Each year, I mean to write a guide for those new to SXSW. I had a pretty rough time my first year, mostly because I didn't listen to the advice I received. Every year since, I've been getting a bit better at handling the insanity. Last year, I keynoted the conference, which was an experience in itself. This will be my fifth year at SXSW, and it's a pretty overwhelmingly giant festival now.
So here is a guide for all you people new to SXSW. If this is your first time, welcome!
1. Familiarize Yourself with the Geography. A lot of what happens at SXSW is bounded by 11th and 1st Streets, Lavaca and Red River. (The streets in between are for you to discover yourself.) Just remember: you can see the Capitol building from Congress, and if you go past Red River, you've probably gone too far.
Here's a quick map so you can get your bearings:
2. Don't Overschedule/Schedule Panic. Or better yet, don't schedule at all. Pick one or two events/panels you'd like to see, but be ready and willing to drop them in case something more interesting comes up or you get caught in a conversation. Bring the people you meet to the session if you're so intent on going to it.
And, yes. You are going to miss something. Heck, you're going to miss a lot of things. If you get upset about stuff like that then you're missing the point of SXSW.
3. Bring Battery Backup. SXSW works best with a mobile phone, but it fails when you're out of juice. Pick up an extra battery pack for your phone and travel as light as possible. Print out pertinent information such as phone numbers and the address to your hotel. Put it in your wallet. If your phone dies it will probably die at the worst time. Paper never loses its charge. Finally, don't install any of those "ambient networking apps". If you were at SXSW last year you'll know what they did to your battery life.
4. Skip the Big Events. Have you ever been to Europe in the middle of tourist season? Ever been in line at an airport? Skip this junk. It's not worth your time and it's not fun.
Unless you're on the VIP list and/or the party is run by your best friend, you'd better either arrive early or don't arrive at all. Don't get me wrong, you should go to one if you're really into that kind of thing, but often the music is so loud that you can hear it/see it from the balcony of another bar. Just go to that bar instead, or make your own meetup. Or stand on the street and talk with people.
Even hanging out in a hotel lobby late at night or a nearby coffee shop or bar will get you involved into interesting conversations and exciting people.
Exception: Brunches and BBQs are always awesome. Daytime events are less likely to be loud and more likely to be delicious and efficient. Go to them and meet awesome people. Brunches usually sell out instantly, but with some begging to the event organizer you might be able to get in (or not).
5. Find a Hideout. Whether it's a giant lounge inside the Austin Convention Center or a small coffee shop four to six blocks away you'll need a place you can rest and recharge for a while. Your brain and feet will thank you. The best thing about finding and stopping at a lounge or hideout is that you can invite people to meet you at your secret hiding spot too. You'll probably see a bunch of people you know the doing the exact same thing.
6. Use Eventbrite to Find Interesting Smaller Events. New events crop up all the time on Eventbrite. A lot of them are smaller and have great people at them. Here's a quick link to see which ones are going on: EventBrite SXSW Search. A lot of events don't require badges, either.
7. Use SMS or Group Chat. Tired of too many text messages? If you're at SXSW with a group or team, communicate through GroupMe groupme.com/. Get the app on your phone as quick as possible to avoid getting SMS messages.
Too many different groups? Get people's phone numbers and text them or communicate through Facebook messages. There's no time for email. Don't even look at email unless you're in hideout/lounge mode. There won't be any time.
8. Choose Your Drinks Wisely. It's easy to drink too much at SXSW. I generally choose one night to drink heavily (mostly on a night that I know has a great free brunch in the morning) and drink only a few beers or nothing at all the other nights.
A good friend of mine suggested the quick go-to drink of his: cranberry juice and soda.
9. Breakfast Tacos, Foodcarts and BBQs.
10 Ride a Trolley Around Downtown.
Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 9:45 am to 5 pm there will be a free trolley running up and down the hill from downtown Austin to Esri's Lavahouse on 16th and Lavaca. Just look for the trolley with the globes and maps on the side and take a ride up to 1614 Lavaca Street.
In addition to lounge area, the Lavahouse will allow you to get custom trading cards made of yourself, or take your fingerprint and turn it into a 3d city you can zoom through with a Xbox Controller.
If you're lucky, you signed up for on the Esri geo brunch or geo happy hours before they sold out. However, anyone curious or interested in geo is free to stop by between 10am-5pm Fri, Sat and Sun during SXSWi. No badge required!
Enjoy and see you there!