Welcome to Part 2 of my SXSWi Top Tips series. If you missed it, check out Part 1 which covers how to prepare before you arrive in Austin; it’s not a conference where you can just throw some clothes in a bag and go.
So now you’re packed, you’ve done your research, and you’ve got a plan. Great!
Now get ready to throw it out the window.
Part Two: Austin
1. The Panels: Quality Speaker Trumps All - So now you’ve arrived in Austin, you’ve checked in to your hotel, gotten your badge and now you’re off to check out your first panel. On consulting your schedule you made on your phone because you learned from my mistake, you are immediately faced with two appealing options for the first time slot (and about 17 others). Go with the panel featuring the better (or at least known) panelist(s). It won’t always be the right decision, but more often than not, the speaker is what makes the panel, and especially if the other session is in your professional wheelhouse, you may find yourself hearing a lot of “101″ content.
Seeing a great panelist usually yields more insightful content and gives you the opportunity to ask questions of some very smart people directly in real life. Don’t be afraid to approach them after the “official” Q&A portion is over. Networking is the name of the game at SXSW. Now that you know which sessions to favor, there’s another option: don’t go to either.
2. Don’t Be Afraid to Skip Sessions – I’m not really splitting the atom by telling you this; it’s probably the most common piece of advice I received when preparing for my maiden voyage to Austin, but I’d be remiss by not listing it here. The true magic of SXSW is the connections you make in the hallways and lounges of the ACC, at breakfast, parties, or waiting in line for something.
Remember I said you’d be standing around a lot? Lines are a fact of life at SXSW: make the most of that time. If you’re having an interesting conversation with someone, unless you’re up against an absolutely critical session, skip the session (or arrive late) and keep the discussion going. You’ll learn more this way, build a larger network, and make more friends. It’s not JUST about advancing your career; coming away from SXSW with new friends is as valuable as anything. Don’t blow up that conversation because your calendar tells you to.
3. Same Goes For Parties & Events – At my first SXSWi in 2011, Plancast was deemed an indispensable app to have all your plans entered in. Every party, lunch, brunch and BBQ I registered for was dutifully cross-posted in Plancast so I’d know where I “needed” to be, and I could find people I wanted to see. Except everyone pretty much blew that strategy up on the very first day. You’ll find yourself registered for multiple events at once at opposite ends of town, and when the rubber hits the road, it’s better to go with the flow. I only went to about 20% of the things my Plancast said I should, and it proved useless in trying to keep track of people because nobody stuck to it.
Foursquare’s probably your best bet for that, but at best it’s an inexact science. If you’re running with a good group, stick with that group. Unless it’s unfeasibly large to stay together because…
4. Large Groups Rarely Stay Together Long at SXSW – It’s a simple fact of group dynamics: large groups of people are not nimble in their movements or decision making. At SXSW, sometimes you have to make a decision quickly and move even quicker in order not to miss an opportunity to do something interesting. I’m not saying it’s not possible, but later in the evening, unless you’re staying put where you are, moving with a large group is tough to do unless that group has enough people with VIP credentials (often these are literal plastic credentials you attach to your lanyard along with your badge) to get everyone in past the line. You’ll likely be wearing your badge all day and all night, by the way.
5. Travel with Strangers - Here’s a case where your parents’ advice isn’t necessarily applicable. Don’t just spend time in the evenings with people you already know. Your great conversation with someone you just met in the ACC hallway in the afternoon may translate into joining them and their friends. Take advantage of these opportunities. If it’s not working out, you can always peel off and find someone you do know. There’s no shortage of ways to do this with a smartphone and check-in obsessive friends.
6. Check-in. -- It becomes a bit tedious after awhile, but checking in has become an integral part of the fun and the convenience of SXSW. If you’re a staunch anti-location based services person, that’s fine, but the speed at which things move down there means if you know where your friends are, you’re going to have a lot easier time finding them, and people rarely use their phones as phones down there. Check-in services have come and gone (Gowalla, Brightkite, etc.), but Foursquare continues as the preferred choice. If you don’t have an account, set one up before you go. Pushing all of your check-ins to Facebook and Twitter will only annoy your friends who aren’t in Austin, so don’t do it. If you want to increase your chances of being found you might push the occasional check-in to Twitter, but it’s generally just noise.
7. A Few Words on Group Messaging at SXSW – Group Messaging had something of a coming-out party at SXSW 2011. GroupMe, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp are great for real-time conversations while you’re down there so you can coordinate on the go with friends and co-workers. If there are groups you know you’ll want to stay in sync with, set up a group before you go. It can be a real boon for staying on top of the fluid scene at SXSW.
These apps are best used for short, relevant updates to your group about where you’re at to supplement Foursquare or provide advice about what’s going on where you are. That’s it. Anything more chatty than that at this conference, and group messaging quickly becomes another source of noise everyone just tunes out.
8. Always Be Charging – Reliance on technology has its drawbacks, and SXSW is a torture test for the battery life of any device. If you’re out of juice, you’re out of the loop and unable to share, and at this conference that’s a serious drawback. As a result, you’ll see convention-goers huddled around outlets like divers sharing a scuba rig. You will develop a sixth sense for where power outlets are located not only in the ACC, but in restaurants, bars, Starbucks, convenience stores and chapeau shops. I even saw someone plugging their phone into the end of a string of Christmas lights.
With this unquenchable thirst for power for your devices, there are a few critical items you’ll need. Here’s what I brought for my iPhone:
- Two rechargeable spare batteries (in the case of iPhones, these are external items that attach or plug into the phone). Recharge them overnight and if you have a bag, bring the charging cords for those with you as well. I went with a pair of New Trent battery packs which store 3 full iPhone charges each. They take a long time to charge back up though so I leave one in the room charging and bring the other out for the day. I haven’t had to worry yet about running out of juice since I got those.
- 2 iPhone charger cords and the plugs that attach to them
- A compact 3 outlet and one powered USB power strip. The powered USB aspect is key. http://www.amazon.com/Monster-Cable-Outlets-Otg300-3-outlets/dp/B00A9X8A0U
- A 12 foot extension cord
- 2 3-prong adapters (one to connect the extension cord to the power strip and one spare to connect someone else to a two-prong outlet)
- Power cord for my laptop
- A small zippered bag to keep it all together
This may seem excessive, but I used every piece of this rat’s nest of cables at least once a day, and I made a lot of friends along the way by having at least two spare plugs to share at any time, and the ability to sit in a chair and connect to the wall outlet rather than being forced to sit up against the wall. You won’t regret this extra gear.
9. Advice for Photographers – Bring your fastest lens.
Prime is good, but a zoom is better. Prime lenses are good in that they are less bulky, but it’s hard to compose shots with a prime when you’re in a crowded room. Flash is usually unwelcome, so if you can get away without one, do it. It’ll make your camera less bulky. Also, my best purchase a few years back was a Black Rapid strap for the camera. When you’re not using your camera, it can be stowed away securely at the small of your back which means it’s far less likely to bang into things and people, possibly damaging your gear, and when you need it you simply slide it right up into the shooting position. Get one and you will fall in love with it.
10. More Advice for Photographers – SXSW is an amazing opportunity to play photojournalist. There are so many cool (and often strangely-dressed) folks at the conference, the city itself has fantastic architecture, and so much personality and character. You never know what you’re going to run across, but keep your eyes peeled for some amazing serendipitous shots. Trust me, they are there in abundance, and seldom was the time I regretted having my camera with me. Keep the lens cap off as much as you can. Keeping it on is mostly going to keep you from getting a shot.
And that’s a wrap. These are what I consider to be some of the most important pieces of advice I’d give someone going down for the first time. I got plenty of it myself, and the first day or so still leaves you with your head spinning. This post was designed not to prevent that (impossible), but to help you prepare and not say, “I wish someone had told me [insert your favorite amazing piece of advice you read above].”
I hope this proves useful for those of you attending SXSW 2014. If you attended in the past, I’d love to know what you think I missed. And if you missed Part One, you can find it here. Thanks for reading, and see you in Austin.