Top 10 Secrets of SXSW (or How to Survive and Thrive at SXSW)
Having somewhat recovered from the amazing SXSW 2012 interactive conference, I wanted to share my list of the top 10 secrets of SXSW, (alternative title, how I survived and thrived at SXSW).
I’ve attended multiple years, and can definitely tell you there ARE great secrets to SXSW survival (and enjoyment). What are these secrets? They are secrets to how to do SXSW well, how to get maximum value for your expensive ticket, and how to survive nicely by eating and drinking for little or no money.
But before we begin, let’s cover the issues that most people were voicing to me in the hallways and meeting rooms. Before, during and after sessions you get to meet a lot of people, IF you can get them to stop looking down at their mobile device long enough to talk to you! Among the many people I talked to, here’s a few of the more common rants I heard:
“Austin and the convention center are PACKED! I can’t get around!”
“These sessions are so jammed that I missed the ones I wanted to see.”
“This talk was dull, I didn’t learn anything new.”
“SXSW is so costly, I can’t really afford to go!”
“I had to wait over an hour to get my badge!”
“Who the heck are these speakers, I’ve never heard of them.”
“I have a hangover”
“I can’t get to all the booths at the SXSW trade show, there’s not enough time.”
“There’s too many parties, how do I know which ones to go to?”
Among the many SXSW hallway and session conversations I had, these were the most common I heard. The good news is there is a solution to most of these issues, and quite a few people were pleased with my responses. So, without further ado, I’ll share what I told them with you. I present for your edification:
The Top 10 Secrets of SXSW:
1. Getting around in the packed Convention Center and City of Austin. The secret to Austin and the convention center is to get wherever you are going EARLY. If you attend by car then be sure to get to your parking lot of choice no later than 9AM, 8AM is much better. A handy tip is the Austin convention center parking lot at the corner of 5th Street and Red River (entrance on 5th street). This year parking was $10 for the entire day, easily beating the many other lots charging $20 or more.
Better yet is to take the train, avoid taxi or bus service as traffic can turn what normally should be a half hour trip into an hour. Same deal for getting around in the convention center. Allow yourself plenty of extra time. Another secret is if you have to go from the north side (say Ballroom D) to the south side (say Ballrooms B and C) take the Austin Convention Center Level 3 (the middle floor) and you can quickly get from one end to the other without messing around with the massive crowd on the bottom floor.
2. Missing sessions because they are full. There are two solutions to this problem. First, get there early. I always show up at the room a half hour prior to the session start. I also sit in the very front, normally because I live blog. But even if I am not live blogging I will still sit in the front. After all, I spent a lot of money to see the speakers, so why not sit where I can actually see them?
The second solution to this problem is to plot your sessions in advance on a map. If your 10AM session is at a hotel several miles away, and your 1PM session is at the convention center, there’s a high probability that you’ll miss your 1PM session after attending the 10AM session. Determine in advance where your sessions are, map them out to see how far away they are, and allow a LOT of time to move from the hotels to the convention center.
The trick with SXSW is to realize that if the session you are at is a dud, don’t assume you’ll be able to try a different session during that same time block. You have a choice, either hang in there and try to pull something interesting out of the topic (including use the Q&A session to ask pertinent questions), or leave but know that you now have an instant hour and more of free time to get to your next session.
The other trick is to very carefully read the description, including the detailed description of the session, the speaker Bios AND the level to make sure this session is something that meets your expectations.
4. SXSW is so costly. Yes, it costs a lot to go to SXSW. Although to be fair it also costs a lot to go to almost any other conference out there. With hotel, travel, meals, parking and the cost of the conference ticket, you (or your company) will easily shell out a big chunk of change. That said, there is value to attending SXSW that goes well beyond the cost of the ticket, especially for Austin-based companies that only have to pay for the SXSW conference ticket (no travel or hotel costs). But do yourself (and your boss) a favor and get tickets early! You save a lot of money by ordering in advance.
You also can get a hotel room near enough to the convention center that you don’t have to take transportation. Can’t get your boss to cough up the cash to go? Take it from me, getting your boss to agree to spending the money to go is hard, but can be done with this simple trick. Add up the potential learnings you’ll receive from each session. Estimate how much each learning might mean in terms of a better user experience, number of leads, increased sales or whatever the metrics are that are important to your boss. Now multiple the potential increases (or savings) and propose to go to SXSW so your company can leverage those learnings. I’ve been rather successful with that tip, you can too.
5. I had to wait over an hour to get my badge: Yes, there are huge lines to get SXSW badges. If you are one of those people that shows up at 10AM the first day of conference to get your badge you absolutely will be in a line longer than almost any airport security line anywhere in the world. Guaranteed.
Again, the secret is to get there early! Badge pick up actually opens up the day before the conference, which will certainly take the pressure off of you. Likewise, getting in line early, say around 8ish the day the conference opens does mean waiting about an hour, but also means you’ll be through the line with badge in hand with the entire rest of the day available for SXSW. Do yourself a favor and pick up your badge early so you don’t miss any of the events.
6. Who the heck are these speakers, I’ve never heard of them: One of the main reasons people go to conferences like SXSW is to hear top industry speakers presenting the latest information on a subject of interest to them. The problem with this is very often over time the same information is presented by the same speakers in the same ways, year after year, which can be boring. Sometimes it is good to hear someone new or different, someone you have not heard of before.
SXSW tries to bring both recognized speakers like Guy Kawasaki and his chat with Google’s Vic Gundotra as well as new speakers to the SXSW crowd like Frank Abagnale and his amazing life and thoughts about family and love. Even my buddy David Greene (who although I know him is not a well known speaker) was a presenter, at the interesting Flash: F Bomb or Da Bomb session. The point is that although there are plenty of unheard of speakers, that doesn’t mean their session is without merit. Attending the sessions with the unknown speakers can be a great way to learn something new, different and unexpected.
7. There’s too many sessions, I don’t know how to choose:
SXSW is indeed overwhelming. And the SXSW schedule interface needs a serious overhaul. As a user experience advocate I believe their search results and listings of the hundreds of sessions could be presented much better, helping to reduce the confusion. Interface aside, the secret here is to not wait until the last second and instead get a sense of which sessions you want to attend at least a week prior to SXSW.
There’s another reason for this, which is to map out where each session is so you can allow enough travel time if you have to go from convention center to some far flung hotel and back. If there’s not enough travel time between one session at let’s say a hotel and another at the convention center, you may need to re-consider your choice in sessions. Let’s be honest, this interface (below) is not very useful (image cut in half by the way).
8. The dreaded, ugh! I have a hangover:
This one is easy. Restrain your SXSW partying (yeah, it’s not a popular notion I grant you that). Limit the partying you do by focusing on just the top two parties you really want to attend, and if you do party take it easy on the free drinks.
Also, it’s a good idea to try to eat some food prior to partying, so you have something in your stomach to help absorb all that alcohol that you really shouldn’t be slamming down.
I pace myself, I usually have a drink, then have a water, then have a drink, then a water, you get the pattern. Also, on the subject of hydration, it’s very easy to forget to drink water while you are at the SXSW sessions. Be sure to carry water with you, it’s best if you can buy it outside the convention center and bring it in a backpack, because a regular size bottle water was $3.50 at the convention center this year. Ouch.
9. I can’t get to all the booths at the SXSW trade show:
I hear you on this one and agree. Having the SXSW trade show start at 11am the day before Interactive closes is stupid. There’s not enough time to really see all the booths, unless you miss a half day during the last two days of sessions. I repeat, “It’s stupid.”
Do you hear me SXSW planners? Why they can’t start the trade show on Saturday (the day after interactive opens) is beyond me.
Hopefully the powers that be at the SXSW will come to their senses regarding extending the days of the trade show to allow Interactive attendees to actually see the trade show.
I can also tell you that my company exhibited at this year’s trade show, and that from our experience attendance on the final two days was very low. All the crowds were at our booth during the first two days.
Hmm, is this why so many big companies don’t have trade show booths at SXSW?
Hint hint SXSW planners! Gee, perhaps you could get a LOT more big companies to set up trade show exhibits if you actually allowed them enough time to get enough traffic to make it worth the cost!
As I say on my @ctomlin twitter feed often, #justsayin. For you poor souls who want to see the booths, do your best and move fast, but efficiently, from one to the next booth. Try to cover the booths in two half days, and contact the SXSW staff to send a nasty letter expressing your dissatisfaction with the ridiculous schedule they’ve given the trade show.
10. There’s too many parties, how do I know which one to go to?
There is a few simple secrets to this one. I suggest you focus on the party that is in the industry you most closely follow. Getting business done at these kinds of parties is not likely. Just use it as a chance to network and get to know others that care about the stuff you care about. As with the sessions, you have to choose carefully and in advance, because if one party is not good, trying to get to another could be very difficult given traffic conditions in Austin during SXSW.
When choosing, consider the size of the party, the SXSW kick off party this year I heard had about 5,000 registered. That’s not a party in my opinion, that’s a drinking convention! Many vendors have invite-only parties, and usually these are better places to meet and chat over a drink. Get on your vendor email lists a month or so prior to SXSW if you want to be invited to those.
Top 10 Secrets of SXSW Conclusion:
So that’s it, that’s my Top 10 secrets to SXSW. Make sure you plan in advance. Buy your tickets in advance, get your hotel well in advance. Plan your schedule in advance. Don’t party too hard. Map your sessions so you don’t miss any due to travel time and for goodness sake tell the SXSW staff that they need to extend the trade show! I hope you enjoyed them and I hope you will try them out if you are going to SXSW.
And if you are not going to SXSW, well… go!