The last few years I have done recaps and preparation guides for SXSW and a few people have commented they were insightful and helpful, so I thought I would provide an update for this year and refresh the list based on all the exciting changes this year.
Where to Stay
If you don’t have a hotel or a place to crash by now, all hope is not lost. In fact, for the first time EVER I found hotels available downtown as of this past weekend. You can still grab Airbnb or get on the waitlist for SXSW hotels. Saturday night is the hot night that may be difficult to secure but if you find yourself in a rush, book what you can around Saturday and make the hike for just one night. Even if you end up near the airport or a few miles outside of town, all is not lost. While not ideal, it’s not too bad and they do run shuttles.
What to Bring
Be smart. Don’t carry more than you absolutely have to. If you are still working remotely and may need to check in to work from time to time, consider a backpack. Otherwise, look for ways to carry smaller bags or nothing at all. If you are the tech person like me that carries
three computers, 2 tablets, 2 phones, 2 battery backups, a charging hub, multiple devices. try to limit yourself. For the first time ever, I’m challenging myself to not carry a backback at all. My hope is to be more present in the conversations I have with colleagues and friends.
Short List of Must-Haves
- Backpack or bag (potentially – especially if you are new to conferences and still pick up swag (seriously, you end up throwing most of it away and your hotel cleaning staff will thank you for saying no)).
- Charging equipment. At a minimum, pick up at 6+ ft. charging cable in case you are in a hotel lounge, restaurant, bar, etc. and need the cord length. 6 ft. is manageable and can fit in your pocket easily. I strongly advise getting a mophie or battery pack for your phone, but any battery pack will do. This year I’m just bringing the mophie and a cable. I noticed this past week in Austin more and more hotels are putting out charging strips and thinking about the power needs so you should be able to get by with just a cable. If you are new to SXSW and events of this nature just recognize that you will use your phone far more than normal and the battery will go faster than you think.
- Business cards. You would think we don’t need this with today’s tech – but nobody has solved that yet despite many attempts (here’s to you Bump!). After about 11 pm on any night of interactive you should assume your introductions will forget your name, face and that they ever met you. Providing a card helps at least clue them in when you send a LinkedIn invite the following week.
- Calendar of events / A plan – Evernote, Google, whatever it is you use to stay organized, plan it out in advance. You never know when an event is too full, or you can’t make it to one you planned to attend. A nice plan with numbers, addresses and options keeps your event trucking along. Plus, you can share a calendar with friends.
- VIP Passes – Plan for options! The rule is to accept all invites in the event you can attend those events. If you have not received an official invite, never assume you are on the list or actually invited. This happened to me this year – and it hasn’t started yet! When I checked, I was left off the list despite the co-founder assuring me otherwise. There are too many events and things to do at SXSW to waste your time. Plan your options and make sure you have access. (Also, VIP is not always VIP. A few events last year started an underground Super VIP level for some of their events which really torqued some of the attendees left outside the door.)
- Wifi Hotspot – Always a great plan when you know there are techies snooping and the local wifi will remind you of 14.4 dial-up.
- Sleep – NEVER go without being well rested. If you are run down before SXSW, you are guaranteed to leave sick.
What to Do
The ongoing joke is “Who buys a badge?” While I’m personally disappointed in the session choices this year (and last), I will probably hit up a few of them. But SXSW Interactive is so much more than sessions or parties, it’s one of the few gatherings each year where I can find many industry leaders and connect. I can get more done in that week than most of the year. I can meet with most of my contacts, reconnect with friends and get a glimpse into the future with new start-ups and technologies.
What to Avoid
- The trade show. It’s mostly a waste of time and unless you enjoy becoming a target of pitch after pitch, or see a participating group that you need to talk with, your time is best spent elsewhere. If you’re a start-up and spending money at the trade show you should apologize to your investors.
- Long lines. There’s always something going on somewhere and if you don’t have a VIP pass or special access to an event, go to one you do. Standing around and waiting is a waste of time and not going to be productive on any level. Consider your options and always make sure your time is spent in best way possible.
- Foods and alcohol. It’s no secret there are a lot of opportunities for food and drink at various events, but just remember where you are and who you are with. Pace yourself. It’s easy to forget which foods don’t sit well with you or which alcoholic drinks don’t mix well with your body when you are immersed in an event. Make a point to pay attention so you can enjoy the event and the people you are with.
- Staying up all night. Even if you are younger and able to handle an all-nighter, avoid it if you can. You won’t be your best for potential clients or connections the next day. Worse yet, you might make a bad impression if you can’t actively engage in conversation. Luckily you can virtually guarantee that after 12 am you won’t miss many opportunities for networking.
- Regret. You will miss something. It’s impossible to attend everything and to be everywhere. You can’t live with regret or get anxious or stressed over “what could have been.” Get comfortable with this concept and you will enjoy your week much more easily. Remember that even if you do miss something, it will be in the media, on blogs, on twitter, etc.
What to Wear
The Austin, TX tuxedo includes jeans. You’re overdressed if you wear a suit anywhere. Be comfortable. Dress for the weather. This year features lows in the low 50’s and highs near 90 degrees (read: layers!). Avoid new shoes or anything that could become too painful wearing all day. I know fashion over function is often the choice of those who “dress to impress” but you can’t do a marathon of 12-14 hour days on your feet like that. If you feel really strongly about it, at a minimum be comfortable during the day and change before dinner.
- Pace yourself. It’s a marathon, not a race. You’re probably going to get sick from all your contacts at SXSW, but no reason to start it on day 1.
- Plan ahead. A badge and registration does not open doors or get you into the best events. Network ahead and know who is going and where you might want to be. Showing up at registration and assuming it will just happen for you is the worst thing you can do.
- Join a team. If you are by yourself, make a friend or find a friend to go with you to talks or events. You can be much more effective in networking and getting around with a partner in crime. At a minimum, it’s someone that can hold your place in line for a quick run to the restroom or to grab some water. It’s also helpful for networking and you can work a room twice as fast.
- Franklin’s , Stubbs, Salt Lick. Unless you don’t eat meat or have religious beliefs that prevent you from doing so, don’t miss an opportunity to taste some of the best bbq around. (Pro tip: Salt Lick sells full frozen brisket and sauce AT THE AIRPORT in a cold pack that will last about 3 hours on a plane)
- Remember where you are. Unless you’re in a hotel room, it’s difficult to have private conversations in the open and even more so at SXSW. Remember where you are so that you don’t accidentally share private or confidential information.
- Get your registration badge early. The line gets notoriously long on Friday. Go early and avoid the dreaded lines. Also, last year they offered a great option to recycle the materials you are handed at registration right outside the exit door. I highly recommend it as most of the material is online and who wants to carry that around?
Yes, there are cabs. Yes there are cars. Yes, you can find a bike or walk on foot. But if it rains, all bets are off. Cab waits will go to hours. Relying on Uber at a digital event? Good luck. If you’re from out of town, I strongly suggest at least one person on your team acquires a car. Not everything is within walking distance and if you have meetings outside of downtown, you won’t regret it. In the event of bad weather, you’ll have at least one way to get to your meetings. Bring an umbrella and a light jacket just in case.
If you or someone on your team has a car, I suggest using your hotel Valet. Some hotels lock down their garages and require Valet only for SXSW – especially downtown. There are a few garages around the convention center that are open but they usually fill up by 8:30 or 9 am. An open garage I have used a lot the last few years is the Raddisson. It’s close enough to the action but far enough away to not be too bad to get in and out of easily.
Where to Go
The Four Seasons lounge was the hot spot for meetings during 2012-2014. Last year it was fairly empty. A few start-up groups base camp there because it’s quiet enough to talk and you can easily get food, drink, etc. Also, last year the JW Marriott was the hot spot for meetings but started to get crowded after 9 am. Plan ahead and have someone grab a table in advance. There are outlets along the walls and near the end-table lamps.
The Hilton restaurants are usually empty and generally easy to schedule to meet friends, but avoid the hotel bar / lounge as it’s always packed and hard to carry on a conversation.
The Hilton lobby is so large that it’s difficult to find someone you might want to meet for the first time. I recommend finding another landmark within the lobby to direct someone to find you if you have to meet in their lobby.
The Radisson is next to the Four Seasons and has a lot of areas for quiet conversations.
Max’s Wine Bar has great food and drink as well as event space. It’s in the hotbed of the event so it gets crowded. If you can get a table I recommend it. They are on Opentable and have reservation space.