SXSW Interactive is not your typical business conference.
Yes, it's a chance to learn a thing or two about tech, marketing or consumer insight, but unless you've prepared, you may find the conference's scale and vibe overwhelming.
Since we're heading to SXSW Interactive again this year, we thought it might be helpful to share some tips on how to survive the five-day conference. Whether you're a SXSW virgin or a seasoned pro, here are some important tips (or reminders) to consider:
Planning & socializing
- Use http://schedule.sxsw.com to identify sessions you want to attend and favourite any that look interesting. Don't worry if you have a few in one time slot - if you end up in a different part of town from where you thought you'd be, you may be happy to see you have already flagged a nearby session.
- Search http://social.sxsw.com to identify people you'd like to meet or connect with and reach out beforehand. It syncs to your LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook accounts, but you may find it more useful to search by title, tag, company or keyword. The website defaults to showing all listings (including film and music - just uncheck the boxes in the top right, but they will recheck themselves each time you page ahead) and also past attendees (scan the right-hand column for the black "send a message" button to quickly spot people registered for this year).
- If you find people you want to meet, do not count on running into them. Send them an email (if you know them already), look for them on Twitter (your best bet) or (failing all else) message them from within social.sxsw.com. Do this before SXSW: make dates for lunch, coffee, and drinks.
- Make advance lunch and dinner reservations for every meal break because restaurants have huge lineups during SXSW. OpenTable is your best friend in finding downtown restaurants with availability, but be sure you call each restaurant to confirm: some restaurants forget to remove their availability from OpenTable even though they're booked for private events.
- Find a good place to meet people. If you're making a date for coffee or a drink during the festival, an easy place to rendezvous during the day is in the lobby of the Hilton directly across from the convention center. But it is a total zoo, so particularly if you don't know the person you're meeting, pick a very specific spot: I usually tell people to meet me at the base of the stairs into the bar or at the Starbucks (but note that Starbucks usually has a 20 to 30-minute line). During the early (or late) evening, a good place to meet is the Driskill Hotel - but specify the lobby, not the bar, because the bar is basically a solid mass of tech-wielding humans.
- Consider bringing a buddy. Even though SXSW doesn't have nearly the gender skew it once did (ask me what it was like to be 6 months pregnant at my first SXSW in 2006, when it was mostly guys) I have often been at parties with a lot more men than women. It can be a little daunting to socialize as a woman on your own, so think about doing your party circuit with a buddy you can count on to extract you from, um, awkward situations.
Here are some apps you should consider installing on your tablet or phone before heading to SXSW:
- Twitter: If you're not yet on Twitter, get a Twitter account and figure out how to use it. (I can help.) To quote my colleague Ryan Merkley, "heading to SXSW without a Twitter account is like insisting on doing a talk without a microphone." Install a Twitter app on your phone and/or tablet.
- SXSW app: This is how you will access the list of sessions you saved on schedule.sxsw.com, and the map of how to get to them. Note that clicking "time and place" isn't enough to show you where you're going; once the map screen loads, you have to click on the specific location listed for that session (just above the map) and even then, you may have to drag the map around a bit before you see the pin for your destination.
- Foursquare: To check in to places and events you attend at SXSW.
- Highlight: An app that shows you people near you. It's handy for connecting with people. I never use it except at SXSW, and then I use it constantly.
- GroupMe: An app that's often used to connect with friends; again, something I only use during SXSW, when I'm glad to have it.
- Eventbrite: To download your event and party tickets to your iPhone Passbook app. (Pro tip: Having a ticket doesn't guarantee you'll get in right away; there will still be long lines if you aren't on VIP lists.)
(Phone) Power management
It is a constant challenge to get your devices charged - and keep them charged, because SXSW is the one time where it actually makes sense to use all those power-sucking location-based apps (because it's how you find people and events). Consider these strategies:
- Pack at least one backup battery. Ideally you will carry the capacity to recharge your phone 2x in the course of the day. There's still time to order one and have it delivered to your hotel! My current favorite is this one from Photive - it can charge your phone a couple of times, or your phone and your tablet, and it's very light.
- Plug your phone in whenever possible. For example, during sessions, keep an eye out for power plugs.
- Get to sessions extra early if you need power because the seats near power outlets go quickly.
- Pack whatever you'd wear for a day at the (startup) office. The norm for guys is very casual: jeans and t-shirts or casual shirts. You'll see some men wearing jackets, but it's definitely the exception and not necessary.
- Pack some fun clothes if you're a woman who likes to dress up. You won't feel out of place in jeans, but you will also see lots of women wearing dresses, nice skirts or pants, or otherwise a bit dolled up (especially in the evening). But end your fashion efforts at the ankle, and commit to wearing shoes that are comfortable for long, long walks: you need to be prepared to stand, walk and dance for 16 hours in whatever you put on first thing in the morning.
- Be prepared for fluctuating temperatures. You need layers for the evening. And depending on the forecast, you may also want to be prepared for rain.
- Get your badge ASAP. It's a huge hassle especially in the mornings, so if you arrive in the evening, consider going to the conference center right away (check registration for desk hours). Make sure you have the email SXSW sent you regarding your badge pickup and quick code, and that you can pull it up on your phone.
- Plan on attending sessions in the same location if you are trying to see two sessions in a row since events are SO spread out. The convention itself is huge so you may need 10-15 minutes to get from one session to the next even inside the building.) Many sessions fill up completely so if it's something you don't want to miss, get there at least 15 minutes early, and much early for a big headliner.
- Don't count on shuttles because they are often full and behind schedule. There are also various complimentary car services you can sometimes flag down; ditto with taxis (but forget about ordering one by phone, because dispatch is unreliable during SXSW). With traffic so crazy, however, pedicabs or walking are often your best bet, even for 30-minute+ walking distances. Carry a bunch of small bills for tipping pedicab drivers.
- Organize your stuff (especially tech) so you can carry it all day, especially if you aren't staying in a centrally-located hotel. You may find yourself carrying your laptop from conference to dinner to parties so think in terms of options that are easy to carry (like an iPad + keyboard) if your laptop is a drag to schlepp.
- Plan one or two extended visits to the tradeshow floor, and be prepared to accumulate swag. This is a good thing to do for the hour or two before you head back to your hotel. You're especially at risk if you can't resist WordPress t-shirts, white papers on electronic privacy and buttons that say "party with your data."
- Get a decent amount of sleep each night so that you don't crash by day 3. There is no less partying on Sunday night than on Friday/Saturday so you can save yourself for Sunday by going to bed at a sane hour the first couple of nights.
Here are even more resources that can help you plan your trip:
- SXSW's first timer's guide
- Entrepreneur.com's SXSW survival guide
- A beginner's guide to South by Southwest Interactive
- How to pack for SXSW: A savvy woman's guide
Finally, if you're still looking for sessions to check out, here's a list of panels and workshops that Vision Critical is participating in this year:
- What Social Media Analytics Can't Tell You
- Sharing Economy 2.0
- Privacy, Permission & the Evolution of Big Data
See you in Austin!