ASK: 12 tips to help enjoy SXSWi

(This is part of Ask the Community Guy, an ongoing series of questions posed by readers for Jake, the Community Guy)

Question: It’s my first time at SXSW Interactive… how can I make the most of the event?

Are you excited?? SXSW Interactive just a few days away! That’s right, my fine feathered friends, my favorite conference of the year cometh sooneth. This will be my 7th? 8th? SXSWi, and I’m happy to share my tips for a good time.

1. It’s casual, baby. Austin is one of the most laid back cities on Earth, and with it being a college town there’s not much need for the suit jacket. The event is pretty low key – upscale weekend wear. Don’t show up in your car wash shorts, but you’ll be fine in jeans and a t-shirt. Been dying to show off that new Threadless shirt? This is your opportunity. (And despite what you might have heard, not all of us Texans wear boots and cowboy hats, FYI.)

Oh, and wear comfortable shoes. Everything’s bigger in Texas, including the size of the convention center, and the distance to lunch. (See below about lunch)

Bonus tip: Watch the weather for Austin. This time of year in Texas has a wide range of climates, and you’ll want to pack right. This may well include bringing an umbrella.

2. “Plan” your sessions. The sheer number of sessions is insane. Seriously crazy. And they’re all going to be great. Take a look at the schedule before you get on the plane, and then once you’re there and have seen the building layout, make up a game plan for what you want to see. The really cool sessions can often fill up to standing room only capacity, so the quicker you get from session to session the better. That said, don’t over plan either.

Be prepared, but go with the flow. I’ve passed up seemingly cool panels to hang in the hall and talk to people who’ve ended up being long term friends.

Bonus tip: Check out this fantastic iCal download for the session calendar (and parties too). If you’re using an iPhone, here’s a fantastic solution to getting through the day: Download the iCal files and import them into your calendar. Delete the events you know for sure that you’re not going to attend. Sync your iPhone, then use it when you’re in Austin to figure out where you’re suppose to be, or at least where you could be. Leave this collection in your calendar – when the SXSWi team starts to launch the audio/video podcasts after the event, you’ll remember which ones you wanted to see, but couldn’t.

3. Learn the building/room layout. Along those lines, there are so many session rooms, the event is naturally spread across the Convention Center. Last year, there was a whole wing that nobody knew how to find. When you get there, take a walk around, learn where all the SXSWi rooms are. You’ll more quickly and easily move from session to session. And hell, your superior knowledge may impress those around you who are struggling for direction…. a great wa to meet new people!

4. Introduce yourself! SXSWi, like the city that hosts it, is an incredibly welcoming event. Don’t think twice about sticking your hand out and saying “Hi, my name is ______”. I’ve always been amazed at how easy it is to meet people at this event. The great thing about the event is the guy sitting on the floor in the hall charging his laptop may be the founder of your favorite web app!

Don’t forget to bring tons of business cards and a pen. (I always write details on the back of the cards I collect so I can remember who the heck the person was, including descriptive physical traits)

I actually make a list of the people I know who will be attending that I want to meet. This helps me ensure that I don’t forget anyone I’m dying to connect with. It’s nerdy, but hey, I take my networking seriously! Besides, when are this many people I’m dying to meet in person going to be in the same location again?

Bonus tip: Don’t spend all your time between sessions checking email. Do something more productive with your time… you can check your mail at home, and you’re going to be behind when you get home anyway.

5. Get out from behind the camera. Keep in mind that hundreds of people will be uploading thousands of photos to flickr and other photo sharing sites in the days of and after SXSWi. Don’t spend all your time behind your camera lens when you are just going to be taking photos of the same thing 432 other people will be posting online too. Save your “behind the camera” time for shots that are truly unique, or that are must-haves for you.

Bonus tip: Be sure to tag your photos when you post them to flickr! Something descriptive will work: sxsw2008 should work fine.

6. Food is off-site. Plan on heading off-site for lunch, since the Convention Center doesn’t have much in this department. (One of my biggest beefs with the event for years now) There’s a number of places close by. Here are some recommendations: Chowhound, Chow, SXSW Baby.

7. “Plan” your parties. A lot of great companies host a lot of great parties. (Here’s the official list, although there’s usually other that don’t get listed, so pay attention to the fliers on-site and what people are talking about) So many, in fact, that if you don’t think about which ones you’re going to, you’ll miss something great.

And of course, same thing goes as planning your panels – go with the flow. Have fun, don’t stress your plan too much. You plan so that you have the knowledge to be flexible.

8. Dump your bag. Part of planning your parties is figuring out how to get back to your hotel room to drop of your bag before heading to the parties. Nothing worse than having to drag your laptop around all night, hoping nobody spills beer on it.

9. SMS is your friend. In the few days I spend at SXSWi, I send more SMS messages than I probably spend the entire rest of the year. It’s how I check with friends to see how our current sessions compare. It’s how I tell my friends where I’m at and how to hook up for lunch. It’s how I coordinate party going. If you’re not a big SMS person, figure out how it works on your particular phone before you get to Austin.

10. Bring cab money. This is something I always forget, then find myself looking for an ATM at 2a or walking many blocks back to my hotel. Austin isn’t a real “cab city”, but downtown there’s usually plenty. As part of the point above, I try to go to the furthest party from my hotel first, then party/bar hop towards the hotel, which often eliminates the need for a cab all together.

11. Stop by BarCamp Austin. Yes, SXSWi is fantastic, but so is BarCamp Austin. If you need time away from the SXSWi group, or just want to meet the folks at BarCamp, swing by.

12. Come see me speak! Of course, perhaps the most important thing to know: I’ll be moderating a panel on Friday, and participating in a panel on Saturday! I’d love to see you there.

SXSWi is a great event, so have fun! (It’s hard not to) Hope to see you there. Feel free to text me (214-566-5957) or drop me an email (jake AT communityguy DOT com). I’d love to meet you in person!

Need more tips? Check out the unofficial SXSW blog, or check out this collection of links from They’ve also put together a fun video that covers many of the same things I’ve outlined here.

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For information about my Community Consulting, Training and Speaker services, or to find out more about Dinner5, my unique community for community builders, contact me today.

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