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SXSW or CES? Why not both?

Monday - 3/10/2014, 8:39am  ET

SXSW trade show (SXSW)
The trade show at SXSW is one of the biggest draws at the annual festival (Courtesy SXSW)

Steve Winter, special to

AUSTIN, Texas -- We all know that the International Consumer Electronic Show is a four-day, 96-hour non-stop party.

Sponsor bashes, media showcase events, nightclub soirees and all the enticements, libations and entrapments that only a city like Vegas can offer makes CES a dynamic round-the-clock attraction.

But South-by-Southwest - commonly referred to as SXSW - now that's a party.

Day One was barely in the books at the Austin Convention Center Friday when the happy hours started sprouting like weeds.

It didn't matter if you were in the Registrant's Tent in the Marriott Parking lot, in the lobby of the Hilton Austin Downtown or in a meeting room that just hours earlier played host to an interactive session or a film seminar.

The carousing started early and continued well into the night. No question, the phrase "it's 5 o'clock somewhere" took root right here in Austin.

Revelry aside, CES and SXSW mean business, and while there are dozens of similarities between the two, there are numerous differences as well.

What's the difference?

While the Vegas event features educational sessions, keynote speeches and seminars, CES is primarily a technology and innovation trade show - the largest trade show, in fact, in North America.

If CES is all about technology, SXSW is truly all things to all people.

In addition to the interactive festival, which runs now through Wednesday, March 11, SXSW also features individual fêtes for music, comedy, education and film - the latter spread over the entire 10 days, ending March 16.

Wander the halls of the Austin Convention Center and you will find film, music and educational sessions bumping heads with programs, panel discussions, book readings, workshops and instructional sessions that cover web design, emerging domains, the future of Twitter, crowdsourcing, privacy issues, distance learning and hundreds of other subjects, each somehow touching the present and future of innovation.

Another major difference is that CES is open only to those within the consumer electronics industry while SXSW is - among other things - a public event.

Major industry players across all platforms understand despite costing tens of thousands of dollars to exhibit, display, entertain and promote, their message at CES will impact precisely the right audience.

Conversely, SXSW hits everybody. As they charge hefty admission prices, ranging from $600 to $1,400, the festival must entertain as well as inform. In the process, Southwest has emerged as a true incubator of original thinking.

The future begins in Austin

The trade show portion of the festival, which opened Sunday, is all about such innovation.

Of more than 250 exhibitors packing the main ballroom, roughly 80 percent are in their first two years of operation. The show also features other activities aimed directly at emerging companies including meetup sessions for newbies, Accelerator (a 48-company demo competition), ReleaseIt (a 10-company launch competition) and dozens of "how-to" instructional sessions aimed exclusively at startups.

So clearly, SXSW is the place to be if you are launching, have launched or are thinking of launching, and history is certainly on its side. Both Twitter and Foursquare emerged from Southwest, clearly putting this festival on the map as a legitimate driver of innovation.

But CES hasn't exactly given up its fight for the distinction of the most influential forward-thinking event.

In 2013, the Vegas event launched Eureka Park, a new, attractively priced pavilion designed to provide a platform for emerging companies. The concept was so successful Eureka Park doubled in size this past year and added a new division called Eureka Park Next! for companies that are well into their next stages of development and expansion.

So with both shows providing ample opportunities for networking, marketing, media relations and deal-making, perhaps it shouldn't be a matter of either/or, but rather a viable case made for both.

That is, of course, if you can handle another five days of constant hangovers.

Check out what's going on at SXSW:

Video by Kenny Fried

Editors Note: Longtime trade show attendees Steve Winter and Kenny Fried are contributing reports from SXSW. In their day jobs, they are public relations professionals with Sage Communications. During SXSW they will not be reporting on any of their clients' products or those of direct competitors.

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