Last week, our co-founder and creative director Amy and I headed down to Austin, TX, for our first SXSW Interactive. I’ve wanted to check out the annual conference where the newest apps of the year usually emerge for quite some time, so I was incredibly excited when we got the opportunity to go.
Being a noob to the SXSW scene, I googled “What to wear to SXSW interactive,” “What to pack for SXSW interactive”, and “SXSW for first-timers” to see if there were any tell-all blog posts I could soak up. Though I’m relatively laid-back for a project manager, my mantra is always “be prepared,” especially when going to new places/conferences. I wanted to be put at ease for what to expect and gain some valuable tips and tricks on how to do South By without failing completely. (FYI, “South By” is what the cool people call it, apparently.)
Though I didn’t find anything that really made me feel 100% confident in my packing decisions, I DID read some takeaways like “bring a backpack,” “wear/bring tons of layers,” “have a phone charger on you at all times,” and “don’t even think about wearing heels.”
Here’s why the above mentioned to-dos were integral to my SXSuccess: (BTW, you should read that as “South By Success,” which kind of rhymes with Southwest, which means that was kind of punny.)
- The backpack was necessary for holding all of my said layers as well as the crazy amount of swag you get handed even just walking down the street to a session.
- Layers were necessary because it was raining and 65 when we got there, 50 at night and then 90 the next day. The hotel ballrooms where sessions were located were a chilly 60 in the morning.
- With so many people around in such a small area, my cell service wasn’t awesome, which meant my phone died quicker than usual. Though I would have figured this out, I’m glad on night one that I had a phone charger available.
- “Stay away from heels” is geared more for the ladies, but I guess I’d rephrase it for all by saying comfortable (and not brand new) shoes were a definite must. We had around 17,000 steps at the end of each day.
SIDE NOTE: I will say the the tip I kept on seeing was to bring a big power strip so you could make friends by offering them a space to charge their phone. I didn’t see anyone doing that and there seemed to be outlets everywhere for people to charge their stuff. I’d advise against that tip. Seems a little creepy.
Between Amy and I, we do have some key additional knowledge that we learned during our first time as SXSW that doesn’t have to do with packing tips (though those are nice to have).
Along with some new friends and a sunburn, here’s what we gathered while being there:
1. People still don’t understand big data.
“Data becomes information becomes insight becomes action.”
Amy and I went to sessions in the content/marketing track and design tack. Even if the description didn’t mention much about big data, almost all of our sessions touched on it for at least 10 minutes. Though we all have an idea about big data, some things we’d like to tell the world are: You can collect all of the data you want, but what’s the point if you don’t look through it, try to visualize it, and learn something from it?
Amy heard this great quote from a session: “Data becomes information becomes insight becomes action.”
2. Be prepared to “hurry up and wait.”
With over 35,000 people wanting to go to the same events as you, lines will become a part of doing almost anything. The beauty of the lines is that you’ll usually meet a few people while waiting. Be sure to have a few cards on you at all times because you’ll likely meet people in unlikely places.
3. If you’re from SD, you are almost always the “first person I’ve ever met from South Dakota.”
This is nothing new. Every person from a flyover state or a state with under a million people feels this every time they leave their bubble. Mainly just something we had heard constantly over the weekend, as well as “I’ve never been to South Dakota. I’d love to go there someday though.” World, we encourage you to visit this beautiful state of ours and meet a few of us along the way. We have internet like the rest of you and we’re actually pretty similar to you, too.
4. The trade show experience is changing.
Obviously, there are still T-shirts, koozies, and pens FOR DAYS at most of the trade show booths, but it was cool to see some brands doing much more to get your attention and keep you at their booth. Most notably, Amy got a personalized “Judgement” typed out by a comedian based on her first-impression, which was hilarious. While she waited, she got some collateral about the company that sponsored the comedians to come in. She’ll definitely keep her card that the comedian typed out for her and she still remembers what that booth did. (I tried to get one, too, but after 10 minutes of waiting in line on our last day there, I got a little impatient.) The fact that I waited in line for someone’s trade show booth is huge though. I DID get to watch a few people get turned into holograms, which kept my interest much longer than 98% of the other booths did.
5. There is not a shortage of taco and margarita options in Austin.
This is not an earth-shattering realization, but as fans of both, we were delighted.
6. It’s easier to connect with new people during the day than at evening parties.
I had expected to make a bajillion connections at all of the evening low-key get-togethers, but boy, are they loud, crowded, and you’ll most likely have to wait to get in. If there is someone you’d like to connect with at SXSW, be sure to grab them for some one-on-one time either for happy hour, lunch, or dinner before any of the parties. We had a great afternoon meet-up with our friends from Buckeye Interactive and definitely got to connect with them more by meeting up outside of a huge event than if we were to have met at one of the parties.
7. Grumpy Cat is an adorable tiny little girl cat.
When you have the opportunity to meet an internet sensation, you just do it. Even if it’s sponsored by Friskies and you don’t own a cat. She was sleeping when I got my picture with her, but that’s probably the closest I’ve ever got to someone with over 8 million fans on Facebook. To be completely honest, I fangirled a little.
8. It helps to know people that live in Austin, especially in your first few times.
Thankfully, we had a former co-worker that now works at IBM that invited us to a IBM party on our first night and showed us her favorite places to hang on Rainey Street. (WHICH IS THE BEST STREET EVER. Old houses turned into a row of really chill bars? Every city needs this!) Without her, especially on that first night, we would have been a little lost. Thanks, Jessie!
9. Virtual reality was huge but we weren’t really into it.
Is it just us or does VR seem kind of 10 years ago? Maybe it’s our loss for not wanting to wait in line for an hour to try it, but we’re just not getting it. Someone, help us “get it.”
10. Get tips before you go from other SXSW Veterans.
While Googling advice has its place, I’d also suggest reaching out to people that have went to the festival before, too. A simple tweet to the SXSW attendees you already follow could lead to an invite to a sweet party you didn’t know about, the low-down on the best place for a taco, or even a face-to-face meeting with that person. The cool thing about SXSW is that most people are very open to sharing their favorite hang-outs and hacks. We definitely had luck connecting with past attendees and getting some advice from them.
In a word, I’d say SXSW was overwhelming at first, but it definitely got easier day-by-day. We loved being in a place where we didn’t have to describe what an infographic was. It’s a great experience and we learned from the huge range of people in attendance. Austin is a great host city, and we’re happy to say our first SXSW was a success.