Takeaways from SXSW 2024

Each spring, the world comes to Austin. A first-time attendee recaps her experience at Austin’s landmark festival and conference

Texas McCombs
Texas McCombs News


The University of Texas at Austin’s SXSW activation, Hook ’Em House, at Antone’s nightclub on March 8, 2024.

By Amanda Waxman

For decades, South by Southwest (SXSW) has elevated Austin to the global stage, making our city the go-to destination for seeing “the next big thing” in music, film, and tech. Every year, the conference and festival draw hundreds of thousands of people from across the world and across industries right to UT’s backyard in downtown Austin.

Although I’ve lived in Austin and heard tales of SXSW for years, I’ve never actually been to the festival. Whenever that much-anticipated second week in March came around, I was out of town. 2020 was the first year I would be around to attend the festival — and the first year that the festival was fully canceled since its inception in 1987 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But this year, it finally happened. Thanks to my new job as communications manager at UT’s McCombs School of Business, I secured an interactive badge to attend and help represent McCombs and UT at the festival.

When I told long-time Austinites and SXSW veterans that this would be my first time going, they shared many essential tips for my survival: Make a daily plan. Wear comfortable shoes. Prepare to wait in epic lines. Stay hydrated. Pack snacks. (At a certain point, it started to feel less like I was going to a conference and more like I was going on some sort of grand expedition to downtown Austin.)

Even with all my crowdsourced research and fully packed tote bag, nothing could have prepared me for what my experience was like. I’m still processing my weeklong marathon of education, entertainment, and meeting lots (and lots!) of people, but here are my biggest takeaways from my first SXSW.

Ashley Jennings, managing director of the Texas Innovation Center, moderates the McCombs-sponsored panel, “Sports Performance and Health Wellness — Engineering Success,” with Sam Contorno, Phil Cullen, and Jeremy Hills at Hook ’Em House, SXSW 2024.

Stay on the cutting edge

With its interactive exhibits showcasing the latest innovations in tech, SXSW offers a glimpse into a utopian, high-tech future that’s straight out of science fiction. And what’s more sci-fi than robots in space? I learned all about these all too real innovations at a session called “How Humanoid Robots Expand Our Potential In Space & On Earth,” with NASA’s Shaun Azimi and Jeff Cardenas, BBA ’08, MSTC ’13, co-founder of Apptronik.

More robotics engineers showed us what they can do at The University of Texas at Austin’s SXSW activation, Hook ’Em House, where AI-powered robotic dogs roamed Antone’s Nightclub throughout the day. This year’s two-day activation took over Antone’s and turned the dance floor into a burnt orange basketball court — complete with locker rooms and mini-basketball hoops — in celebration of the Longhorn basketball team’s road to March Madness. The second floor hosted panels and talks to highlight the University’s leadership in research across fields, from health care to tech to marketing. Oneof the most exciting and innovative panels at Hook ’Em House was sponsored by McCombs: “Sports Performance and Health Wellness — Engineering Success.” It spotlighted how teams from the San Antonio Spurs to our own Longhorn football team are using the latest in technology to collect performance data and optimize everything from running speed to recovery times.

I got another glimpse of the future right before my eyes at the XR (extended reality) expo, where I got to strap on Meta Quest and Apple Vision Pro headsets to test out newly designed immersive experiences. I was moved by a surround-sound symphony that was synced with stunning visuals of a virtual light show. My most “immersive” experience was witnessing a VR performance by a K-pop group in VentaX — I actually had the urge to step back to avoid being hit by their virtual dance moves.

And, if you’ve been keeping up with this year’s tech news, it’s probably no surprise the hottest topic at SXSW was artificial intelligence. At one point, a fellow line-stander introduced herself to me with the icebreaker, “So, how many sessions did you attend about AI today?” I did see something about AI almost every day: Tech company Accenture hosted an open house and luncheon to show off what it can do with AI. I learned how Toys R Us is using AI to tell a new story about its beloved mascot, Geoffrey the Giraffe, at the Brand Storytelling Speakeasy. And, finally, I attended a panel interestingly titled, “Broetry, Content Farms, TL;DR — Is the Internet OK?” where the panelists fiercely debated whether AI marked the death of creativity or the dawn of a new utopia. It was … a lot.

“The Art of the Crossword Puzzle” panel at SXSW 2024.

So, I didn’t mind leaving Big Tech land once in a while. One of my favorite sessions was refreshingly low tech: “The Art of Crossword Puzzles,” featuring two philosophy and linguistics professors from UT, where there was no mention of robotics or generative AI or futurism. Just good, old-fashioned word games and puns (which, according to the crossword experts on stage, take much skill to put together). They even gave out crosswords for us to do using pencil and paper. Imagine that!

An art display on the rooftop of the Berlin House at SXSW 2024.

Stay on the cutting edge

When thinking of a way to describe SXSW while Facetiming a friend from my hometown, I arrived at, “It’s like EPCOT in Austin.” Not just because of the lengthy lines for attractions or futuristic technology, but also because of the huge global presence. Delegations from Brazil, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Australia, the U.K., Canada, South Korea, Indonesia, Japan, and more took over venues around town to showcase the latest in innovation and culture in their respective countries. I thoroughly enjoyed having a coffee and taking in a session about preserving the Gaelic language at the Ireland House in the morning, then grooving out to samba at the São Paolo house at night.

My favorite was Berlin House, where a panel of Berliners and Austinites answered the question, “Why are we creative?” They talked about how Austin and Berlin are something like sister cities, with cultures that attract creative types from all over the world and a “keep it weird” mentality that makes each city stick out among its more traditional surroundings. Their point resonated with me: It’s easy to appreciate Austin’s uniqueness and creative spirit when you can find attractions from all over the world 15 minutes from your apartment.

Prepare to be starstruck

Every year, big names come to town to participate in SXSW festivities — some for movie premieres and others to present their work in interactive panels and sessions. It’s a great opportunity to see a different side to celebrities as they dive deep into subjects they care about: I saw actress Sydney Sweeney talk about the importance of her business education, and a keynote panel featuring Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, spotlighting women’s media representation on International Women’s Day.

Actor Kyle Maclachlan records his podcast, “What Am I Doing Here?” on the Next Stage at the SXSW Creative Industries Expo.

There were a few occasions when I was truly star-struck: I saw my favorite actor, Kyle MacLachlan, talk “Twin Peaks,” “Dune,” and TikTok stardom while doing a live recording of his podcast at the Creative Industries Expo. I was shaking with nervousness as I approached the microphone to ask him about his social media presence during the Q&A, but he responded in his typical friendly, Agent Cooper-esque demeanor, and we ended up sharing a laugh with the crowd. My other “pinch me” moment was seeing Austin’s own Adriene Mishler of Youtube’s “Yoga With Adriene” in a session at the TRIPP Wellness House. After doing yoga with her on a screen for over seven years, it was surreal to see her outside my living room and in 3D!

Follow the free food (and swag)

A rule I quickly adopted at SXSW — one shared by all the veteran conference goers — is that I would avoid paying for food. Instead, I kept my eye out for free food in event descriptions and on the street. Thankfully, there was almost no shortage of sustenance. It just required some waiting in line.

One of my more noteworthy free meals was at the Fast Company Grill, where Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown unveiled the latest iteration of his company’s product, Beyond Meat IV, and offered free samples to attendees. While the new plant-based burger boasted healthier ingredients and lowered sodium and saturated fat than its previous versions, it still had the same great taste.

A slider made with Beyond Meat IV — the latest iteration of the plant-based meat product — at the Fast Company Grill.

Speaking of free, there was also no shortage of swag. Every day, I came back with a tote bag full of new goodies, from flip-flops to portable chargers to sunglasses to … more tote bags.

My personal favorite goodies naturally came from the UT’s Hook ’Em House, which hooked me up with custom-embroidered hats, stress balls, Bevo pins, notebooks, and T-shirts.

They even had a shoelace station, where volunteers would take out your shoelaces and replace them with UT-themed ones. My favorite sneakers are now adorned with Longhorn logo laces, making them perfect to wear to work (and a perfect SXSW souvenir!).

Volunteers help tie attendees’ shoes with Longhorn-themed laces at UT Hook ’Em House.

Keep an open mind

Now that I’ve attended my first SXSW, the best advice I can give to a first-timer is to keep your mind open to new possibilities. This is partially on a practical level, because the festival is so large that you’ll find something anywhere you look — I found many memorable events and met many cool people by just popping in to check something out while walking around between sessions. But it’s also on an intellectual level: I branched out and learned about what hard-working, dedicated, and creative people are doing across industries.

The week was full of surprises in the best way possible. While the fanfare and celebrities and brand experiences are all great, one of my favorite moments was a surprise in itself. I got to see a touching moment when UT President Jay Hartzell presented three outstanding female students — Adamaris Olivares-Lopez, Nerio Ly and Ava Schreier — with $80,000 Impact Scholarships to kick off International Women’s Day at Hook ’Em House. Ly, BBA ’27, is also a member of the Canfield Business Honors Program.

I’m grateful to have been able to witness and interact with so many amazing things — whether it be the latest in tech, business, or culture — during my week at SXSW. I’m also grateful that living in our unique city and working for Texas McCombs afforded me the opportunity to have this one-of-a-kind experience. I’m already looking forward to what next year’s SXSW has to offer.



Texas McCombs
Texas McCombs News

News, business research, and ideas from the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin. Learn more at www.mccombs.utexas.edu