I’ve been attending SXSW since 2003, missing only one year (2018). In all that time, I’ve learned a thing or two I’d like to share with you about navigating what is, objectively, the most logistically nutty conference I’ve ever attended (with the possible exception of CES, but let’s not go there…ever).
First, a caveat. This is not a guide on how to express your brand or get a job at SXSW. Those are both things you can try to do, but that’s almost never why I’m there—so I can’t really tell you how to optimize for that. The two things I generally attend SXSW for are to be inspired and learn (which are kind of the same thing for me), and to meet or reconnect with amazing people. That to me is the “thriving” part of attending SXSW. And given how expensive attending SXSW is, it’s worth doing more than just surviving it.
1. Get used to FOMO
From a content perspective, SXSW is an amazing value. It’s not that much more expensive than your typical conference, but it has way more content. In one hour at SXSW, there are as many as 60 different sessions happening. That’s as many as you get in lots of other conferences combined.
This, of course, leads to analysis paralysis, and not a little bit of fear of missing out. And there aren’t just talks. There are parties, meetups, movies, live podcasts, art installations, or just Austin itself, all competing for your attention. I once had to give a talk that was competing with free beer!
You are going to miss out. Get used to it. Focusing on this will not make you happy. Focusing on the value of where you are in the moment, which may just be getting coffee with someone really interesting, will provide much more value.
2. Use the rule of two feet
There’s a rule that I first heard about at BarCamp Philly that says that if you’re in a session that you don’t like, just leave. Don’t feel obligated to stay just because you’re in the room. SXSW is dense, which means that if you don’t like what you’re in, there’s probably a fascinating session right next door. In fact, in any one venue at any given time, there are probably 10 or so talks to choose from. Which also means…
3. Let serendipity be your backup plan
In a minute, I’m going to advise you on the deep preparation you’ll need for a successful SXSW, but at the same time you’ll need to be able to throw that planning away on a moment’s notice because one of two things happen: 1) you can’t get into the session you wanted to, or 2) you get a better offer. Let’s start with the first scenario.
Well over 100,000 people attend SXSW. Which means that sessions fill up fast. You’ll see lines in front of every other room as folks wait for sessions to start, some winding through entire buildings. You will not get into every session you wish to attend. And if you don’t, your second choice might be halfway across town.
You could go back to your hotel room and sulk… or you could just go to the session next door. It may be about a topic you’ve never heard of or don’t normally care about. But it might just be fascinating nonetheless. I can’t tell you how many sessions I’ve just stumbled into that have stuck with me.
I remember attending one session on venture capital in healthcare that I never would have gone to in a million years, but happened to be across the hall from a session that filled up. I learned a ton, including the fact that missed appointments cost the health industry $160 billion a year! I was able to bring up that factoid with a client years later and it really impressed them. And that’s the virtue of the knowledge and idea density that exists at SXSW. You can bump into good ones by accident—if you leave yourself open to it.
The other serendipitous situation is you find yourself in an amazing conversation, and time is ticking, and that session you wanted to go to is about to start. I have found, pretty consistently, it’s always better to stick with the conversation. The session may be recorded, but even if it isn’t, your chance to have this conversation with this person is probably limited to this moment (because, in all likelihood, they are from a different town or a different country). So it behooves you to take advantage of the uniqueness and closeness of this moment.
4. Find the SX outside of SX
There are a lot of parties and brand activations at SX, but there are a few SX events that show some of the original culture of early SXSW. When I first started attending in 2003, SXSW Interactive was largely a blogger’s conference. It was the one time of year a lot of attendees, who were blogging from different parts of the country, could get to see each other in person.
Over time, it grew to be more of a software, apps, and industry conference, resembling CES in arguably unhealthy ways (basically people started figuring out the internet could make money, and out came the knives). So we had parties on top of parties on top of brand activations on top of more parties. When I went in 2019, there was essentially a fraternity row of houses all the way down one street that was basically one corporate party after another. Not my bag.
But there is a cultural underground to SX represented by things like Fray Cafe, which was a personal storytelling event, that, unfortunately, has been priced out of SX. There is still (at least for one more year) 20×2, which—full disclosure—was founded by friends of mine, and I’ve been a featured presenter in the past. The event features 20 speakers who get 2 minutes each to answer one question. Past questions have included things like “What did you expect?” and “What’s are you waiting for?” Performances have been amazing, ranging from comedy to music to heartbreaking storytelling. It’s unlike anything else you’ll find at SX and that’s the point. Seek out the unusual beneath the corporate.
Plan, plan, plan. And then be prepared to throw out the plan. For me, planning usually starts a few weeks out when SX posts its official schedule. I pull out a big ol’ Google spreadsheet and start figuring out what I’m going to go to. I look at the sessions, who’s giving them, what they’re about, and I start ranking, hour by hour, what’s going to be the best use of my time. I even take into account the location. SXSW is spread out over most of downtown Austin, so if you schedule a bunch of sessions that are a mile apart, you’ll never make it.
I won’t lie. This takes weeks. But I walk into SX with a game plan. One I’m willing to abandon if, see above, a better offer comes along, or I can’t get into my first choice. I’m also very conscious of which sessions I’m willing to stand in line for even if it means missing the previous session, and which ones I’ll get into if I’m lucky, but won’t miss anything for. Also, make time for food and water.
6. Book your hotel early
The second that registration opens for SXSW, if you’re sure you’re attending, get that registration and book that hotel like you’re trying to get U2 tickets. Be waiting by your computer refreshing like crazy minutes before launch. Hotels go fast. Very fast. Within twenty minutes you may find the closest hotel is a mile away from the conference.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have the means to afford hotels closer to the event, so I’m not the person to tell you how to find the best deals, but I can tell you to be wary of the overall room price because the per-night price might tell a very different story. Prices vary greatly from night to night, and the more you AirBnB, and the less you mind having to commute to SXSW every morning, the less you’ll pay.
7. Stop conferencing
I met someone once who, as a habit, would take one day off and just wander the halls chatting with people he met. He met the CEO of Pizza Hut this way. That wasn’t the point exactly, but it goes to show that most of the value of SX is that it brings people together from all over the world, who are only in this one town—in this one space—one time all year. Take advantage of that.
8. Have a guide
If at all possible, go with someone who’s been before. Who can show you all the pitfalls. Who can be the living version of this guide. Who can introduce you to people. I had the blessing of this in my best friend, Kevin Smokler, who guided me through my first SXSW back in 2003. I was able to meet way more people and attend way more events as a result. Especially if you’re someone who’s a little introverted—those introductions can make all the difference.
9. Arrange to meet people beforehand
If you’re comfortable with it, arrange beforehand to meet with people while you’re there. This could be people you’re friends with on social media but never met in person. This could be people you only get to see at other conferences that you happen to know are going. But having a few things on your schedule before you even get there that are familiar can make it much easier to adjust. Every year, I try to arrange a few “Breakfasts at SX” where I catch up with folks or meet new ones before the day begins.
10. Wear comfy shoes
When I asked my friends online what they would recommend, they responded with a lot of the same points above, but I completely forgot about one crucial thing. You will be doing a LOT of walking and standing at SX. Don’t make it harder than it needs to be.
Hope this helps you navigate the strange waters of SX (and, yes, folks do call it SX — pronounced “south by”) and if you are going to be in town, hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org to chat.
Bonus: If you want to check out some SXSW 2020 talks by me and my Think Company colleagues, check out the details here:
- Content Strategy Hacks to Save Civil Discourse – David Dylan Thomas
- Outsourcing Creativity: Authors, Artists, and AI – Keren Toledano
- Tech-Free Service Design: Mumbai’s “Dabbawalas” – Neha Agarwal and Dhiraj Sapkal