13 Important Tips for First Time South By Southwest Attendees
This post loosely accompanies Gab & Jam Episode 53 “Is South By Southwest Worth It? Tips for Newbies From Newbies” (video link and podcast link). If you prefer to watch or listen to learn what you need to know to get the most out of the experience, click the respective links.
As we mentioned in the last South By Southwest post [“29 Observations About SXSW (and Austin too)”], the conference is MASSIVE and these are tips we had wish we had heard before we attended. Hey, we’re new to it all, so all of these are intended to help those who are planning to attend (or about thinking about attending), so that you can stress less and benefit more from the pretty hefty price tag for the event.
Also, keep in mind, that while South By Southwest has a bazillion different tracts (including Music, Film, Interactive, and Comedy), but even though it’s not listed, Entrepreneurship, Health, and Politics are focused on in many of the early parts of SXSW. So, former Presidents, as well as Health Care Professionals and Media Moguls will be presenting. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds—well, at least it was for us—which is why we are hoping that our advice helps you be better prepared for it all.
Check out our South By Southwest 2019 Playlist.
Tip 1: Have a plan
The conference is MASSIVE, so knowing what you want to get out of the conference, what companies’ brand reps will be there, what bands will be playing, what films will be premiering, what topics will be covered—you get the picture—will help you better budget your time and energy toward making sure that you see/meet/hear those folks that you most want to. This leads to our next tip.
Did you check out our daily vlog from South By Southwest 2019?
Tip 2: Do research
Again, following up from the first tip, you will need to do some research to know who, what, and where those folks are in relationship to sessions, locations, showcases, exhibits, etc. –For instance, you may want to check out some of the filmmakers earlier work to see if you music fits the tone of their work. And/or you may want to connect with that filmmaker on LinkedIn prior to the trip. You may even want to message folks/or create a campaign around the fact that you will be there and expect to make these connections. Whatever your plans are, help yourself by doing some digging first, so that you can quickly prioritize your time and energy once you arrive (i.e., go where you need to go and do what you need to do).
Tip 3: Get Schedule ASAP
Notwithstanding the fact that we had no idea what sessions were available and when up until the day before we were leaving, now that we know that the app is where you can find all the schedule details, we would have gotten it at least a week—if not longer—in advance. You don’t want to waste time hemming and hawing about where to be; instead you want to spend your time getting there—and then, somewhere else. —Remember that is a pretty pricey event, so you want to get as much value out of your time as you can, so planning at least keeps you aware of how you to do that without being wasteful about it.
Tip 4: Figure out what level of access you want BEFORE you buy
When we went to register, we found that there were different levels of badges and even, less expensive wristbands, that would allow one entry into the gazillion activities that SXSW offers. As you might imagine, the platinum badge allows one access to EVERYTHING, but also costs the most—coming in at well over $1,200. And one of the wristbands that we looked at was $35, but only gave you access to some of the performance showcases and only on certain dates. Suffice it to say that the entire SXSW experience spans over 2 weeks and includes hundreds of panels, exhibits, showcases, mentoring sessions, meet ups, and other networking opportunities. As a business, in order to fully be able to advantage of the one-on-one mentoring sessions, you will need as least a badge. (A badge also gives you the opportunity to get the express pass, which means that you will get in first, in case the session is sold out.) However, if you’re just there to enjoy all the live music opportunities, a wristband may be just the way to go. Finally, there are sooooo many other activities that have piggy-backed onto SXSW that you may not even need to pay for any type of access to enjoy these opportunities (like our Holy Roller experience—that featured an Amy Winehouse photo exhibit and the music of a live band simply for the cost of brunch—see link). Ultimately, we decided upon the Music Tract (with secondary Film access). To be honest, there was NO way to get to EVERYTHING that we had access to, but it was nice knowing that we would be able to get in the doors of the places that we decided to go. Having the badge gave us peace of mind, when we saw some of the longer lines.
Check out our South By Southwest 2019 Playlist.
Tip 5: Be prepared to abandon a session
We learned the hard way that there’s no shame in abandoning—or leaving in the middle of—a session that is not meeting your perceived needs. To be honest, those first two sessions were not engaging and did not seem to be sharing the type of information that we had hoped (see Day One video) and we wasted more time than we should have, waiting for them to begin delivering. What we learned is that we should position ourselves near an aisle-way or near the back, so that we could easily slip on out should the session seem like a time-waster for us. As the week progressed, we realized that other session attendees had this same philosophy and, so it is not rude to leave out, but even almost expected (as long as you are discreet). That leads to our next tip.
Tip 6: Plan overlapping sessions
Because they had SOOOO many promising sessions that seemed to overlap often, we learned to put them ALL on our app calendar, so that, if a session tanked—see Tip 5—we could ease out and head to another one close by. We would prioritize which workshops seemed to offer the most promise and put those at the top of the list, then the next promising and so on. When a session did not live up to its name or included folks who were completely unengaging, we had several places to go to find what we came to SXSW to get; encouragement, enlightenment, and edutainment. Not feeling as though we were wasting our time made us feel empowered and like we were getting the best bang for our big bucks.
Tip 7: Plan mentoring sessions in advance
We know that we keep harping on planning, but you will miss out on so much of the value of your access if you fail to plan in advance properly. Having said that, there are super beneficial one-on-one mentoring sessions that badge holders have access to; that’s the great news. The bad news is that they are structured in 15 minute increments, so, as you can imagine, these fill up quickly. What’s worse is that the waiting list for these spots—should someone fail to show up for their session—is super long, which means that you are unlikely to see anyone if you do not have a session booked. We did not know that these were a “thing” until after we got there and scoured the app for all the varieties of things that might be helpful for us, business-wise. So, next time, we know to try to find out WHO is actually doing that mentoring sessions and to schedule a specific time in advance.
Tip 8: Plan to meet with brands in exhibit hall
There are a few exhibitions during the SXSW conference. What this means is that if you want to work with brands for potential profit, you might want to find out who will be represented and either contact them in advance and let them know you will be coming and/or introduce yourself and be prepared to pitch them, so that you can secure some type of working collaboration. We didn’t fully realize how accessible these folks were until we got there and started seeing folks taking advantage of this opportunity. Next time, we will be better prepared for this one.
Tip 9: Wear your badge at all times!
It should go without saying, but if you do not have your badge, you will not be allowed into the events, etc. that you have paid for, so we suggest that not only should you keep it with you at all times, but you should just wear the darned thing! Yes, you will look like you’re a latch-key kid, but you won’t risk losing it or misplacing it and potentially not having it when you are ready to join in on the SXSW fun. –There is no way to look you up at the door of any of the events, so if you do not have your badge, you will not be able to enter places that require a badge. –Yes, they do check! (–Even going to the second level at the Austin Convention Center, our badges were checked!)
Tip 10: Don’t limit yourself to opportunities from one area of the world
Because South By Southwest is truly an international event, there are companies, distributors, promoters, artists, managers, equipment manufacturers, booking agents, media, investors, etc., etc. from all over the world! So, when you think of trying to use going there as a business opportunity, you can go beyond your home country to see what other nations will be represented. The best part for us Americans is that all the people who will be coming—from every corner of the globe, literally—can speak and understand English, so your ability to network with them multiplies exponentially more than if you were to travel to their native country. So, again, your best chance at a collab may not be in Hollywood, but it may be from someone in Bollywood, for instance. Pro Tip: You can use LinkedIn to do some research in advance to narrow down a few of these potential people and brands to network with.
Tip 11: Get as much footage as possible!
If you’re a blogger, vlogger, podcaster, etc., you will want to come prepared with your full arsenal of travel equipment—cameras, microphones, etc.—to take advantage of the many, many chances to get footage and all types of other content for your blog/vlog/podcast, etc. While I took session notes on my phone—in Trello—I saw other bloggers carry laptops from session to session and write their pieces right on the spot! [—As you probably already know, we vlogged every day and put the videos together and uploaded them to YouTube every night, as a way of maximizing our experience and to preserve the memories of all that we did. (See these.) There was no way that I could have remembered all that stuff accurately, so I am stoked to be able to get things up right during the trip, instead of waiting.] However, since the experience of going to it for an entire week lives on with the advice that we can offer anyone who has never been there before, I keep pulling out the notes that I took and re-visiting the vlogging videos, so that I can write blog posts, such as this one. So, don’t miss out. —They even have those cool SXSW backdrops some of everywhere, so there are already iconic spots to film your interviews, etc. Take advantage of it.
Tip 12: Be prepared for the physical demands
If you would like to get to a variety of panels, showcases, exhibits, etc., plan your clothing choices accordingly. What we mean is that we walked quite a bit to get to several things; one of which was the Sam Fender showcase , which was a mile and a half walk from our hotel. So, be sure you wear comfortable shoes—we suggest closed toes, since when it gets crowded, you may get your toes stepped on—as well as layers, so that you can peel them off as the weather (or inside temperature of a venue) demands. Also, in some instances—like the showcase at the Fender house, as well as the second Amanda Palmer, Jack Conte, and Ben Folds panel (at the Patreon House), we had to stand through the entire panel presentation. The people who had the 50 or so seats—and were there for the panel before the one we were to attend—did not move when the transition happened for the next panel. Therefore, after walking ¾ of a mile to get there, we had to stand through the entire presentation. And, though our badge gave us a complimentary drink, the line for the bar was so long that we did not bother getting in the line, which means that, if it gets as hot as it did on some days, you may want to carry a bottle of water with you, since there may not be as many opportunities to quench your thirst should thirst-quenching become necessary. Also, since the streets are blocked off in many areas, you cannot get an Uber or taxi, so your options are to either walk—as we did—rent a motorized scooter, a motorized bike, or to jump on that back of one of those rickshaw-type bikes (where your “chauffeur” steers the bike and you ride on the back in a double-seat bench) (see photo below). –We ended up walking to the SoCo neighborhood several times—which is one and a half miles away and extremely hilly—so we could see how the motorized scooters and bikes would be a benefit for taking on those hills.
Tip 13: Choose your hotel wisely
Choosing your hotel should be based on your budget, the schedule you set for attending panels, and the location you prefer. We chose a name brand hotel that was 2 blocks from the Austin Convention Center (which is the main hub of SXSW). –We did not go through the SXSW site to book it, because the site had said that the hotel was sold out. However, when we went through the hotel’s website directly, we were able to book our room. –The cost for the entire week’s stay was a small fortune—it costed as much for that week as for our entire family of four to fly and stay in Paris for a week! Yikes!—but it was worth it for the ease of use. First of all, the hotel was really nice and clean and the staff were attentive. The lobby was cheerful and even better, there were some SXSW sessions in the building! We later found out that we were in the hotel designated for the film and interactive people, so that’s why many of the sessions were there. We also found out that that hotel right across from the Austin Convention Center was designated as the music tract and many of the music-related sessions were in that hotel. However, we are glad that we chose the hotel that we did, because we were right in the nexus of the action and dwelled in comfort and security; luxuries not to be trifled with. Yes, we paid more, but when we consider the alternatives, we think we made the right decision. Buy if you are resourceful, you may be able to find less expensive accommodations, be just as happy, and be in all the places that make a difference.
Well, that’s all for now. –There are loads of other tips that we did not include—because we didn’t want this post to turn into a book!—but if you think of something that we haven’t covered that you would like an answer to, leave your question in the comments and we will address it personally.
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