I’m slowly, but surely getting prepared for #SxSW, the 16th time I’ll be flying out to the Mecca of emerging technology, new ideas and creative thinking. Every year I come back buzzing with excitement, and a million ideas. #SxSW is cerebral doping, enhanced synapses and trigger-happy neurons. Thousands of keynotes to navigate through at the official venues, and in the grey zones. People presenting their hearts out in gargantuan venues and shady hotel rooms. Things to learn, to discover… invitations to change and rethink. Festival organizer Louis Black thinks SXSW Interactive “has probably been the biggest of its kind in the world” since 2007.
Here is how you make the most of it. I share this 5 weeks in advance, so no excuse for you to come to the battlefield unprepared :-).
Law and order
You will need a passport, an ESTA, and a ticket to the festival. Start early… ESTA can take a while these days. Every year, the ESTA question list gets longer… don’t forget to add one of your social accounts. You do not want to go through the stress of having to deal with an expiring passport just days before you leave. (Been there, done that: bad for your inner rest!)
Austin City limits
Book you hotel even earlier. If you’re a party animal, get in the city center. Costs you an arm and a leg, but you’ll be close to the action and the parties. If you care about your night nap, aim outside the City Limits: plenty of great hotels, at a fraction of the price, and guaranteed quiet at night. Realize you’ll need a car, and go gentle on that beer.
Fill in your social profile that comes with your registration. Upload a decent picture of yourself (if not the organization will provide you with a mugshot at check-in. Trust me, you do not want to go there, they are notoriously good at taking bad pictures). Pick a couple of tags that are interesting to you, and use the connector to set up meetings with people. You go to #SxSW to learn, and to meet. To meet is a verb: it requires action.
Download the #SxSWGo application. It gives you access to a world of information. I use it to browse the official agenda, screen speakers and topics, and plot a general blueprint of what I minimum minimorem want to see. It has a great planning section that allows you to add events to your timeline, good for quick referral and easy heads-up during the event. Download the app now! Start RSVP’ing to sessions that are in venues with reduced capacity. Start filling up your schedule now… a bit every day. There are literally thousands of items to chose from, so this will take you a while.
Guard your badge with your life
No badge, no party. You will not enter without your badge. SXSW will not replace your badge. SO, hang it around your neck, and leave it there. Never leave it at the hotel: leave it in the car at night. Your badge is your best friend. Know where it is at all times!
Beat the queue
Everyone needs a badge, and most people come in on Friday. So, beat them by going early, and pick up your badge on Thursday, you can do so until 22:00. You will thank me on Friday morning when you see miles of poor people lining up to get their ticket to paradise.
Buy a map
Austin is a big city. There are venues everywhere, and you can easily walk an hour from one venue to the other. Important to know when you are planning. Running out at the end of a keynote, and hoping you’ll make that other one at the other side of town is not the best strategy. Personally, I schedule my keynotes within a one mile radius. Going further away makes me burn away precious time.
Hunt as a pack
Go to SxSW in pairs and trios. Hunt as a pack, split the city in pieces. Let your colleagues and friends cover interesting keynotes that you cannot attend. Compare notes. Three people can cover three times as much ground. Simple mathematics.
Eventbrite and RSVP
Do party, but go easy: SxSW is a marathon, not a one night sprint. Use Eventbrite to look for “SXSW” events in Austin. Most official and unofficial events post their stuff here. RSVP to all you can, having your name on the right list can prevent you from having to wait in ridiculous long lines.
Trust the locals
Don’t hunt exclusively for names you know, and that you are familiar with. Leave enough space in your schedule for discovering new thinking, new approaches. Dare to step out of your usual echo chamber. Personally, I ask local experts what they are attending. Every year I discover exciting new ideas by attending keynotes by fabulous people I did not even know before.
Be in time for your favorite speakers. Town halls are big, and seat easily a couple of thousand, but some speakers are so popular there will be no room for everyone. So show up early, or –pro tip- go to an overflow room where the keynote is live casted.
#shoes #dress code
You will walk. You will walk miles. Bad timing to walk in those shiny new shoes, and plain ridiculous to try to balance on your nine inch heels. I’m a lazy walker, and I total between 5 to 15 miles a day during SxSW. Go for comfortable. Austin is weird, dress codes are by default technology-comfortable. Aim for light and practical. Dress in layers, it’s warm outside, but the venues are equipped with USA style air conditioning, so it can be frisky inside. Texas is known for its warm climate, but this is rain season: plan for the occasional shower.
Light and thorough
Pick a lightweight laptop. Get that US cable or plug. Make sure you have all the necessary travel bits. Remember: you NEED to be able to power up your laptop, phone, and devices at security before boarding the plane AND at security while arriving. Clean your laptop from all not necessary files. Go for the biggest battery you can find.
You will burn through power like there is no tomorrow. Charge your devices whenever and wherever you can. Bring battery packs and power stations. I carry a whopping 50.000mAh 6 Port (5/12/20v) in my backpack, and a 20.000 mAh in my jacket. That gets me through a day.
You’ll need a backpack. A smart one. One big enough to transport your electronics, your water bottle and raincoat. One small and light enough to be your ideal companion for long, long hours. One unique enough that you can see and recognize it from miles away. Remember: this is your shelter, your home, your office.
The WiFi coverage at SxSW is pretty amazing, so make sure you toggle your roaming cell phone data ‘off’. If you’re the social sharing kind (you should), posting your content on your European roaming fees might ruin you.
This is the USA. Carry your ID at all times. Tons of reasons, but the main one is that even if you’re over a hundred years old, and you look like Methuselah, that bouncer will not let you in, and that barman will serve you no alcohol if you cannot prove that you’re above 21. As your mom will not be around to testify, your ID is your key to drinks. Just saying.
#cash and tips
Yes, they accept cards everywhere. Debit, credit, you name it. But… it is good to carry cash as well. Remember that people in the hospitality industry most often are relying on tips to make their living. You do not tip, they get no pay. So, carry cash to tip your valet parking, the doorman, and the friendly guy struggling with your luggage. Tip your waiter 15 percent if he/she does an ok job, 18 to 20 percent if it was good. Tip a dollar for a drink at the bar, notice how your cocktail gets better as you tip more :-).
Your European debit and credit cards will be useless when you arrive in the States. Security measures will not allow you to use them, unless you notified your bank in advance that you will be traveling abroad…. So make sure you call ahead, and get a confirmation you will get active cards when you land.
It is Texas. It will be hot. You will be hot. Air conditioning will sap your moisture away. You’ll be jetlagged. You will need water, lots of water. Invest in a great refillable water bottle, hydration is key. There are tons of water fountains around to fill them up. Drink.
Jetlag is a bitch. Arrive a day or two early if you can, so you can adapt to the time difference. As soon as you land, cleared immigration and arrive in the hotel, take a long long shower. Airplanes dehydrate you, and that has a very bad influence on your jetlag. Stay 20 minutes under that shower, and go from steaming to cold and back. Whatever you do, do not go to sleep. You’ll be tired, Exhausted. Those sheets will look so inviting. But hold on until at least 22:00 that first night. You’ll sleep until 04:30, 05:00. You’ll be tired, but fine the next day. Dive into bed earlier, and you’ll be wide awake around 02:00. Ouch. Be tender on the alcohol the first 48 hours, eat light and carry some aspirin.
Sunglasses and sunscreen
To protect those lovely eyes, and that tender skin. There will be sun. A lot of sun.
#pills and heath insurance
Bring Advil, aspirin, Imodium, Motilium, some vitamins and hand sanitizer. The last thing you want to do is losing precious time being ill. Bring prove of your health insurance! This is the United States of America: No pay, no Cure! Taking a temporary travel insurance might be clever.
Parking downtown will cost you between $15-30 per day and traffic is a bitch. That said, you need one to move around if you want to wander outside of the city. Book your rental online, in advance. There will be no spare cars at the airport during #SxSW. None. You’ve been warned. Make sure you bring the same credit card that was used to book the car… if not, prepare for a logistic nightmare. If you’re from Europe: yes, you do need that extra insurance. Trust me on that one.
At noon, go easy and light and go for a food truck. Austin is the very home to some of the best food trucks. Michelin grade food on wheels. Going light at noon will help you with your jetlag and general fatigue… and, you will want to have some spare room for the evening hostilities. BBQ is a thing in Austin, and it is mjummie. Franklin BBQ, Lambert’s, La Barbecue, Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que, Stubb’s, Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ, and Micklethwait… all good. Iron Works is glued to the convention center, and is fab, but does not do reservations and the lines are epic. Stay away from County Line. That’s my favorite, and I love to have the place all by myself. Also om my top list: Fogo de Chao,where Southern Brazil meets Texas. An elegant front porch complete with open flame rotisserie welcomes guests, the meat is to die for. And, Torchy’s Tacos: eat a Democrat, a Republican and an Independent. Wash it away with a Mexican beer.
There are thousands of people hunting for food in the evening, so, do not expect to walk in and be seated. Start your reservations around ten in the morning. Remember, most venues will not allow you to be seated before your whole party is complete.
Don’t go home before attending the Bruce Sterling closing speech. Bruce is a World traveler, science fiction author, Cyberpunk, journalist, all over wise guy and a future-focused design critic. Bruce Sterling spins the globe a few rounds as he wraps up the Interactive Conference with his peculiar view of the state of the world from a global perspective. His rant and views are epic. He talks like a book, with nice vitriol musings.