Crash Course on SXSW

At this time next week, geeks from around the world will begin descending on Austin, TX for SXSW (South by Southwest) Interactive. This will be my third year, but I’m a bit surprised, in a down economy, how many people are going for the first time.

Believe me when I say, this will be possibly the best experience of your entire career. Each year becomes progressively better for me. I imagine that, if you return in future years, your approach to SXSW will follow a similar track as me:

  1. Year 1 – Wander aimlessly, taken in by all of the events going on. Looking around in wide-eyed wonder. Possibly returning unaware of what exactly you got out of it but knowing you got something.
  2. Year 2 – Operate at non-stop breakneck speed for the entire conference, stopping only to grab a coffee or a quick bite. Trying to meet as many people as you can and go to as many parties as you can RSVP for.
  3. Year 3 – Being old hat, SXSW is less about meeting everyone and doing everything than spending time building on the relationships that matter most. This means long lunches, and maybe avoiding the “meat market” networking parties in favor of smaller, intimate settings.

You cannot hit #3 without doing #1 and #2 first, so don’t try. :)

On a practical level, SXSW is a very busy time and if it’s your first time, you probably want to consider some things before you hit that plane and hotel.

  1. Pack Light – you will not want to carry a lot of stuff to and from the airport, hotel or convention center, not to mention the parties
  2. Do not plan to spend a lot of time in your hotel – You may have a chance to go put eveningwear on, but you very well might not. Plan to not have a chance to go to the hotel.
  3. Sessions are not all that important. In the grand scheme of things, whether you’re a design/UX kind of person (the old guard at SXSW) or a social media person (the new guard) or a government type (lots of those this year), your colleagues are descending on the place for 4 days. Spend time with them. Sessions you can get anywhere.
  4. Do not try to go to every party. You can’t and it’s no fun that way. Pick a few and leave some wiggle room in your schedule so that you can add the ad hoc unannounced party that you find out about at the last minute.
  5. Keep Your Posessions. Don’t lose your phone or Blackberry, as I did in 2007.
  6. Have a second pair of shoes. In case there is torrential rain (It can and does happen).
  7. Get sleep. It’s really hard at SXSW because something is happening at almost all hours. But you need to pace yourself and make it for the entire conference. Drink lots of water if you’re going to be consuming alcohol (who doesn’t?) and try to grab power naps if you can.
  8. Stay near the convention center. All the parties happen between San Jacinto St and Colorado Ave, from east to west. Likewise, most happen between 4th and 7th St, from south to north. In other words, everything is pretty tight in. If you can, get a hotel room (or share with someone) close to the show. Makes all the difference in cab fares and walking.

For the rest of you who have been to SXSW before, what advice can you give? Leave ideas in comments.