth bureau hosted a house in East Austin in the middle of the South by Southwest week celebrating innovation. This year, Fort Worth took over a bar on Rainey Street in the heart of Austin and the festival, and opened on Day One of the interactive segment, with Day 2 on Saturday. By late afternoon, Visit Fort Worth estimated 1,500 people had come through the house, dubbed the “Bungalow;” it appeared the city would easily beat last year’s two-day attendance total of 2,000. (See our VIDEO, Sights and Sounds from Day One.) UPDATE: Monday March 11, Visit Fort Worth estimated preliminary total weekend attendance of 3,700.
Lockheed Martin Aeronautics’ F-35 simulator, inside a tent, anchored the front-yard entry to the Fort Worth bungalow and was a big visitor draw.
“There was a line out the door and down the street (at Friday’s 10 a.m. opening), everybody got buzzed in, and they came here,” Eric Fox, senior director of government relations for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, maker of the F-35 and F-16 fighters in Fort Worth, said.
Bell Helicopter, testing advanced, but simple, controls as it develops urban air taxis of the future, let visitors try three flight simulators. Firestone & Robertson’s mixologists offered three whiskey tastings during the day, with hosts passing shot glasses through the crowd. Fort Worth’s Renfro Foods executive Jim Renfro and his wife passed out take-home bags of salsa and chips, with Renfro warning guests to be wary of the salsa’s burn. Fort Worth bands Ansley, Danni & Kris, and Abraham Alexander played. New York travel blogger Lee Abbamonte, who touts himself as the youngest person to visit every country, held forth during one session. And Fort Worth photographer Rambo Elliott debuted a one-minute trailer for a short film about mental health due to be completed later this spring.
Fort Worth is using South by Southwest to project itself as a hip, creative city for people to live, work, and play in, a focus that emerged from findings that the city has fallen behind Dallas in numerous areas. “We’re trying to let people know Fort Worth is not just cowboys and culture; we’re hip, we’ve got a great music scene, great food,” Mayor Betsy Price said in an interview at the Fort Worth bungalow, touting the city’s creative talents such as Love and F&R owners Leonard Firestone and Troy Robertson.
The bungalow kept its high energy into the evening, with a consistent din of conversation, music, and programming. Love put on two spice-making sessions Friday and will host a free “global taco station” lunch at the bungalow Saturday. Love, whose spice-making sessions were met with long lines, delighted in coaxing information from visitors about what they liked to cook. “Alright, we’ve got a man from Dallas here,” Love, who was miked, announced on more than occasion Friday as he manned the spice station. “Let’s all give him a big round of applause.”
At an afternoon South by Southwest panel on the use of Google Street Maps to predict neighborhood trends long before that data shows up in Census data, Fort Worth City Council member Ann Zadeh, a speaker on the panel, invited attendees to show up to the bungalow.
Fort Worth also recruited several “ambassadors” from the business community to greet visitors, answer questions, and share their perspective on the city.
One of the ambassadors, Kyle Valley, senior vice president of Majestic Realty, which is in partnership with Fort Worth’s Hickman family on a major redevelopment of the Fort Worth Stockyards, said the first five people he greeted included three students who’d either just graduated college or were seeking master’s degrees. Those three “specifically came here because they had been looking to get into the aerospace sector, but they had no idea (Lockheed Martin) had that kind of presence in Fort Worth.” And “they thought it was unique that a city had its own space activated.”
Valley, a Californian who moved to Fort Worth last year from Majestic’s offices in San Diego, is himself learning to differentiate Fort Worth from Dallas. “I wasn’t able to differentiate it, because I hadn’t spent any time here,” he says.
Another of the ambassadors, Eddie Broussard, manager of corporate banking for Texas Capital Bank and based in the company’s downtown Fort Worth office, has the unusual perspective of having lived in Fort Worth for 20 years, moved to North Carolina for another job and living there for 11 years, and then moving back to Fort Worth five years ago.
“When I left, there were maybe two restaurants on Magnolia,” he says. “Now there are 20. When I came back, I was blown away by all the things that are happening in Fort Worth.”
Andy Miller, another ambassador, is the head of healthcare and social services giving for Fort Worth’s Morris Foundation. “Fort Worth is a well-kept secret in many ways,” Miller, who lived in Austin for years. “We want people to know how much it’s growing” and expanding in terms of its offerings.
The bungalow also drew a contingent of members of Fort Worth’s Entrepreneur’s Organization chapter. The EO Austin chapter put together a series of events for South by Southwest, including hosting a scheduled Saturday public session with Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, who will meet privately later with EO members who are in town.
“Fort Worth is one of these really great cities that people outside of Texas don’t really know much about,” Jeremy Brandt, a Fort Worth area entrepreneur and EO member who visited the Fort Worth house Friday, said. “We’ve got all this awesome stuff happening in Fort Worth, but people really don’t know about it outside the state.”
Fort Worth, in assembling its South by Southwest pitches, has sought a mix of mature companies and entrepreneurial energy, particularly given the city has aligned itself with the festival’s innovation and technology segment. Companies like Lockheed Martin were launched by entrepreneurs, Bob Jameson, president of Visit Fort Worth, said. “Fort Worth’s history has long been a story of people taking risks, charting new paths,” Jameson said.
Visit Fort Worth has also sought a highly experiential offering. “At South By, you need an experience to pull people in,” Mitch Whitten, Visit Fort Worth’s executive vice president for marketing and strategy, said. “Rainey Street is not a place to try and explain things, as much as it is to entertain.”
Visit Fort Worth, which has spent $500,000 in each of the last years on South by Southwest, mostly from its advertising budget, is measuring the effectiveness by social media reach, attendance, and brand sentiment about Fort Worth.
Last year, Fort Worth received an estimated social media reach of two million, Whitten said. He expects Fort Worth to exceed that number with this year’s bungalow. Visit Fort Worth also expected to handily beat last year’s attendance number, because of the better location of this year’s house.
On brand sentiment, Visit Fort Worth runs a survey each year within Texas and surrounding states that measures how well the city fares in respondents who are considering weekend getaways. “Fort Worth is not as high as we want it, but last year, we moved the needle,” Whitten said. “And later this year, when we take the survey again, we want to move the needle again.”
Visit Fort Worth hasn’t yet committed to returning to South by Southwest again next year, and is studying whether it can allocate the hefty pot of money it invests on the one festival to a range of other opportunities, Visit Fort Worth executives said. Jameson noted that Visit Fort Worth left South by Southwest last year without having re-upped, so it’s possible Fort Worth will return to the festival next year. But “to me, this can’t be the only place where Fort Worth is hanging its hat,” Jameson said. “We just need to take a look at the universe.”
OTHER FORT WORTH MAGAZINE CONTENT ON FORT WORTH AT SXSW:
(Video) Sights and Sounds from Day 1 at the Fort Worth Bungalow
(Video) Fort Worth photographer Rambo Elliott debuts trailer for short film on mental health at the Fort Worth house.
(Video) What's the youngest person to visit every country think of Fort Worth? Lee Abbamonte was in Fort Worth's SXSW house this weekend.
(Video) One of Fort Worth's SXSW ambassadors gives us an update on an important Fort Worth real estate project he's involved with.