Overcrowding at SXSW

So we're in Austin, and it's rainy, and that means the streets haven't been as crowded as usual (so far). BUT it also means the conference venues are even more crowded than usual!

There were a lot of crabby SXSWers this morning, especially, when the first panel of the conference turned out to be so overcrowded that hundreds of people were locked out of three panels in a row.

Many woke up early Friday in order to catch Tim Reis of Google speaking on the topic of "OMMA: Is Mobile Really a Branding Vehicle?" at the AT&T Conference Center. Unfortunately, many of them were also turned away from the panel, which filled up around 9 a.m.

Anne Ahola Ward, who writes a blog about mobile marketing, got to the panel 20 minutes early only to find that it was already at fire code capacity. Festival staff closed the doors, letting one person in for every person who left. For popular panels, SXSW organizers often set up an overflow room with a video feed. However, this time they didn't.

"The staff was overwhelmed. The volunteers were overwhelmed," she told me. "They obviously weren't prepared for the response that they got."

People waiting to get in filled the lobby. There were two mobile panels immediately after Reis's. Those filled to capacity as well, leaving more than 200 badge holders out of luck, organizers told Ward at the time. At one point, staff told attendees to give up because "you're not going to get in all day." Ward sent a picture of a group of would-be panel watchers huddled outside in the rain after being turned away.

"I've had that happen in Music and Film," Ward said, referring to the other portions of the South By Southwest Festival. "But I've never been bounced like that at Interactive before."

Complaints about getting locked out of sessions at the overcrowded event aren't exactly new, but why were organizers so woefully unprepared for the first very panel of the conference this year? It may be the growing number of Interactive attendees, which has been increasing between 30 and 40 percent every year. It may also have been that the organizers underestimated how hot mobile marketing is.

"We hate it when we underestimate demand," Kelly Krause, a SXSW representative, said in an email. "We have never filled that large room at the AT&T before, so we didn't expect that would happen in 2013. We'll do a better job at planning for AT&T in 2014."