I was fortunate to attend the South by Southwest (SXSW) Conferences and Festivals again this year for my fourth time in a row. Since the 2010 event, I’ve headed to Austin TX for the interactive portion of the festival. Of the four, this year’s was likely the best and most valuable for me and my career. Like the film and music weeks, the interactive week mixes business with pleasure. SXSWi is one of the only opportunities for me to learn the latest trends in social media, search engine optimization, content marketing, new media and emerging technology. There was so much to do and learn that I need recap a few key points before I succumb to sensory overload.
The People – First and foremost, it is the people you meet and the conversations you develop that truly make it worth the cost and trip. Attendees are friendly, eager to connect and interested in learning about and from each other. SXSWi is the definition of community engagement.
Tip - Don’t be afraid to start conversations with total strangers. You can often find people with similar interests in blogger lounges and at off campus events. Even if people are well known industry experts, they are likely willing and happy to chat with you.
Sessions vs. Events – The sessions are so diverse that they have become completely focused on niche topics. They may be panels, workshops or even book readings by experts. Events focus on interaction with other attendees, and they are intended for casual conversations and fun.
Tip – Pick only the sessions that pertain to your interests. You may only be able to attend 2-3 per day, so choose those that directly relate to what you do as well as those that fit your personal interests. For the events, go to those that are sponsored by well-known brands in your industry and sign up on eventbrite for events weeks ahead of your trip. Get to them all early. Space is limited and lines are long.
The Tradeshow – The tradeshow floor is packed with vendors and startups looking to build as much brand awareness as possible. They are frequently app or software developers, websites showcasing new services and tools as well as physical technologies. This year there was even 3d printing machines building examples in real-time.
Tip - Save your trip to the tradeshow floor for the day that has the least sessions of interest to you. Move quickly and take advantage of the free swag, but you cannot visit every booth. There is a difference between cool and valuable, so spend your time with those vendors that are offering something with practical applications.
The Sponsors – Big brands like Samsung and Chevrolet spend a ton of money to grab your attention. They show off new products and services with demos and contests. They also often provide charging stations for mobiles devices and laptops to ensure you will stop by. Chevy even offered free taxi services in its new Cruze sedan.
Tip – No real tip on this one. Check them out. People win great prizes. I even got the opportunity to drive a 2012 Corvette Grand Prix around the area. That was awesome.
Fun and Food – Austin and SXSW in particular are likely the most fun city and event you have the opportunity to attend each year. The entire city opens its arms and welcomes everyone and anyone. The city even sections off all streets within a few block radius around the convention center. The streets are filled with musicians, magicians and performers of all types.
Tip - Walk 6th st and you will see it all. Don’t waste your time in a hotel restaurant. Even the food trucks serve up great meals. The interactive, music and film portions of the festival overlap, so you never know who you may see. Famous movie stars and musicians are known to show up without any promotion. They also come to have fun and experience the festival.
Hotels and Travel – There are a number of hotels within walking distance of the convention center, but not that many. Most are upscale and expensive. The Austin-Bergstrom International Airport is big enough that nearly all airlines come in from most major airports.
Tip – Book both early. Six months in advance if possible. You don’t want to stay in a hotel so far away that you end up spending $30+ on cabs every day. Flights are also expensive and are frequently booked by veteran attendees months in advance. The badges also become more expensive as the festival approaches.
SXSW Interactive is my favorite “business” event each year. I won’t lie and say that I don’t have a great time, but I learn more in one week there then I do over the rest of the year. The connections are invaluable. You will likely make connections that you would never be able to under any other circumstances.