10 Tips to Surviving SXSW Interactive as a Newbie

SXSW Interactive is coming up again…. next year. But by the time next year rolls around, I’ll have forgotten the survival tips I learned this year. Oh, did you miss it? I attended SXSW Interactive for the first time and had a blast, an exhausting blast.

Yeah, those two words – exhausting and blast. They come hand in hand for SXSW. And they’ll get ya really good if you aren’t prepared. You’ll have a blast on day 1, day 2 and maybe even day 3, and by day 4 you’re either sick, blistered, bloated, brain dead, bags under your eyes, living on energy drinks, pushing through as though you’re still 21 years old and can work hard and play hard all at the same time, or if none of the above, just crazy. But there’s hope! There is too much to do and see and learn at SXSW to miss out due to bad preparation.

Here are my 10 tips to surviving SXSW as a newbie. Some I followed, some I figured out, and some I learned ahead of time but completely ignored (my bad).

1. Plan ahead.
I’m not joking – there are hundreds of sessions and events a day, not to mention all of the unofficial stuff that is happening around downtown Austin. Interactive is spread out at least over a mile around downtown Austin, and, well, it’s just a lot. Reviewing the schedule really is daunting. And due to some busy personal life happenings at the time, I FAILED to plan ahead. As a planner, it was a nightmare for me. There are literally too many sessions to figure it out on the fly. My recommendation: at least review the schedule and narrow down your favorite sessions, as well as mark some tentative exhibits and events you’d like to attend. Also figure out ahead of time where the venues are. This really will make a difference when deciding where you want to go next. Because starting at point A, then going to point Z, then back to point A, really is dumb if you could have just stayed at point A the entire time. You don’t have to have it all planned to T, because it won’t work out anyway, but do some outlining at a minimum. And if there is something you really want to do or see, SHOW UP EARLY!

2. Schedule breaks into your schedule.
Look, if I already haven’t reiterated enough that there is so much going on everywhere that it is constantly overwhelming, let me reiterate it again. You’ll be tired, especially if it’s your first time at SXSW, and you’ll still feel the urge to see and do everything. ALLOW YOURSELF TIME TO RECHARGE (and that’s not just your phone). You may think you’ll have time for breaks or that maybe your sessions will be a break, but that’s not true. Somewhere on your schedule is something that you’re impartial to. JUST SKIP IT. The schedule typically gives you 30 minute breaks between sessions, but it’s not enough! Didn’t you want to eat lunch? Check out that exhibit across the street? Scope out the exhibit hall? Use that free beer coupon you have? And then you think you’ll still have time to walk to your next session, find a seat and take a break? Wrong. Just schedule some breaks and don’t feel guilty about the hour of your life that you’re not listening to a speaker.

3. Pick your battles.
FREE BEER! Here… no here… no here. Oh wait, free beer is just another easy gimmick, like free food. If you tried to hit up every free food and booze opportunity available, (a) it wouldn’t happen and (b) you’d have to skip the cooler stuff that’s going on. Because that happy hour at Bar ABC is really no different than that happy hour at Bar XYZ. Just pick one and move on. And the vendor exhibits or lounges, same thing. They all sound so cool and you really want to see them all, but after a while you’ll realize they’re all just companies with shiny objects trying to sell you a product. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying don’t attend or experience these parts of SXSW. Just don’t stress when you can’t fit it all into your schedule. Which leads me to…

4. Ignore FOMO (fear of missing out).
Celebrities. Keynote speakers. Trade show. Job fair. Comedy. Music. Food. Working sessions. Happy hours. Lounges. And so on. You want to see and do everything… EVERYTHING! But you can’t. And even if you pour all your heart into your schedule and try to morph yourself into a thousand little people to tackle it all, you will miss something. I repeat, YOU. WILL. MISS. SOMETHING. Because you didn’t realize Mr. President was a keynote speaker. Or that Famous Singer was having a pop-up show. Or that House XYZ would have the world’s most amazing laser show, because nothing spreads FOMO like amazing laser Insta pics from a no name band’s show. Ok, I made all of those up… except the very last part. I personally struggled with this concept, like a 14 year old girl, because I was trying really hard to experience SXSW to the fullest. And no matter how cool (and full) my experience was, there were still plenty of moments that I felt like I missed, whether they really mattered or not. Guilt will eat you live. If something is not in your schedule because you’re not interested or familiar or whatever, then it’s really not a big deal. You literally can’t do everything (says the girl who really tried).

5. RSVP ahead for sessions and events.
There are lots of official and unofficial parties and events around town that require RSVP. You gotta RSVP before you go, sometimes even get a special wristband, so make sure you look into it ahead of time if it’s something you’re really interested in attending. I personally didn’t run into RSVP issues on the entertainment side. What I did run into was RSVP issues for the learning side. There are many small working/learning sessions, including mentor sessions, at Interactive that you must RSVP for ahead of time, like WAY ahead of time. LOTS were filled up when I was picking my schedule, actually, most, courtesy of not reviewing the schedule beforehand. I think one specifically was for an infographic workshop, and I was actually pretty bummed. These are specialty small group sessions that I’m talking about, and this conference has over 30,000 people, so the earlier you can prepare your schedule and RSVP, do it. Otherwise there’s a good chance even the waiting list will be full by the time SXSW arrives.

6. Sorry, but your plan won’t work.
What???? Didn’t I just tell you to plan ahead like 20 times? Yes, plan ahead roughly so you’re not totally a lost soul, but be prepared for things to not work out. You may be extra tired and need a food break. Maybe you double booked a topic, and you’re not interested in hearing about it again. You may have not understood the conference logistics when you were planning. Or maybe you had to be rescued from a ferry and by the time you showed up to your session it was full. Who knows. Be flexible. Don’t get your hopes up on everything. Pick a few things you’re passionate about doing and make sure you attend those things. Show up early. Do what you gotta do. For the rest, be flexible because things changes. I was actually surprised by some of the sessions that were excessively popular (and full) vs. ones that were not (i.e. Jessica Alba interview). You just never know. And if you’re across town and things don’t work out, you’re just going to have to change your plan.

7. Drink water. Eat nutritious food.
Between the crazy schedule, extensive walking and endless amounts of free tacos, bbq and booze, both of these things are hard to do. But I promise they help. They not only help get you through the day, but help you wake up in the morning to tackle the next. The reality is you’ll probably drink a lot of other things besides water. And you’ll be lured into all the amazing local eats, and you should! Just make sure to hydrate in between and squeeze in the apple or salad when you’re honestly feeling like blah. You’ll thank yourself later.

8. Wear comfortable, versatile attire.
I’m not a fashionista, so some of you readers may scoff at this advice, but a lot of walking is involved in SXSW and the weather here is bipolar, so multi-functional, comfy attire is recommended. Think – hot outside, possible rain, cold conference rooms, concert at night – things like that. You just need to wear some versatile clothing. And with the great humidity that tends to creep around, your super cute outfit may not be so cute and fresh by the end of the day. That includes your hair and makeup. Maybe bring a compact brush or some touch up makeup if you’re heading out early, staying out late and don’t have a hotel to pop into in between (that was me). I wore anything from a jeans and v-neck one day, to leggings and a tank another, to literally workout leggings and a sweat shirt another (obviously didn’t network that day). Casual, comfy, cute – and shoes that don’t blister!

Now I’m yelling at you. Unless you have a super magical phone that holds ridiculous amounts of battery or unless you suck and don’t take any pictures or use any data at an INTERACTIVE conference, then your phone is most likely going to die. Good news – there are a few places that have actual cords where you can charge your phone. Bad news – you’re going to have to stand there to let your phone charge. Just bring a charger! First recommendation – a portable charger. Second recommendation – a wall charger. Between the halls and lounge areas, there are a million places to plug in. There are not a million places with actual charging cords, though, so don’t forget to bring the actual cord!

10. Buddy up.
Ummmmm everything is more fun with a buddy. If you’re not attending SXSW with someone you know, then you need to make friends. I live here, but I didn’t have anyone with me at Interactive, so I was flying solo all week. And I survived! I didn’t find any “help me tackle this beastly festival all week" buddies and it was a little challenging on the entertainment part, but I actually did make temporary friends along the way. Suck it up. Find a friend. Have more fun.

BONUS TIP! Get a close up seat at a featured session.
Want a seat a few rows from the front to see your favorite celeb speak? Magical tip: attend the prior session and either post up front during that session or when that session is over, run your way up to the closest spot you can get. Yes, you’ll have to wait 30 minutes until the featured speaker comes on, BUT you’ll have an awesome photo opp. Easy breezy lemon squeezy.

And for lots of other things that I didn’t mention…

Lines. They’re there. They exist. They move. Get over it. Just make sure you’re standing in the badge holder line and not the public line (for public events), or you will be screwed.
Parking. Don’t ask. I took Lyft, had my husband pick me up, drove my own car… no great solution on that one yet.
Hotels. Also don’t ask me because I live in Austin. It would have been very nice to be right downtown in the action all week, though.
Local food. So many amazing options. You might not get the change to venture out, so just check Yelp for things nearby. You’re bound to find something good. Or feel free to email or comment and ask.
Austin site-seeing.  You can ask me about things to do around Austin, but I think it’s a bit pointless since you should be investing all your energy in SXSW while you’re here.


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