sxsw 2010I wasn’t going to write about SXSW (South by Southwest). After being asked by countless people what I thought of it and whether they should attend next year, I gave in. Rather than write a comprehensive overview, I decided to just fill in the gaps with a few points which may be helpful and different than what others have said.

I attended the SXSW Interactive (tech) Festival, which overlaps with the SXSW Music and Film Festivals, to some extent. The focus of each event is different, with the music and film events having been around longer than the interactive one. I’d guess that this unusual evolution has led to a tech event which is more like a festival than a pure conference. Add over 20,000 SXSW Interactive attendees to the mix and things get crazy in a hurry.

First and foremost, I am neither in the “OMG, SXSW is the most awesomest experience ever!” crowd nor the “SXSW sucks since it became less of a pure tech event” crowd. It’s just an event; it’s not the devil and it’s not Mecca. If it has changed over time, so be it; what hasn’t? Some changes we like, some we don’t. We’re grown-ups and make choices to attend events which work for us and skip those that aren’t a fit.

Thoughts and Tips for Next Year

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Panels, Workshops, Keynotes, Oh My!

This is not like any other conference you’ve attended. At any one time, they may be 10-15 events happening and competing for your attention.  The agenda is mind-boggling and impossible to process on the spot. SXSW has an online tool which allows attendees to view the sessions and select those of interest ahead of time, narrowing down the field and creating a customized schedule.

While I did a little planning ahead of time, I thought I’d figure it all out once I arrived. Bad plan. It is chaos and the sessions are in different venues, on different levels, in different rooms. The layout of the Austin Convention Center is absolutely confusing. I missed more than one session because it took me too long to select the one I wanted to attend and to navigate my way there. Argh! Definitely, I’d recommend doing more advance planning.

Even armed with a plan, you’ll find yourself in some sessions that don’t meet your expectations. Maybe the content isn’t what you expected or you’ve got presenters, who may be good at many things, but presenting isn’t one of them. There are better ways you can be using your time, so feel free to quietly head for the door.

The larger issue for me was one I’ve been feeling a lot lately after attending many tech and social media events. A lot of speakers and panels have begun to sound the same to me. Perhaps, I am the beneficiary of the vast opportunities available here in the San Francisco Bay Area and realize others may not have had similar opportunities.

Regardless of one’s circumstance, rather than waste time complaining or feeling frustrated with a session which doesn’t appeal to you, find something that does.

Meeting Friends – Old and New

At a normal conference, it is fairly easy to connect with friends, bump into acquaintances you didn’t know were attending and network with new people. Here? Not so much. With sessions, events, dinners and parties taking place all around downtown, coincidentally finding yourself at the same place at the same time as that friend you were really hoping to see isn’t likely. I had wanted to meet up with a few people, yet, despite our tweets and emails trying to coordinate schedules, it never happened.

Once again, the key is planning. I only decided to attend shortly before SXSW and didn’t spend any time thinking about who I wanted to meet with and letting them know I’d be there, too. That said, there is nothing like serendipity. Be open to meeting new people. If you see the same person in a few different places, go ahead and introduce yourself. Chances are you have similar interests making that person a potentially wonderful connection. (I’m talking to you, Carissa O’Brien, who magically appeared almost everywhere I went. We’ve yet to agree about who was stalking whom.)

The Infamous SXSW Parties

If you’ve only heard a little bit about SXSW, chances are you’ve heard about the parties. They are huge, many with several hundred people at a time packed into crowded clubs. Keeping up-to-date on which parties are where and when, which are invitation-only, open to anyone with a SXSW badge or open to anyone period, is an exercise unto itself.

More than one person I met told me the best thing about SXSW Interactive was the parties and that they had not attended any sessions. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not the party-going type (an understatement, to be sure). Waiting in long lines to enter dark clubs and yell over the music to my friends is not my idea of a good time. Still, if someone else wants to do that, it doesn’t really impact the experience for me. I chose a more low-key approach and connected with friends over quiet dinners and had actual conversations. Whatever your style, know that there are options and do what feels right.

Have a Gadget Plan

As you might expect in a tech crowd, the number of shiny objects was overwhelming. Brand new laptops, mobile devices, and cameras of every variety. Amidst the chaos, some gadgets are bound to become separated from their owners. I saw many frantic tweets regarding missing cameras and phones.

Prior to heading to Austin, I read a blog suggesting that SXSW attendees password-protect their phones to prevent any unauthorized access. As I waited to board my flight, I dutifully began the process of adding a password to my phone. I then thought about the fact that, should I lose it, a password would do two things: 1. Prevent access to my email and other accounts, and 2. Absolutely guarantee that I would never get the phone back. You may not agree with me on this, but I decided not to set up the password. Frankly, I’m not even sure that I agree that it was wise decision.

Well, and I’m sure you can already see this coming, I lost my phone for the first time ever. It was only hours after I arrived in Austin. My luggage was inexplicably still at the Oakland Airport. I was tired. Suffice it say that I’ve had better nights. Well, it turns out that someone found my phone right away, was smart enough to reply to the last text message with the phone’s location, handed my phone to the person on the other end of the text who returned it to me – all within about 10 minutes. (A million thanks to the mystery woman who found my phone and to my new BFF, Mark Pedrelli, for returning it to me.)

Whatever you do, think about how the device might be returned to you if lost. This applies to conferences, travel, everyday running around town. If I only had two things in my hand and managed to unknowingly drop one of them, it can happen to anyone.

Tweets and Check-ins

At any tech conference, you’ll find a handful of people live tweeting the content. Multiply this by 20,000 and the fact that many are retweeting other’s SXSW tweets and our friends who aren’t at SXSW are left gritting their teeth at the noise. Throw Foursquare and Gowalla check-ins into the picture and the internet is little more than a stream of “I’m here,” “Cool, now I’m over there,” “Hey, did you hear that Bill will be there soon?” coming from Austin. I gently suggest that we keep in mind those who aren’t there, but tied to our streams, and remain sensitive to what works for them (other than unfollowing and unfriending us).

Finding a Place to Stay

Everything happens within a relatively walkable area in downtown Austin. It is easiest if you find a place to stay right in the area. Buses and shuttles are plentiful if you don’t. The hotels right downtown aren’t cheap and get booked early, so keep that in mind. As an alternative, I found jillions (yes, I counted) of listings on craigslist.org for places to rent in the area. Many really nice folks in Austin decide to get the heck out of Dodge during SXSW and make a couple of months rent by letting someone stay in their place for a few days. It can be much more affordable than the hotels.

Is SXSW for You?

To those who have asked me if they should attend next year, I can only say is: It depends. As with any conference, talk with friends who attended, take a look at the content, the overall experience of being there, how easily you can access similar content through other means, cost, etc. and decide if it is a fit for you.

Were you there or know someone who attended? How would you answer the question, “Should I attend next year?” Please add your thoughts below.

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