Last year, I finally bit the bullet and purchased a full access pass to the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Conference. As a local Austin resident, I had taken advantage of the SXSW Music Festival for years. Having made the leap from client side to Return On Now full time in early 2012, the time was right to check out the other side of the two-week long event.
As a noob myself, I had NO IDEA what I was getting myself into. Of course, my network of colleagues around town and online had plenty to say about how to handle it. Still, I found myself lacking in preparation in several areas.
So this year, I'm sharing my own personal observations about SXSWi hoping to help at least a few first-timers make the most of their time in Austin for the event.
Plan Everything in Advance
SXSWi veterans will tell you that this event is a marathon, not a sprint. You can't just show up in Austin and try to figure out what to do next when you get here. Know why you are coming, plan for the best activities to help achieve that objective, and get at least a tentative schedule in mind before you board the plane for central Texas.
In speaking with others who have attended SXSW Interactive multiple times, I learned that some of them spend months researching how to best spend their time over the course of the week. There are literally dozens of things going on at the same time each day, including keynotes, workshops, sessions, performances, happy hours, networking events, parties, etc. If you don't take time to plan in advance, you can expect to miss out on something that you really want to do.
Note that the schedule on the website can be completely overwhelming, and that is just for the official events! When I first started planning my week out, it amazed me just how worn out I got trying to do this quickly. I know it's last minute, but if you're coming, drop everything and do your research. You'll thank me for it later.
Pick 1-2 Daily Items and Schedule Around It
Even with advanced planning, you will find that it is physically impossible to make it to every single session that piques your interest. Last year, I missed probably 80% of the sessions I had marked off as "Must sees", because I had to pick and choose where I could be for the sessions before / after those activities.
The day that went the best for me was built around exactly two target items - a keynote speech in the morning and an in-depth workshop in the afternoon. Other than that, I missed nearly everything else I had highlighted.
Why did I miss them? Some were too far to get to in time, while others were full before I could even get in line for the session. It was great that the organizers started showing some of the sessions on video monitors outside the rooms for particularly busy presentations, but even that got crowded for the really good stuff (e.g. the Matt Cutts, Danny Sullivan, and Duane Forrester presentation on SEO).
Basically, if any particular presentation is a key driver behind why you want to be here, be willing to miss everything else within two hours of it just to be safe.
Build In Time For Logistics
As you can guess from the previous section, the logistics for SXSWi have become relatively nightmarish. The event was spread out across downtown last year. One day, I had myself penciled in for interesting topics throughout the day, and was stoked that I'd get to see all of these amazing presenters and topics on display.
Then I showed up and figured out where everything was happening, and the bubble succinctly burst. With 50 minute sessions and 10 minutes to get to the next location, walking was out of the question. This one day, the logistics of my intended schedule worked out as follows (each line item is one session, with location only listed):
- 9:00 AM at Austin Convention Center
- 10:00 AM at the Four Seasons Hotel
- 11:00 AM at the Renaissance Hotel (On 11th Street)
- 12:00 Noon lunch at Moonshine Grill
- 1:30 PM Session at the Long Center
- 3:00 PM Session at the Hilton (next to the Convention center)
- 4:30 PM Workshop at the AT&T Center
- 6:00 PM Party Near the Convention Center
If you know Austin, you also realize that this schedule is physically impossible by foot. If you know SXSW, you realize that driving is out of the question.
So what happened? I caught only two of these items, walked into other sessions that didn't have a long line to kick some tires (none of which blew me away), caught one surprise keynote that knocked my socks off (Jane Pratt: Secrets of a Publishing Renegade), and spent half the day either in the bloggers' lounge, roaming the event facilities with friends, or seeking out places to grab food / beer on a sponsor's dime.
This doesn't even factor in the time required to get down there, find parking, walk to the event, and similar items. Logistics will take much more time than you think it will. Plan accordingly.
Talk To Everyone You Can
The upside to missing out on events of interest was that I had a ton of time to network and meet people. If you are a blogger, I highly recommend you take advantage of the bloggers' lounge. Although there are intermittent sales pitches and presentations, it is a great place to sit down, have a snack / coffee, meet other smart bloggers, and actually get some work done.
If you are not a blogger, you'll find that there are ample ways to meet people in passing.
Standing in line waiting for anything? Strike up a light conversation with the other people in line.
Sitting on the wall to charge your phone / laptop / tablet for a bit? Say "hi" to anyone else in the same boat.
Everyone will be here to learn, network, and have fun, so don't be shy. I met some amazing people last year from all over the world, working for companies from very big to very small, and with a wide range of interest areas and perspectives.
Don't Bother With Most SXSW Parties Unless You RSVP First
If you do your research, this will be no surprise. If you do not, you'll find that the evenings are when a lack of preparation sticks out like a sore thumb.
While there are parties where anyone with a badge can enter, most of the evening events require that you also either RSVP in advance or know someone inside of the sponsoring company. If you really want to get into an event, RSVP in advance and show up early. Even with RSVP, you are not guaranteed entry to the party.
Eh, what's that? You mean I have to RSVP, but it really doesn't mean I'll get in?
Yes, you read correctly. RSVP is a way to weed out the unprepared, but it's still a "first come, first served" environment with the evening parties and such. This is probably the most frustrating part of the whole event, but that's how it works. Don't like it? Austin has a boatload of other fun things to do, albeit those will be unrelated to the event.
Until the past couple of years, there were a good number of evening activities and parties that both badge holders and the general public could enter, but those were few in number last year. As the event grows in size, I expect the party scene to become more and more focused on paying SXSW customers only.
Plan To Wait In Line...A Lot
If you hate to wait in line, check your attitude at the door. SXSW as a whole is all about lines.
This applies to all facets of the South By Southwest Festival schedule, not just the interactive part. Last year, we had to wait in line for keynote speeches, presentations, sessions, food vendors, shuttle service, taxis, parties, and even for people to have their picture taken with "Grumpy Cat" across the street from the Convention Center.
This is one of the issues with the logistics. It's not just about getting to the next location. Once you get there, you will have to wait in line, so you have to arrive even earlier. Knowing this fact, it makes it impossible to bookend good sessions unless they are in the same building or you are willing to skip out early on each session to get to the next one.
Even then, the most popular topics and presenters can sometimes see lines form up to 45 minutes or an hour before they go on stage. This is why you have to pick a couple of "can't miss" activities each day, and be willing to miss out on other topics. The lines themselves can be a hindrance.
Get In Line Early, Or Not At All
Speaking of lines, when you really want to get into something, be early. This especially applies to nighttime parties. One colleague of mine uses a strict "6PM Rule" - if you can't make it in time to get in line before 6:00 PM, make other plans. Given what I experienced last year, that is some sage advice.
Plan On Downtime To Eat, Drink, and Socialize
Also building on the idea of focusing your day on 1-2 items, it is uber important that you build in downtime between all the sessions, workshops, and presentations. It's great to sit in on interesting sessions, but at the same time, take advantage of the amazing amenities that the festival and local vendors provide on site.
One person I met last year didn't leave any room to breathe on their schedule. He got off the plane, raced to the event, crammed in every session he could, and then rushed off to a party that night. After such a busy, nonstop day, he was in bed by 9PM. His whole experience went like that, and he rushed off to catch another plane out of town as soon possible at the end.
Not only did he miss most of the networking opportunities, but he also failed to see any of Austin during his time here. This city has a lot to offer, no matter if it's SXSW time or otherwise. Go check out some of the local sites, restaurants, and bars. It's okay to hop off the grid and look around while you are in town. You just might have a lot of fun without having to go near a line for a whole evening.
Most Importantly: Pace Yourself
Some of my colleagues try to pack in as much as they can from the first moment SXSWi starts through the closing keynote speech. While they probably do a better job than I did of hitting the right sessions, most of them found themselves completely spent by the end of the event. A couple of them even gave up and skipped out on the last day altogether.
You don't have to overfill the cup - it's okay to miss a killer session if you are doing something that works for you. Many of the sessions will be covered on a blog or video taped and published to YouTube afterward, so it's not a complete loss.
For those of you who intend to stick around for the Music or Film Festival, pacing is even more critical. I completely bailed on the Music Fest last year, because I overdid it for SXSW Interactive. Take your time, be sure to get some sleep, and be sure to eat properly and stay hydrated. Like I said before, look at this as a marathon, and you'll be able to have a better experience when all is said and done.
SXSWi: Welcome to Austin
If you are a noob to SXSW Interactive, welcome to Austin and the conference. I hope you have a great time, make some new friends or business contacts, and learn a lot.
Come back after the event and let me know how it went for you. Or even better, share other nuggets of advice that you learned during the week. It will help others in years to come.