Whatever industry you're in, you might be excused if you believe it mandatory to attend the South By Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin each March.

Launching ground of Twitter, Foursquare, GroupMe, Meerkat and other sometime-darlings of the tech and startup space, the multi-day event has grown and grown and grown and now has tracks covering multiple industries. Taking over a huge portion of the capital city in Texas, it can be completely daunting for first-timers.

Here's a few tips that will help you get the most out of your experience:

Make a plan -- then ignore it

There's so much to do and so many sessions and so many places with so many cool things that if you don't have any vague notion of what you want to see or do, you'll be paralyzed upon arrival. So if you have friends who are speaking, map out their sessions. Review the many lists of non-session events happening over the course of the conference, such as Gary's Guide, and RSVP to any party that strikes your fancy.

Then -- and this is the most important part -- completely ignore all your plans if you find yourself doing something you already enjoy or you find to be useful or valuable to you.

The thing is, it's always the off-the-cuff events happenings that you remember most. A few years ago, I ran into a woman I'd known online for years and had always wanted to get to know better in person -- someone I respected and admired. After a brunch event, I mentioned that I might head over to one of the lounges and she expressed interest, so she tagged along. A couple hours later, she told me she was meeting up with a sommelier friend and going to a wine tasting; would I be interested in joining?

I ended up spending hours with two incredible women, one of whom I'd long admired and really wanted to get to know better. That relationship has proved to be supportive and valuable to me (and hopefully to her) ever since. I know I had other things on my list to do that day, but I never got to them. No matter; I remember the day much better than I would have if I'd gone where I'd planned.

If I hadn't had the plan, though, who knows if I would have ended up at the right place at the right time? Probably not.

So make your plan. Then ignore it if you're in the zone.

SXSW is about the people

Many first-timers make the mistake of thinking SXSW is about all the really great sessions of people talking about Very Important Things and of people Learning More About Their Craft.

Sure. I've been to some valuable sessions at SXSW, but that's not what it's about. It's about the people. I get facetime every year with people I seldom see otherwise. For all that's wonderful about technology and Hangouts and Skype and What's App and Facebook Live and on and on and on, there's still nothing like some good old face-to-face conversation.

Friendships and work relationships have been cemented, rekindled and expanded by spending time at SXSW.

Sometimes that happened at sessions, catching up with others in the audience or on a panel afterward. I ran into a former college classmate one year when we went to the same session.

Sometimes it happens on a shuttle bus. One year, I was writing about open source for Network World and was asking folks on my bus if they had any suggestions for panels I might cover. Turns out, one of the women on my route was someone I'd briefly met at some New York City event and she pointed me to a session by the founder of Drupal.

Remember the time zone

The first year I went, I put things on my calendar and was all organized and it was grand. I got there and on the first day, I was late for everything. Because my calendar was on Eastern and Austin, Texas, is in the Central time zone.

Of course, that helped me learn to let go of my schedule and fly by the seat of my pants. But I'd have rather had not walked in on the middle of a session with people I actually respect. Ooops.

Have extra room in your suitcase for SWAG

Not everyone wants to come back from SXSW with a bunch of SWAG (stuff we all get) that they don't need. But if you have children, it can be a great way to get a whole bunch of cool things they'll enjoy playing with.

I've gotten harmonicas, stuffed animals, T-shirts of all sizes, and stickers, pens, yo-yos and more. I've gotten far pickier as the years have gone on, but there's always some cool stuff to pick up. Last time I got a Misfit Shine for the hubby.

Enjoy!

Published on: Feb 28, 2016