March 1st, 2013

Girl Gets Geeky: @SXSW 2013 Interactive Prep Tips

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One week from today, the big South by Southwest Interactive festival kicks off in Austin, TX. This will be my fourth year to attend and I am just as excited as I was the first time. But by now, I know what to expect and how to prepare for the five full days of navigating through 30,000+ attendees and deciding where and how to spend my time from the thousand choices offered seemingly 24-hours of every day.

I’ve begun my packing list and have started narrowing down my selection of sessions to attend. As I do these things, I am keeping a few things in mind and thought I would share my top five prep tips for attending SXSW:

  1. Have a plan each day. As the conference grows each year, the sessions are spread further apart in hotels and conference rooms across the city. SXSW has a great transportation system in place to get you to all the locations and there are many brands that will be there to give rides, as well. However, there are a lot of people there and you only have 30 minutes between each session. I recommend that you have a list of sessions each day that you want to attend, you know where they are and you know where all the shuttle pick-up/drop-off locations are to get you to those sessions. Don’t wait until you get out of one session to try to pick your next session. You will end up in no session or in one that just happens to be close with open seats. 
  2. Wear comfortable shoes and carry a lightweight bag each day. The days are long and the sessions are far apart. You are going to be walking a lot. And you are going to be squeezing through crowds. Make it as easy on yourself as possible. The first year I attended, I think I put every piece of tech gear I had in my bag and I nearly died by the end of the first day; each day my bag got lighter and lighter as I figured out what I could eliminate. This is hard for me; I have a survivalist mentality and want to be prepared for any situation, so I always carry a big bag with everything I can think of that I might need. This is not a good a approach for SXSW. Basically, here is what I really need in my bag: phone, tablet, extra battery pack/cords, wall charger for phone/tablet, notebook & pen, scarf (some of those rooms get cold), glasses, sunglasses, camera and one lip balm.
  3. Take notes. Don’t think that you will remember everything each day and can write it up at the end of the day. There is too much. Take notes during every session. You might be surprised when you look back each day at what you learned. And if you are like our company, you are one of the very few lucky ones that get to attend SXSW, so you will want to (and be expected to) share what you learned with your colleagues when you return home. You won’t want to miss a word.
  4. Rest and caffeinate liberally. There are many activities to participate in during the evenings. These things are not for me, but I see the value and know that most of you want to go to the parties. Go, have fun. But I recommend you don’t get too crazy because the days require energy and you will need your rest. Be sure to get plenty of sleep. And you will likely still need caffeine to get you through the full day. There are plenty of snack stations around the festival, but keep in mind that 30,000+ other people are getting in those lines about the same time you are; plan accordingly to get your caffeine fix.
  5. Pause occasionally and take it all in. It really is a cool experience. Too often, I find myself with my head down looking at my phone trying to find my way around, or reading what is going on in other locations or back at the office. Every once in while, stop (and step out of the traffic flow) and look around at the people, the activity and the conversations that are happening around you. And appreciate that you have the opportunity to be a part of it all.

Bonus tip: Always be charging. Your devices, that is. You are going to be using your phone and tablet a lot: to find sessions, to share learnings, to take notes, to connect with your colleagues. Battery power will deplete faster than you think. Start out with a full battery, carry an extra if you have it, bring your charger and any spare moment or open outlet you see, plug in even if you think you have plenty of battery left. You don’t. Trust me on this one.

Others will talk about the networking opportunities and the parties. As an introvert and a continuous learner, these things are not as appealing to me. Though, I can see the value, fun and opportunity in networking and parties. They are just not for me. I love the listening, observing and learning that comes from the sessions at SXSW.

I’ll be sharing learnings and insights here and over at the Stone Ward blog, Waiting for the Elevator, throughout the entire festival. And you can follow me on Twitter for in-the-moment observations.

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