How to make the most of SXSW

How to make the most of SXSW

SXSW Interactive is nearly here again, and if you’re a first timer at this epic event, you’ll no doubt be wondering how to make the most of your trip.

There are plenty of guides already out there online, but as veterans of the event here at TNW, we’ve built up our own bunch of tips that we tell anyone who asks.

So, with less than a week to go until tens of thousands of geeks descend upon the already pretty geeky city of Austin, Texas, here’s our own guide to making sure you don’t waste your time there – which is really easy to do…

What to pack

If you live SXSW to the max (and you should!) you won’t be spending much time in your hotel room, but you’ll want to stay digitally connected. The solution is to bring two or three portable batteries with you to keep your devices charged. The trick is to always leave one charging in your hotel room or at your Airbnb if you can.

If you’re staying in the city center you’ll be able to nip back and swap during the day if you need to. Even if you’re staying a few miles out, having a fully charged battery back at base means you don’t have to remember to plug one in when you collapse into bed at 3am.

A few of these accompany my to Austin each year.
A few of these accompany me to Austin each year.

Bring spare charging leads too, if (like me) you tend to lose things. A lengthy trip to an out-of-town Apple Store in the middle of the day to buy a Lightning cable isn’t ideal, believe me – I speak from experience.

If you do run out of battery power for your devices, the silver lining is that your friends back home won’t be able to complain about your smug tweets about all the fun you’re having at SXSW.

Things got desperate one time at SXSW.
Things got desperate one time at SXSW.

Also, prepare for the weather. In my years at SXSW, I’ve experienced sweltering heat and torrential downpours. Be ready for both. On the same day. Just in case.

Wear sneakers or other comfortable footwear, not those smart new formalwear shoes you haven’t worn in yet. No-one expects you to dress up smartly, and you’ll probably be doing a lot of walking.

Before you arrive

There are so many sessions in the official SXSW program that you’re bound to miss something that you’d have loved to have been at. The schedule is a baffling list of events and speakers, and many panels and talks have rather bland names that hide interesting content.

Even some interesting speakers from big-name companies can be veiled by dull session names. Away from the keynotes from the likes of Barack Obama, SXSW doesn’t always signpost ‘Really interesting talk from Google’s Now’s product chief‘ and the like. I was the only reporter who wrote about that session last year, perhaps because none of my rivals found it in the schedule.

Sponsored transport is a common sight at SXSW.
Sponsored transport is a common sight at SXSW.

My trick is to read through all of the schedule carefully, twice – once sorted by session name, and once sorted by speaker name. That way you get two chances to identify interesting topics, including one where you can spot speaker names that you recognize. I wouldn’t have noticed a session about the ‘Silicon Valley’ TV show unless I’d seen Mike Judge listed as a speaker.

The next task is to limit the amount that you pencil in for each day. Any SXSW veteran will tell you to embrace the serendipity of the madness. So, just book in the talks you absolutely can’t miss. Believe me, some of the smaller sessions that seem interesting will just be veiled promotion for the speakers, despite the best efforts of the SXSW team to stop that kind of thing. Go for the sessions with credible speakers.

When you’re entering meetings, sessions and parties into your calendar of choice, make sure you account for the fact that the clocks go forward an hour on the Saturday night.

The way I make sure I have the right times in is to use an app like Google Calendar or Sunrise that allows you to add a specific location for each entry. That way, the calendar will automatically account the daylight savings – meaning no confusion for you, and you get to look smarter than the person you were meeting when they turn up at the wrong time.

I won't miss this important booking – the timezone and location is locked into the calendar appointment.
I won’t miss this important booking – the timezone and location is locked into the calendar appointment.

When planning your trip, it’s important that you give yourself time to digest what you’ve learned (and if you’re a journalist, write it up for your readers!). It’s also important to allow time to just soak up the craziness of SXSW, and to travel between venues.

The recently-built JW Marriott is a few blocks from the Convention Center and the Hilton, where most of the main events take place. The arts center south of the river, meanwhile, is a good 30-minute walk from the Convention Center. You could always get an Uber, Lyft or pedicab, but traffic can be pretty snarled up throughout SXSW.

Even within the Convention Center, it’s easy to get lost and end up on the wrong floor with a long, slow escalator ride to find the room you wanted.

For the big talks (especially keynotes from people like the freakin’ President of the United States of America), allow at least an hour in advance to queue. You’ll probably get into the session if you allow enough time – the biggest event spaces in the Convention Center are truly enormous with thousands of seats, and live video streams have been available in adjacent rooms in previous years, so you should be fine regardless.

In the case of a speaker like Obama, arrive on site a little earlier than usual to allow for any additional security checks that might be in place.

Away from the schedule

While there’s enough taking place in the official schedule to keep you busy all week, don’t discount the value of heading to one of the bars on Sixth Street or Rainey Street for a bite to eat, or to one of the numerous sponsored lounges around the city center. Those are good venues for the catch-ups with contacts you haven’t seen in years, or just to get a break from the craziness during the day.

Sixth Street is a hive of activity during SXSW.
Sixth Street is a hive of activity long into the night during SXSW.

Party time

Parties are a big part of SXSW. Even if you’re not much of a party animal, it’s worth giving a few of them a go as you never know who you’ll meet. In one night, it’s possible to hang out with multiple groups of people you’ve never met before, hopping from party to party, even if you started out at 6pm with no plan at all.

With that in mind, RSVP for any party there’s the remotest chance you might want to go to. If you’re lucky enough to be offered a VIP place at a party, take it – skipping the queues will save you valuable time.

Eventbrite is essentially the unofficial ticketing app for SXSW parties. Some organizers use competing services, but it’s worth getting Eventbrite’s mobile app on your phone if you’ve RSVPed for a few things – it’s a good way of keeping your tickets in one place. As long as you use the same email address for all RSVPs, you’ll find them all there, even if you weren’t logged into the service when you RSVPed.

Guides like this one are a good start to finding the best parties, but don’t discount recommendations from the new friends you meet along the way.

If you’re a music fan, parties at SXSW Interactive (before the dedicated Music strand of SXSW has even started) can be great – so keep an eye out to see if an artist or DJ you’ve always wanted to see happens to have been booked by a tech company with good taste.

Last year I stumbled upon the excellent Best Coast playing at a party I didn't even know about until 30 minutes earlier.
Last year I stumbled upon the excellent Best Coast playing at a party I didn’t even know about until 30 minutes earlier.

If you want to chill out away from loud music and cans of Lone Star, lobby bars at the big hotels tend to be open late, and you never know who you’ll meet there. I’ve chanced myself into interesting conversations with senior tech industry figures at 2am in hotel bars at SXSW.

Food-wise, there are plenty of restaurants in Austin, although you may struggle to get a table at peak times. Alternatively, there are usually some good food trucks to be found up Red River Street – sometimes that may well be all you’ll have time for anyway.

Do get SOME sleep

One time at SXSW, a friend and I were trying to find a bar open after 2am. We failed, but some guy on Sixth Street said there was a party going on upstairs above a bar, and he ushered us and a few other people from the street up a staircase.

When we got up there into a dark, bare brick walled room, something didn’t feel right. Either some illegal substances were about to be consumed or we were going to get murdered. Whatever was happening, we both picked up on a very dodgy vibe and swiftly made our exit to find a taxi. The moral of that story? Stay safe and know when it’s time to get some rest.

If you need a taxi and can’t get an Uber or Lyft, the best place to find one is outside the Hilton, on Neches Street. There’s usually a line of people waiting long into the night, and a steady stream of cabs.

Finally, realize that you’ll probably waste your first time

As with sex, your first experience of SXSW will be unforgettable but won’t live up to its potential.

All the planning in the world can’t prepare you for how fun, exhausting, useful and inspiring SXSW can be. My main tip to any first-timer is to plan to come again the following year. Once you’ve learned how to ‘do’ the event your first time, you’ll find your own rhythm and make a lot more of it the next time you attend.

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