It’s that time of year! We are just over one month away from South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive. This will be my fourth time attending, and I finally feel like I know what I’m doing. And that is why I’m already in prep mode. I often get asked about SXSW, so I thought I would share some answers to the most frequently asked questions.

What’s your #1 tip for first-time attendees?

Set broad and specific focus goals before you go.

The broad goal is whether you’ll focus more on learning or networking while you are there. My office pays for my trip, and my job is not overly dependent on networking in industry, so my goals focus on the learning side of the spectrum. I do have colleagues who need to network more for their jobs, so they focus more on sessions and events that meet those needs.

The specific goals focus on what in particular you’re looking for in sessions. Last year I wanted to hone in on content marketing and efficiencies. I came to this decision after looking at my annual plan and discussing my unit’s upcoming goals with my supervisors. This really helped me to narrow down what sessions I would attend – leaving room for a couple fun outliers, of course.

What are the different types of sessions?

  • Solo / Dual / Panel – These sessions have one, two or a small group of people, with or without a moderator. In my experience these are often very informative. They’re also hardly ever (never?) videotaped, so if you want to see them you better go in person.
  • Workshop – These are typically several hours long with intensive discussion on one topic. I’ll be honest – I’ve never gone to one of these because I don’t like to give up that much time.
  • Featured Session – These sessions typically feature one speaker, and may have a moderator/interviewer. These are sometimes videotaped and posted online after the conference, but you can’t count on that always being the case. Keep an eye on the schedule – they sometimes allow you to reserve a space for these sessions.
  • Book Reading – These books featured in book readings, as well as other books related to the conference topics, are available in a pop-up bookstore in the Austin Convention Center.
  • Pitch Event – Various entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas with the hopes of winning prizes and gaining the attention of venture capitalists and investors.
  • Keynote – There is one featured keynote per day. This is always videotaped and later posted online. In some years they have live streamed these speeches from other conference spaces in Austin so that you can watch without being in the main event area. (Quick tip: Grab some takeout and eat a late lunch while checking email in one of these rooms for the ultimate multi-tasking experience.)
  • Meet Up – These are theme-based networking events, often with food and drink provided.
  • Mentor Session – Grab some one-on-one time with industry pros. You usually have to sign up for a specific time slot for these sessions.

There are so many sessions. How do I choose?

My first year, I went in blind. I barely looked at the schedule before landing in Austin. BIG. MISTAKE.

My recommendation is to read – at least scan – the descriptions for all the sessions. Yes, that seems a bit OCD. But I’ve found that quite often the session title doesn’t accurately describe the session.

Sign in to SXsocial – the social site tied to your registration – and view the schedule. Filter for the conference badge(s) you have, and click the star next to every session that seems remotely interesting. During the conference you’ll be able to view your selections on the SXSW app and to further narrow down your choices based on what you’ve already seen, what sounds interesting in the moment, and what isn’t filled to capacity.

And be sure to go to at least one session a day that’s for YOU! Your brain needs a break from work work work, and going to that random session that seemingly has nothing to do with your work may give your brain just enough breathing room to have a work-related epiphany. Your coworkers don’t need to know that the fantastic new content idea for the office blog came to you while you were sitting in a Food Network demonstration or listening to the production staff of a Pixar movie.

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To Learn, or To Party Network

Remember to take care of yourself by balancing the activities and the sessions. I read once that your first time to SXSW, you try to do everything and knock yourself out. Your second year you over compensate and don’t do anything. Your third year you finally figure it out.

That is the most true statement I’ve ever read about this conference.

My first time at SXSW I was afraid to skip any sessions because my office was paying for the badge. This meant I survived on nothing but granola bar lunches for the first three days. In addition, I was networking with coworkers after the sessions – meaning I didn’t eat much of a dinner either, and I wasn’t getting enough sleep. I had some great stories to tell and made long-lasting friendships, but by day three I was making myself sick. Not a great way to spend the rest of the week.

My second year, I took a break for lunch during the “lamest” session. I ate dinner – quite often in my hotel room. I pretty much was “in for the night” by 8 p.m., which felt like I was doing the whole SXSW thing wrong. (Note: you can’t do it wrong. You do you!)

Last year I got it right. I got enough sleep, I attended all the sessions I wanted to, and felt free to walk out of ones that weren’t making the cut. And I enjoyed the Austin nightlife by grabbing dinner with a friend at all sorts of great restaurants and doing a little shopping. Much more my style.

Any other tips?

  • Take sweaters or jackets. The A/C in the Convention Center gets cold.
  • You can dress very casually for this conference and fit it. (You can dress as a cartoon character for this conference and fit in.)
  • Pack some snacks that you can stick in your bag. Sometimes lines for food in the meeting spaces are long and you might not have much time to wait.
  • Follow sessions on Twitter with the hashtags in the session descriptions. This is also a great way to catch up on conversations from sessions you missed.
  • Go to registration the night before the conference opens. It’ll be much quieter.
  • Take a cab from the airport, unless you like waiting two or more hours for the shuttle to the hotel.
  • Stop by the bookstore and the trade show and stock up on inspiration! But remember you have to get all that stuff home – which can mean heavy baggage fees. My tip? Stop at the FedEx shop near the Austin Convention Center later in the week, and buy an empty box. Package up all your goodies and ship it back to the office.
  • Pack all your electronic chargers, and if you forget anything just use Amazon Prime and have it shipped to your hotel. Here’s an article on travel tech I recommend.
  • Pack an empty water bottle in your carryon. There are free water tanks throughout the convention where you can fill up.


Photo: Flickr/Philip Kromer