Field Guide to South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi)

Originally posted on December 7, 2010

Every year, I have a few new friends that ask me if I have any tips for them as they get ready for SXSW — an interactive, film and music extravaganza! Today, my friend Christine Perkett let me know that she was taking her maiden voyage to Austin next spring for this very event. My promise to her was an insider’s guide to “South-by” as it’s referred to by us geeks. I know I’ve missed a ton so I’m hoping that my fellow SXSW veterans and local Austinites will help fill in the blanks.

Lodging and Airfare
After buying your ticket to SXSW, this is the first thing you want to take care of. And by first thing, I mean now. Today. Not in two months. Trust me when I tell you that you will end up flying into San Antonio and staying somewhere halfway between San Antonio and Austin if you don’t take care of this soon. Here are several hotels that are close that you should consider.

Map of Downtown Austin

http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF8&hl=en&msa=0&msid=114537014142502422139.000496da39e9d71cc66b4&ll=30.267481,-97.739825&spn=0.011712,0.013046&output=embed
View Map of Downtown Austin Hotels for SXSW in a larger map

HINT: I am not kidding about staying near San Antonio (which is an hour away from Austin) if you don’t plan ahead.


Scheduling
One of the first things you will realize as you start to prepare for SXSW is that there are A LOT of things happening at the same time. This includes keynotes, breakout sessions, happy hours, etc. Per my friend, Kyle Flaherty’s advice from a post he did about SXSW 2010, get focused on the 6-8 panels/sessions you really want to see. Make sure you’re not just going to see the latest social media rock star but look carefully at the session title and description. Is the speaker a seasoned speaker or is this their first rodeo? As a result, you may want to have a “plan B” session” lined up for any selections you make just in case you need to call an audible.

HINT: Have all of your your notes/schedules printed out. Wifi and cell coverage can be spotty at times at SXSW.

Parties/Networking
There are a lot of parties at SXSW. And when I say a lot, I mean A LOT. More than you will ever experience anywhere else in your lifetime. This is obviously a great time to network so go light on the drinking (or at least pace yourself — more on that in the next section). Also, just like the conference sessions, you will want to choose these wisely. Take note of the fact that for the signature parties (Mashable, DIGG, TechSet) there will be lines. Long lines. So get there early and move on to your next party before that party winds down. Also keep an eye on key people like Chris Brogan and Robert Scoble’s Twitter streams. These guys create flash parties everywhere they go. Sometimes, those are the best ones. Another smart idea is to make sure you are signed up for services like Plancast and a location-based provider or two like FoursquareGowalla and Whrrl so you can monitor the action a little more methodically.

Another important point to touch on here is that you will do some of the best networking you’ve ever done at SXSW. That’s at least 67% of the value of the conference. Some of that happens at parties. Other times, this can happen via coffee, breakfast or in the Blogger’s Lounge (this is one of the hidden gems of SXSW). I’ll put up a link to more details about the BL as we get closer to SXSW. However, because there are so many events going on simultaneously, be sure to reach out via e-mail or phone with anyone you want to connect with in advance and set a time and a place to meet.

HINT: For most parties, you will need a SXSW badge. If you attend the conference rogue (sans badge), there is usually a list of parties that don’t require badges (I will link to that when it’s up). What I will tell you is that unless you are 5′ 10″, blonde and drop dead gorgeous, there is a 99% chance you will NOT get into any party that requires a badge.

Pace Yourself
As I noted in the “Party/Networking” section of this post, there are a lot of parties that go on during SXSW. Combine that with the late nights and the fact that SXSW takes place over the course of several days, it is imperative to pace yourself. Trust me, I’m not scrooge when it comes to having fun but ensuring that you eat well, get sleep whenever you can (hint: take naps in the afternoon), drink plenty of water and try and not pull an all-nighter during the first day or two that you’re here.

HINT: The weather in March is usually mid-70s to high 80s during the day and low-60s at night. Shorts and t-shirts are de rigeur but you may also make sure you bring a fleece and a few pairs of jeans for the evening activities.

Content Creation
If you’re a blogger, podcaster or videographer, SXSW is a wonderful place to create content. There is usually space in the hallways of the Austin Convention Center to set up shop although they hallways can get noisy in between sessions. Weather permitting, you can also shoot/record outdoors. Just make sure you bring extra batteries and be sure to test your equipment before you come down. If you’re podcasting, you might even arrange with someone to be editing remotely so that you can post during SXSW. This means pre-recording your bumper music, creating a tag/hashtag in advance, etc.

HINT: As I mentioned in the “Networking” section, you will also want to try and schedule as many interviews ahead of time as possible. This includes putting together a schedule and finding a meeting place in advance e.g. outside the blogger lounge or near the Chevy pavilion near the entrance.

Restaurants
I’m in the process of adding more places to the map below (suggestions are welcome). [POST SCRIPT 2/29/2011: Our friends at Where.com just added a curated list of Austin/SXSW faves from a list of about 20 people — food bloggers, Austinites and people like @SchneiderMike and I that just like food).

http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF8&hl=en&msa=0&ll=30.261254,-97.740641&spn=0.019423,0.044932&msid=114537014142502422139.000496ea5d6282ef7d743&output=embed
View Good Restaurants to Visit During SXSW in a larger map

HINT: The Salt Lick is a MUST visit while you are here for anyone that likes BBQ. Because it is in Driftwood which is a good 30 minutes south of downtown, you’ll need to drive there. If you do decided to go, plan on it taking a good three hours out of your night. Also note that they are cash only and because Driftwood is in a dry county, you must bring your own beer and wine if you want to drink.
Other Useful Links
As we get closer to the event, more and more “how to do SXSW” posts will crop up. So that I don’t overwhelm you, I will try and keep a running list below. I promise that I will personally curate these posts so that I only provide the posts that I see offering additional value.
As I noted above, I’m sure I’ve missed all kinds of other good tips so please let me know via the comments below. Or you can send me a link via Twitter @aaronstrout.

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