Should Houston Increase Its SXSW Footprint?

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What can the City of Houston do to promote H-town as a musical, cultural and artsy-fartsy tourist destination to the thousands of people who attend SXSW in Austin each year? That's the question posed by Jim Moran, a multi-decade veteran of the music/film/interactive festival, to representatives from the Mayor's office, the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Houston Film Commission and other movers and shakers in the city's varied entertainment world. Moran scored a meeting with Minnette Boesel, the Mayor's Assistant for Cultural Affairs along with Susan Christian, deputy director for the Mayor's Office of Special Events and three members of the marketing department at the GHCVB yesterday. Also in attendance were W. Ross Wells of Zen Films, Rick Ferguson of the Film Commission, SugarHill Studios marketing director Gina Miller and yours truly. After the meeting, we called Moran to find out how he thinks Houston could be better represented at the festival, and what his goals are for accomplishing just that. Moran founded Seamus Productions in 1990, as a musical promotion company. He now works with authors and performers like Jello Biafra, Ira Glass, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and David Sedaris. He's also a 23-year veteran of SXSW, meaning he's attended the festival every single year since its inception in 1987. About two months ago, he contacted the Mayor's office with the goal of bringing to their attention the importance of the festival in the development of the music and entertainment industries in Houston and to Houston's visibility around the world. "I think they might have been a little bit unaware that this huge festival was right down the road," he said. "Houston could really benefit from this." Moran cited a number of traits about Houston that many people, even its own residents, are unaware of -- that, for example, we're home to the largest medical center in the world, the Texas Medical Center (left). "I didn't know that Houston has over 90 consulates," he said. "Did you? And people can play golf here in December. My friends who golf really love that." If Moran had his way, the City would find sponsorship for a huge multimedia showcase that would act as a mini-embassy for Houston for the festival's duration. Moran cited the British Embassy party at SXSW that in its first year drew six attendees from United Kingdom and now draws around 6,000. Moran also talked about Texas' image outside of the state and the country. At SXSW this year he met a group of young British college students who were on their first trip to the United States - their university had sent them to Austin, and they didn't want to go back home. Moran, who is Canadian, felt the same before he moved here. "They told me there was ice in the tea and I thought 'It's just gonna be awful!'" But, he says, this city is reaching a kind of critical mass in terms of national attention. "I think Houston, in the last six months or so, has been mentioned in The New York Times three times." The most recent of those stories was just this weekend, when travel reporter Denny Lee spent 36 hours in our fair city. Previously, the NYT Travel section covered Houston's eclectic restaurant scene, and the growth of Washington Avenue. And in March, right about the time SXSW was wrapping up, Houston's music scene was also the subject of a Dallas Morning News article. The biggest problem he sees is that Houston has no national identity. Dallas is known for the Cowboys, Austin has Sixth Street and San Antonio has the Alamo and Riverwalk, he said. "Houston has never been 'branded.' We had the Super Bowl here, and we had Nipplegate so I guess we're known for that." Moran thinks the conditions are right for a grassroots effort to promote Htown, if only the City could give it a little momentum. "You know Houston could pull it off." As for why he thinks SXSW, an event that brings $100 million to Austin's economy, not Houston's, is the best venue, he said the infrastructure is already there - the City just needs to take advantage of it. "I truly do think that people who go (to SXSW) can learn a little bit about Houston and maybe be motivated to come here. There could be some sort of ripple effect," he said "I never wanted to have a version of SXSW for Houston. For one, it just wouldn't work - we're too spread out. And second, they're already doing it." Moran does think the June's upcoming Free Press Summerfest has some potential. "That could be the festival that can make it in a big city," he said. "But if Houston never wants to do anything in Austin or wherever, that's fine. I'm not out to get rich. My intentions are good."

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