It’s a party, but I’ll learn if I want to: 10 SXSW tips - McKinney

It’s a party, but I’ll learn if I want to: 10 SXSW tips

February 27, 2014

By Gail Marie

SXSW Interactive is sometimes called a “drinking conference with speakers.” It can be, but it doesn’t have to be that way for you. It’s not for me.

I work in advertising, I read the trades, I drink alcohol, I listen to tons of music, I have a large tattoo on my left arm, and I shave most of my head except a strip down the middle that hangs in my left eye. Next month will be the fourth time I’ve attended and the third time I’ve spoken at the conference.

So maybe you think that I know who sells the most microbrews on East Sixth, where to see the best bands (for free!), which parties have the loudest music and the shortest lines, and what kind of breakfast burrito cures a hangover fastest. But I don’t. I don’t go to SXSW to party, though it’s nearly impossible to have a bad time. I go to learn.


No! No snore! I come back from Austin excited for the rest of the year working at an agency that’s trying to stay ahead, to do the next coolest thing. And come mid-March, I ooze — perhaps annoyingly but not grossly, like in a slimy way — the energy and knowledge of SXSW. Group texting! 3D printing! Highlight! Rockets! Making things! Wearable tech! Let’s do it all and better!

So here are my SXSW tips for all you learners out there heading to Austin in a few weeks.

1) Use the SXSW scheduler.

Log into the scheduler and go with your gut — just star every session that appeals to you. Then click “My Schedule” to see everything you starred and whittle it down. I suggest keeping two sessions for every time slot in case a room is full. And pay close attention to the venues. For example, on Friday afternoon, the 3:30 PM SXSW Newbies Meet Up at East 6th and Naches Street is 1.5 miles from the 5:00 PM Interview With Andrew Wilson, which is at the Long Center and a long way to walk for some.

2) Wear very fashionable shoes.

Everyone cares what you’re wearing, especially on your feet, so pack your Blahniks and Ferragamos. Ha! I jest. Even if you stay at the ACC for much of the conference, you’ll keep your FitBit busy. That joint stretches over six blocks! So do your best Nancy Sinatra and bring boots made for walkin’.

3) Pack an umbrella.

Remember the deluge of SXSW 2012? I do. I had an umbrella. But those who didn’t told me that sore feet are worse when they are wet and resting under a dripping body that’s seated in a well air-conditioned conference room.

4) Move your body outside.

The Hike and Bike trail along Lady Bird Lake right downtown is 10 miles long. Use it to walk, run, skip, frolic, sashay — do what you must, but move your body. We sit a lot at SXSW, and our brains work better if we break up that sitting with moving. Also, Austin in March can be pretty nice.

5) Leave the laptop at the hotel.

If you can type easily on your tablet, bring that with you each day. Otherwise, use your smartphone to save links you want to reference later, and take notes in a notebook…the kind with paper (you’ll need a pen).

6) Bring your charger(s) and maybe some snacks.

There are outlets just about everywhere. Sit on the floor and use them to recharge your fancy devices. Someone will probably be sitting at the outlet next to you, so you won’t look weird, unless you look weird in general (but that’s not so unusual at SXSW either, especially once the film and music folks start to arrive on Monday — hugs!). Once you’ve charged your gadgets, recharge your bad SXself with healthy snacks you bought from the bulk bins at the Wheatsville co-op just outside downtown. It’s worth the long walk or short cab ride on Friday afternoon before the madness begins.

7) Don’t be afraid of the longest lines you’ve ever seen.

I haven’t been to Walt Disney World since the mid-1980s, but I don’t think you’ll see longer lines than those inside the ACC at SXSW. Don’t panic. Once they start moving, you’ll be walking very fast, and the rooms they file into are often enormous. Last year I noticed more conference volunteers guiding the lines and keeping them as organized as possible. Unfortunately, they aren’t dressed like Cinderella. Demographic bonus: If you use the women’s restroom at SXSW, you’ll never have to wait in line when Mother Nature texts.

8) Look up.

Some people call it networking or socializing. What else are you going to do while you stand in line or sit in a conference room between sessions? Check your email on your phone? Draft a Tumblr post? Upload a Vine video? Answer Jelly questions? Tweet? Re-pin? Well, maybe. But you could also look up and talk to people.

9) Go to at least one random session.

Go to at least one session that suddenly appeals to you for whatever reason, including bafflement. If baffled, make sure it’s not an advanced-level presentation. “Beginner” or “intermediate” is better.

10) Go to a meet-up.

This is one of the easiest ways to meet people with similar interests, skills or lifestyles. Interested in backyard flocks of chickens, ducks, guineas, turkeys, geese, or other poultry for pets, eggs, meat, or exhibition? Me neither, but there’s a meet-up for it and I wish I could go. I have questions. There are meet-ups for user experience folks and Ruby on Rails users, too. It’s SXSW, after all. Find more by typing “meet up” in the schedule search bar and unchecking “Film” and “Music” in the boxes that appear underneath. More meet-ups are added during the conference, so check back.

If you’re free on Monday, March 10, come to the ACC. I’ll be at the front of Room 12AB as a panelist in a session called If Content is King, Who Is Sheriff? You can also follow the session’s hashtag, #SXsheriff. Or maybe you’ll be at that bird meet-up. That’s cool.