As I’m sitting in a crowded ballroom at the Austin Convention Center waiting for the start of a panel discussion with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and other cast members from HBO’s hit comedy series “Veep,” I strike up a conversation with the guy sitting next to me. He works in big data analytics for the financial services industry. We chat about the (somewhat scary) implications that massive amounts of real-time data will have for targeted marketing and dynamic pricing strategies, not to mention privacy. Then the crowd goes wild as Louis-Dreyfus walks onto the stage holding up her phone. She’s broadcasting her own video of the crowd’s applause on Meerkat. Every third audience member holds a phone pointed back at her – recording, photographing or streaming. Welcome to SXSW.
Over the course of the next five days, I’ll go to a robot petting zoo, eat approximately 50 lbs of tortilla chips and queso, catch panels ranging from innovation in the automotive industry to the use of social media as a predictor for financial markets, take a virtual reality tour through the spaceship from Interstellar, walk about 10 miles per day, ride in a pedicab piloted by Wonder Woman and see upwards of 30 bands. I’ll meet one quasi-celebrity – the very affable actor who plays Dewey Crowe on “Justified” – and take about 500 photos. And I won’t scratch the surface of what has become one of the biggest technology, film and music festivals in the world.
I’ve been wanting to go to SXSW for years, but the stars never aligned properly. But this year, between a desperate need for a vacation, having a buddy speaking on a panel and the backing of Voxus, it finally made sense for me to go. The experience lived up to all the hype, both good and bad. And I’ll definitely go again.
Which surprises me. In recent years, there’s been a lot of chatter about how SXSW has jumped the shark. It’s too huge, too inundated with big brands and too expensive, people say. Expect long lines, douche-y behavior by attendees (especially during Interactive) and sessions that are less interesting than the free chatter that takes place in hotel lobbies, bars and street corners. All of those criticisms are true to a certain extent. It’s still worth attending. But if you do go, here are a few lessons I learned – a couple of them the hard way.
Plan ahead. When I arrived at SXSW, I was given 3 canvas tote bags, presumably to make it easier to carry around the 3 show guides for Interactive, Film and Music, each of which is roughly the thickness of a medium-sized city’s phone book. There are so many sessions, performances, parties and general mayhem that you really need to think ahead of time about what you want to see. There’s no way to figure it out on the fly. I spent several hours favoriting events in the SXSW Go app in the days before I arrived and that wasn’t nearly enough. I missed a lot of good stuff because I wasn’t in the right place at the right time or because events I wanted to attend were happening at the same time.
Wear comfortable shoes. Not only will you walk a lot, but you will stand around a lot. In line for events, at events, eating at food trucks (I think I had exactly one proper restaurant meal over the 5 days I was in Austin)… just plan on being on your feet for many hours per day. I finally broke down after the 3rd day and bought some gel insoles for my poorly chosen footwear.
Talk to anybody and everybody. All that standing around also creates lots of opportunities to strike up conversations with random strangers. I met several interesting people doing cool things that way: a woman who started a company to reinvent the toothbrush; a guy who’s company launched a service that lets anyone DJ their own live Internet radio station; a venture capitalist who’s been coming to SXSW for 24 straight years. You’ll almost always learn something new.
Don’t be surprised by the contradictions. You can’t attend SXSW without noticing the contradictions all around you. For instance, there are numerous panels on topics like using technology to address social ills. Meanwhile, homeless people camp outside of venues where SXSW attendees are being plied with free food and drink. It’s more than a little jarring.
Be nice to the locals. Something like 325,000 people attend SXSW each year now. For any city, such a huge influx is bound to create some tensions. Folks working in the local restaurants, bars and shops do their best to be helpful, but it’s a long event and taxing for them. And some attendees are just a little too entitled. In one coffee shop, I saw a chalkboard that said “Be kind to each other. It’ll all be over soon.” That’s good advice whether you live in Austin or are just attending SXSW.
See you next year.