Nobody would challenge the idea that Amplify Philly is an eclectic coalition. Organizers pride themselves on it.
More than 75,000 people descend on Austin — a Texan boomtown that has nearly doubled in population since 1990 — each March to attend this sprawling creative conference that grew out of a music festival. (The adjacent music fest is still larger, with double the number of attendees following the close of the tech-minded Interactive conference.) Beyond the traditional conference sessions that take place inside the city’s convention center and nearby hotels, SXSW says more than 700 official after-parties and special events take place.
The megaconference has also, in recent years, featured an array of “activations” from different cities, states and countries coming to look cool for the future.
Here’s how it typically goes: A company or organization rents out an Austin bar, restaurant or, indeed, an empty lot and invites attendees to come visit. Every organizer hawks free drinks and swag and programming such as parties, meetups and panel discussions to lure people into their venue, always with a sales pitch embedded somewhere. Twenty-something social media managers track mentions on Twitter and impromptu bouncers use clickers to count foot traffic. Then these data go into formula-packed reports to defend spending on open bars for economic growth.
It’s a bit different at the Amplify Philly House, where a handful of enthusiastic millennials are striving to recreate an experience of their city’s creative side in the middle of a land of corporate power brokers. So, is the effort working?
Institutionalized economic development efforts trend toward one or more of three goals: visit us, employ our residents, do business with our existing employers. Most cities have a hodgepodge of nonprofits and quasi-governmental organizations focused on this sort of work, including tourism agencies, business attraction units and economic facilitation entities, now fashionably with a startup twist.
Philadelphia, too, has many of those economic development organizations pursuing those same goals. But at SXSW, the city’s representation is led by a merry band of young civic creatives — setting aside Quakerly reserved support from Visit Philadelphia (tourism) and StartupPHL (city government economic facilitation). That results in an approach that is somewhat different than other activations, like the commerce-prioritized WeDC House or more tourism-infused Choose ATL.
For Amplify Philly organizers, forming their strange and scrappy coalition of Philadelphians is success in and of itself.
“I continue to realize that the best way for Philadelphians to build authentic relationships with each other is to send them halfway across the country and put them in a house that celebrates our great city,” said Dave Silver, 27, cofounder of membership-powered creative company REC Philly, which is a primary organizer of Amplify Philly.
Silver said more than 3,500 people came through the Amplify Philly House, a three-day rebranding of the Pour Choices bar on Austin’s Sixth Street. That was nearly 2,000 more people than last year, he said, when the group first rented the venue for two days of the conference. For the two prior years, the group tested activations by renting space in the convention center’s sprawling exhibit hall and hosting one-off events.
(For context, the WeDC House, which was hosted on Austin’s newer, growing Rainey Street, welcomed 6,632 attendees in its larger venue, according to a representative of the Washington DC Economic Partnership.)
Local interest has grown in the familiar trek to Austin. This year, more than 400 Philadelphians attended the conference, Silver said, including a mashing of tech professionals and music acts.
"I continue to realize that the best way for Philadelphians to build authentic relationships with each other is to send them halfway across the country and put them in a house that celebrates our great city."
With Silver’s cofounder and childhood friend Will Toms, also 27, REC Philly has architected the Amplify Philly coalition. Supported logistically by scrappy events production firm Witty Gritty (they predate the Flyers mascot) and supported structurally by tiny nonprofit Philly Startup Leaders (PSL), Amplify Philly exists thanks to a cross-subsidy between innovation-curious institutions, cash-rich technology firms, reluctant economic development groups and local music acts.
That’s why in Austin you might have seen Alex Urevrick-Acklesberg, dev firm Zivtech CEO and early Amplify Philly champion, dancing madly to the music of World Town Party, a seven-piece house music band based in Philadelphia.
Nearby, access-seeking service providers and city economic development leaders cheered and danced and got each other drinks. During the day, the group organized panels and programming — this reporter agreed to join in. Other speakers ranged from staff from the University City Science Center, the staid, high-brow West Philly real estate institution, to a staffer from social sharing company reddit. Most speakers were Philadelphians, though not all.
Organizers gleefully distributed Tony Lukes cheesesteaks (helped by Tony Luke Jr. himself, who, apparently, debuted a song) and La Colombe coffee, while the Eagles played. They also hit the streets to make sure there was a tiny Philadelphia imprint in one of the world’s most established gatherings of creatives.
Austin during SXSW is a loud place, made more chaotic still this year by the 8,000 electric scooters that were dumped on the city. The question, then, that Silver and other organizers most often face is whether they can catch anyone’s attention there, and, even if they do, if that much matters at all.
Devoid of the structured backing of a traditional economic development group, Silver is saying Amplify Philly might be something different altogether.
— Amplify Philly (@AmplifyPhilly) March 11, 2019
The smashing of independent film and music with corporate and economic development efforts at SXSW’s assorted place-centric activations is bound to produce strange bedfellows — the festival is full of these moments. The difference is that Philadelphia’s offering has been among the most truly grassroots of endeavors I have seen in a decade of this sort of reporting.
Through PSL, Amplify Philly has the vocal support of influential business locals, including Guru CEO Rick Nucci, Danielle Cohn of Comcast’s Lift Labs team and Laurie Actman of the University of Pennsylvania. They’re joined at the bar with people like Chill Moody, the charismatic rising independent hip hop star. At the Amplify Philly House, the dressed-down corporate interests and independent musicians aren’t just guests, as they are everywhere at the conference, they’re the organizers — take Zivtech’s Urevrick-Acklesberg for example.
In the open waters of SXSW, where most cities bring well-financed naval vessels, Amplify Philly is like a fleet of cheesesteak-flag-waving pirate ships, and its crew knows it: “We’re the only ones doing it like this,” Silver said last year.
Many hands are on the steering wheel. Witty Gritty founder Michelle Freeman enlists her own family to manage the house’s AV; PSL Executive Director Kiera Smalls checks folks in at the front door; Penn’s Center for Innovation marketing manager, Kat Hinkel, manages a promo booth; connector Tiffanie Stanard lures her own sponsors to activate inside Amplify.
The night of DJ Jazzy Jeff’s headline set, I spoke to a pair of Austin residents who came to the Amplify Philly House specifically to see a defensible hip hop icon whose celebrity is aided by 90s sitcom rerun nostalgia. The pair had no imminent plans to visit Philadelphia, nor would they be relocating or doing any particular business with the city. But they reported having a new understanding of a city they had never visited before. And, they said, it seemed there was a certain familial association among the Philadelphians represented in Austin.
“Amplify has become a brand at SXSW that attendees look forward to at this point,” Silver said. Like his fellow organizers, Silver has thrown himself into the Amplify Philly cause. He and Freeman and others are unquestionably committed to exposing their city at this conference.
There’s something undeniably charming about this effort. There’s so much noise and hype and cost to SXSW that I couldn’t confidently say I have any consistent belief that any person, organization or city should be represented there. In recent years, Chicago has reduced its footprint. Boston, New York City and Los Angeles have never had full-scale activations. Those that remain, like D.C. or Atlanta, are part of well-coordinated, regional marketing campaigns.
Next year will mark the fifth year of activating as a group in Austin. By then, it’s worth a closer look at it all.
I know every marketer who makes a big bet on a crowded place like SXSW is scrutinized. Whether four years of organizing in Austin has had some grand outcome or not is unclear. Unlike most other places, the costs — I don’t have hard numbers, but consider those flights and lodging alone — and therefore the risk is far more distributed. That’s both strength and shortcoming.
The shortcoming is that without one large, institutionalized entity routinely experimenting with economic development strategies, how would anyone find something that does work? I couldn’t tell you the activation is worth it, but I can tell you the teams behind the Amplify Philly House are the ones I’d want representing Philadelphia there.
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