7 Tips from a First-Time SXSW Interactive Attendee
I am passionate about designing health technology for low-income populations, where there is a huge potential to save lives. So I spoke at SXSW Interactive last year because I wanted to bring this message to technology innovators. I knew SXSW would be different from my usual professional spaces…and sure enough, it felt like another planet.
As a university faculty member, I attend typical academic conferences all the time. They involve participating in research presentations, strolling through rooms full of scientific posters, and maximizing every minute by meeting with current and future collaborators. I usually cannot take five steps at a conference without running into a colleague.
In contrast, SXSW has a colorful, youthful, all-hours, casual vibe, with hordes of millennials filling downtown Austin. I was so thankful that in order to get the most from the event, I had taken the time to call a friend with many years of experience as a speaker and attendee. She talked me through the conference, and I also came away with some great observations from in-person experience.
Prepare and Plan
SXSW looms large, in every way. So plan ahead, and think through your trip months in advance. Austin hotels book up, and flights get expensive. If you have a group dinner planned, then think about planning (way) ahead for a restaurant reservation.
Then once you register for the conference, take the time to sign on to the SXSW social media platform and download the SXSW app. It is much easier to gradually fill your schedule and browse through sessions every so often over a few weeks when you have some free moments, than it is to carve out a frantic day the week before you travel to map it out. And, if you wait until you are on the plane to read through the sessions, many will be full.
You will need an eclectic range of supplies for a trip to SXSW:
- You will be walking for miles and miles, so comfortable walking shoes are a must. By this I mean not your most comfortable dress shoes, but actual comfort shoes.
- Austin spring weather might give you (psychological) whiplash, veering from the 90’s to the 50’s, so bring an umbrella in case of a downpour — and plenty of sunscreen and a sun hat as well.
- Make sure to get plenty of business cards printed (with all your social media information on them) and have them on hand.
- Be aware that usual conference attire like blazers and sharp sheaths will feel out of place. Relaxed dresses with cardigans, and even jeans, are more common.
Forget Your Elevator Pitch
This crowd seems more interested in a food-truck-line exchange than a traditional networking soliloquy. Thus, remember to ask questions and focus on what you can learn from the fresh-faced person waiting in line for a drink in front of you — she may be a CEO!
SXSW can be overwhelming, with multiple – and seemingly unmissable — sessions happening simultaneously at disparate locations. But resist the temptation to flit in and out of sessions, or you will only glean superficial information.
At the end of each session, speakers or panelists are mobbed. Better: if you arrive ten or even five minutes before a session begins, particularly in a smaller room, the speaker will often be there, and you can introduce yourself — plus describe why you are interested in her work, and exchange cards before the talk begins.
Let your Mind Wander (and Expand)
SXSW has very intriguing big-picture content, like this year’s keynote from Iris Bohnet on “What Works: Gender Equality by Design.” This topic extends beyond technology, and you may wonder how applicable it is to you. You will find however that these are the sessions that stay with you the longest and can unexpectedly become relevant in the future.
Find a Friend (Preferably Festival-Experienced)
Your first time at SXSW will be infinitely better if a more experienced friend gives you tips in real time. She can text you the link to RSVP to the best party of the evening, or take you to her favorite place for breakfast tacos. It is these informal and unscripted moments that will make your SXSW experience memorable.