Choosing whether you should go to a conference is a difficult decision. You have to weigh the pros and cons, then decide if you can handle the lack of sleep, the crazy schedule, and the high travel costs. If you run a company, it's even harder. You pick your own trips and set your own schedule, so no one is really telling you whether you have to go. An "expense" is a tax deduction for the business but you're still spending money now.
The good news about SxSW in Austin, held in mid March each year, is that it is definitely worth it. Curiously, many people told me not to bother before I went, and I can now only assume they didn't really get enough value out of it or didn't know some of the secrets to trade show success. Fortunately, after attending CES in Las Vegas for 14 years in a row but hitting SxSW for the first time ever, I have a unique perspective. Here it is.
1. Ad hoc meetings actually work
I didn't really believe this one going into the conference. I know most of the location sharing apps are sort of useless. They show you who is nearby but don't really help you prioritize whether people at the conference are worth bumping into. A also know random meetups can be valuable--for extroverts, salespeople, and those in marketing. I'm not the type of person that finds every chance encounter that valuable, but so many smart people attend you can't go wrong. It's exactly like going back to college for several days. I posted don Twitter about my availability and then picked a few good options.
2. Idea generation is vastly superior
Obviously, there are many smart people at other conferences, but SxSW emphasizes thoughtful exchanges. It's a core mission objective. My main finding here is that SxSW is a better bet if you want to spur creative thinking. At CES, I jotted down 35 ideas related to my writing; at SxSW, I accumulated more like 60. That's quite a difference. Plus it must be the only conference in the world where you can go to a panel on Big Data and then, at night, go see a performance by a band called Big Data. True story!
3. You can walk everywhere
It's impossible to overstate the value of walking compared to CES. Austin is essentially a small town that became a bigger town (of about 1 million people) that now hosts a gargantuan conference. Somehow, it all happens in a small downtown area. The convention center is humongous, but every major hotel is also an official "host" including the brand new JW Marriott just a couple of blocks away. I biked and walked everywhere. At CES, it can take 45 minutes just to get over to the Bellagio for a meeting. It kind of sucks.
1. You might not get into your favorite panel
I'll spare you the obvious--all conferences can be overwhelming, traffic heavy, and confusing. There will be frustrations. Yet, SxSW is a bit unique in how they structure things. There are a multitude of amazing panels where famous people share their views. I went to one on how to deal with millennials in the workforce, but missed half of it because I was waiting in the hallway. The conference says you should arrive early; that's not always possible. They use a "one in and one out" rule. Lame. A better approach would be to make sure every panel has some sort of video or audio relay. Or, use better predictive analytics to make sure everyone will be able to get in. An RSVP might help. If I sign up to attend a panel with AJ Jacobs by a certain date, SxSW will make sure I get in. Another idea? Offer a VIP entrance for those who want to pay more to make sure they get in. My worst finding? At evening tech events from companies like Spotify and Tumblr, I never did get in.
2. There will be schmucks
CES seems to attract a high concentration of business folks. SxSW? Not so much. It's a conference for anyone and everyone, and that's a great thing, but it also means you might have to deal with people who are more interested in getting plastered in the middle of the day while rocking out to Surfer Blood than attending a symposium on genetic mutations. (I want to find the guy who is drawn to both.) Worse, some of the panels are not that great. I mostly picked wisely, but felt one on determining your genetic family history was essentially an ad for 23andMe. (AJ Jacobs, who moderated, is always funny, though.) Another panel on Mashable felt like it was a lengthy exposition on what makes Mashable so great. A few people told they also had hits and misses during the conference.
3. The trade show is just so-so
A few people I know told me they didn't even realize SxSW had a trade show section. There are quite a few, actually. There's one main one in the Austin Convention Center for tech and innovation, one on gaming and a "create" show, and one on health tech. They were great, although the gaming conference is mostly about indie games. The main issue is that the trade shows are just too small. If you are on the hunt for new products and apps, stick with CES. It's about ten times bigger in terms of exhibitors and worthwhile products. SxSW should beef this up considerably, skip the indie gaming expo and replace it with something that matches up with the "interactive" theme.