How to Survive SXSW
This March Steve and I went to Austin for SXSW. I’d been to the conference once before, two years ago, when our tiny agency was barely hatched and we were still working day jobs while building this in our spare time. Last time was really fun, but I felt a little overwhelmed with activities… and generally a little hungover from the free alcohol that was pushed at me around every corner. This time I wanted to be prepared so I could leave feeling like I’d really seen what I needed to see, made the connections I wanted, and still enjoyed all of that delicious Austin food I’d been dreaming about. These are my tips for getting the most out of the massive event that is SXSW.
1) Set goals and your schedule ahead of time
SXSW is a madhouse. All of Austin is buzzing with activity and there is something to do, see or eat around every corner. Downtown essentially turns into an amusement park and the sessions can have roller coaster worthy lines. You and your badge are lost in an ocean of people interested in the same things as you and holding the same credentials. No fast passes here (except for certain party lines in the evenings).
You have to go in with a plan! What is the most important thing you’re hoping to take away from the experience? If you’re looking to make new connections and find new clients, think about what they would be interested in and where you might meet them. Seek them out where there is common ground. Make a point of checking out lots of meetups and scout networking opportunities. If you’re just there to learn, really think about prioritizing your sessions and get a sense of where they are on a map. You’ll also want to make sure you sign up for workshops you’re interested in a couple of months ahead of the conference.
2) Bring the right shoes
Don’t wear heels. I guess I can’t really tell you not to if you’re set on it. You might be ok if you’re staying in a hotel downtown and you plan on taking pedicabs everywhere. There is a lot of walking during SXSW! You should also consider bringing shoes for rain and sun. This year we started with a few days of rain followed by bright, sunny days, and ended with cold and windy weather. If you plan on attending the music events or the interactive closing party, bring shoes you can get muddy in case it rains on those days.
3) Plan to charge your phone
You’re going to run low on battery. It’s probably not going to happen when you’re conveniently near a charging station, instead you’ll be trying to find a bathroom on 7th and San Jacinto, after sessions are wrapped and the evening parties are about to begin.
If you can swap the battery in your phone you should definitely carry a spare. Otherwise, consider bringing along a Mophie. It’s a little added weight, but it’s worth it. Bring your charger along too and you can charge your phone or tablet between sessions. Sometimes brands will hand out portable chargers, but there’s no guarantee they will be charged when you get them.
4) Pack light
Unless you actually do need to work during the day and skip a few sessions, try to pack as little as you can in your backpack (or bag). Two years ago I thought it would be a good idea to carry my laptop around in case I had time between sessions and wanted to get some work done. By the end of the day my back was killing me! As a woman there was also a part of me that wished I could have shown up at some of those parties at night without a huge turtle shell on my back.
This year I initially tried carrying a cross-body bag that could fit my iPad — productive by day, party by night! That was a terrible idea. I see lots of women who do it and seem to be just fine. I’m not sure how… this is inline with the heels for me, which is saying that if you can do it, more power to you! I’ll just have to stick with backpacks.
5) Bring hand sanitizer and tissues
During the Interactive portion of the conference there isn’t generally a lack of toilets or places to wash your hands. The hotels and convention center are all very well stocked. But if you’re attending the music events or are exploring the amazing Austin food trucks, it’s a good idea to have hand sanitizer and tissues on hand.
6) Have a plan B (or C) for every session
Did I mention the roller coaster worthy lines? There’s a good chance that you won’t be able to get into some of the sessions you want and rather than miss out on the wealth of inspiration, why not set up a few alternates? Once in awhile I’ve also encountered a session that turned out to be different than advertised, or not relevant to me. Having a second option is a great idea in that situation too. It’s perfectly acceptable to leave if it isn’t right for you… just don’t do it if you’re sitting near the front or center.
When selecting a plan B, make sure it’s either in the same venue as your first choice, or at least in a nearby location. Plan C can be a meetup or checking out a cool installation! You can try making plan C another session, but your chances of getting in at that point are slim.
7) Group sessions by location
If you’ve never been to Austin, it’s a good idea to check out a map of the venues ahead of timeand familiarize yourself with where things are and the distances between locations. It’s really tricky to plan sessions that are near one another sometimes, but if you take the time to try you’ll be more likely to get into the ones you star!
8) RSVP ahead of time
It’s annoying to have to RSVP for things sometimes and there are so many events that it’s a feat to try and figure out what you’d even want to go to. On the other hand, finding out that you can’t get into an event because it was RSVP only sucks. I used RSVPster this year and it was worth the $49 to not have to worry about it. This really only applies to people who want to attend special events, music, and parties. All of the events and sessions listed in the SXSW app shouldn’t require an RSVP (or will state if it does).
Tips for using RSVPster: If you’re using your real email address, set up a filter that routes all event emails out of your inbox. There will be a LOT. If you’re creating a separate email for this, remember the login and be prepared to show your RSVP confirmation quickly when asked in line. Try unroll.me after the event because you’ll have some lingering subscriptions to clear out.
9) Don’t be too hard on yourself
Despite the planning I still missed some sessions that I really wanted to go to. There’s just no way around it! I was also a little hungover a couple of the days… especially after trying Deep Eddy Peach vodka and orange juice. But it all turned out just fine! We still had an amazing time and I regret nothing — except not seeing the TIE fighter in the daytime.
10) Eat breakfast tacos
Do it. Thank me later.