Now You See It, Now You Don't: Branded Pop-Ups Transform Austin Venues During SXSW

Mar 11, 2019

A week ago, Clive Bar on Rainey Street looked the way it always does: dark wood paneling and floors, a deck off the inside bar with tables for people to drink outside.

Friday afternoon, it was a different story.

Men carried large boxes and pieces of wood inside from a moving truck parked out front. Vinyl sheets with photos of models wearing Lululemon clothes were stretched across a silver chain-link fence erected in front of the bar’s wooden one. Builders had constructed a white arch to go over the sidewalk leading to the bar, a red circle with the Lululemon logo fastened to its center.

Inside, all the dark floors and walls were recovered in white.  

The company, which specializes in workout clothes, had turned the bar into its "Sweatlife House," a venue for festivalgoers to learn more about the brand.

Similar construction was happening all over downtown last week, as companies set up installations at local venues ahead of the first weekend of SXSW. Brazos Hall became the LinkedIn Studio. Jo’s Coffee downtown is now the Bumble Hive.

These takeovers make downtown almost unrecognizable, as restaurants and bars Austinites normally pass are transformed into new spaces.

The Logistics Of Becoming A Living Commercial

The practice started about a decade ago, said Amy Wanke, director of global sales and exhibitions for SXSW.

“One of the first groups to really catch on and start doing it was actually delegations from other countries,” she said. “So you’ll walk around, especially Rainey Street, and see the German House, the Australia House.”

She said brands jumped to gain this kind of exposure. Over the last decade, she said, she’s been blown away at how the practice has taken off. These days, so many brands want to have a presence during the festival, that it’s not just bars and venues getting taken over.

"Brands are coming in and finding every nook and cranny."

“Brands are coming in and finding every nook and cranny,” she said. “There's a grassy patch over here to the left and there’s a brand taking it over.”

Wanke said parking lots have become popular takeover spots in the last few years. Last year, she said, one was transformed into a scene from the TV show Mr. Robot, complete with a Ferris wheel.

These kinds of takeovers take a lot of work – and a lot of planning

Austin Fire Lt. Brian Thompson, who works in the fire marshal’s office on special events, said the first step for a company is to submit an application with the city outlining exactly what it wants to do in a particular space.

“We review each one of them and we typically go out and do a preliminary inspection on each one,” he said. “During the actual event when it’s going on, we have inspection teams that are out during the evenings and during the day.”

The teams look for code violations and make sure none of the venues exceed capacity. This year, 166 of these pop-ups are registered with the city.

Wanke said some brands ask the festival for help finding a venue, while others do it all on their own.

Meditation On Rainey Street

Michelle Greathouse, who is in charge of planning Lululemon's takeover, said rather than display the clothes and products its known for, the company wanted to create a space for mindfulness at SXSW. This is the first year Lululemon has done anything like this at the festival.

“We know at SXSW there is so much, so much going on,” she said, as workers sawed and hammered behind her. “So much chaos and output and content, and we really want to give people a space to just be and reconnect with who they are so they can go back out refreshed.”

Michelle Greathouse, who was in charge of the takeover, said Lululemon wanted to create a space for festivalgoers to get away from the chaos of SXSW and reconnect with themselves.
Credit Gabriel C. Pérez / KUT

One way it's doing that is with a large, inflatable white dome sitting in the yard of Clive Bar. Lululemon calls this its Frequency Dome; inside colorful shapes move across the roof while voices give meditation instructions.

There are a few 25-minute guided experiences for festivalgoers who visit the dome.

“People are really yearning and longing for connection and more just kind of human essence experiences,” said Vivian Rosenthal, who led the creation of these programs. “And we wanted to create a space where people could come together and feel each other and feel themselves and feel their true nature in a way that also felt full of wonder and awe and magic.”

That seems like an ambitious goal for the backyard of a bar on Rainey Street during SXSW.  

Of course, there’s also free stuff at the Lululemon house. If visitors tweet about their experience, they can win a water bottle or socks from a vending machine.  

Christian Hawkins, the manager of Clive Bar, said he’s used to the chaos that comes with renting the space during SXSW. He said he even looks forward to these takeovers.

“You know what, it’s actually really fun to see what they do to the spaces and we actually will sometimes take ideas and then try and do them ourselves for the rest of the year,” he said. “A lot of time it's like lighting. They always do cool stuff with uplight or they bring in some really unique pieces, and we’re like, ‘Oh, that’s cool. Maybe we’ll try and do that.’”

When asked how much Lululemon was paying the bar for the takeover, Hawkins joked that he didn't know.

"They don't pay me any extra," he laughed. 

This huge undertaking comes after months of work. Greathouse visited Austin multiple times and considered many venues before negotiating with Clive Bar to use the space. Lululemon has hired a production company, an audio-visual company, movers, builders and the artists who created the dome to all make the space a reality.

Over the weekend, they hosted a dinner, showcased live music and led festivalgoers through guided meditations in the dome.

But four days after the setup, the Sweatlife House is already gone. Showtime has taken over the space, bringing its own experience to Rainey Street.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of the person in charge of planning Lululemon's takeover. She is Michelle Greathouse, not Gatehouse.