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One rookie’s thoughts on navigating SXSW 2012

by Meghann on March 14, 2012

Does anyone remember Real World: Austin?

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Austin was one of maybe 3 or 4 seasons of Real World that I actually tuned in and watched every episode of. That season was big when I lived in Tallahassee because a local (Lacey) was on the show. Plus, I was hooked on the Melinda/Danny love story. (ps Did you hear they recently divorced?!)

Anyways – Real World: Austin was the first time I remember hearing about South by Southwest (SXSW). Their assignment that season was to film, edit, and produce a documentary about the music festival. Back them I assumed SXSW was just a music festival. What I’ve since learned is that’s what the conference started out as back in 1987 and that’s what it’s still mostly known for today. However, the ‘multimedia’ portion (later dubbed ‘interactive’) was added in the mid-ninties. The interactive portion of SXSW may not be as well known as the music to those outside the interactive business, but it’s HUGE to those who are in it. Insanely huge. As in, I had no idea what I was getting myself into until I got there.

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This year SXSW ran from March 9-18 and included 5 days of interactive (March 9-13), 9 days of film (March 9-17) and 6 days of music (March 13-18). I’m not as familiar with the film or music portions, since I didn’t attend any of those events, but I hear the music portion is where things really start getting crazy. From what I’ve heard, SXSW music is basically made up of unlimited concerts that are mostly open for free to the public. Locals told us that’s when the real ‘crazies’ come out. I guess interactive is tame in comparison.

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I was presented with the opportunity to attend SXSW about a month before we were supposed to leave. J had emailed me asking if I wanted to join her and two other people on a road trip to SXSW that Chevy was sponsoring. I immediately jumped at the chance. Our team’s main priority from the get-go was the actual road trip portion of our trip and making sure we had all the resources we needed to raise money for the classrooms along the way. We were doing this for the kids, everything else would fall in line later. And I’m sooooo glad we did it this way. If not, I might have gone crazy trying to worry about SXSW and the road trip. One thing at a time was just fine. :)

Registration

When we arrived in Austin on Thursday night, the first thing we all did was attend the Thursday night party. When making the usual rounds of small talk with fellow party guests, one of the questions we were asked over and over again was “Have you got your badge yet?” and when we told them we didn’t, they would immediately let out a little giggle and say “good luck with that – bring snacks.” It was like they were all in on a big secret that we were being left out of.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t a secret that would be kept from us much longer. As soon as we arrived at the convention center on Friday morning, we suddenly discovered what all the giggles were about. The. Line. Was. Insane.

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Registration had technically open earlier in the week, but the HUGE rush of people came on Friday when SXSW officially opened their doors and the sessions had begun. SXSW has roughly 20,000 people that attend every year and somehow they had to funnel all 20,000 people through a 12 person registration table set-up. The line outside of the exhibit hall where registration was being held wrapped around the convention center. It took me 10 minutes just to walk to the end and I heard rumors of people having to wait 3+ hours during peak hours just to get their badge. Insanity.

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My advice for anyone who attends SXSW in the future is to grab your badge early and be prepared to wait. And wait. And wait. Whatever you do, DO NOT show up on Friday at noon and expect to get your badge in 20 minutes. You’ll just become overwhelmed and end up silently breaking down in a corner. Trust me on this one.

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Making sense of the schedule

I had looked at the online schedule for SXSW once before we left, but it was too overwhelming to make sense of it online without any prior knowledge of what to expect. There were hundreds and hundreds of sessions to choose from and I really had no idea where to begin.

Thank goodness for Rachel! We found each other on Friday and were both just as confused and lost as to where to begin. We got out the big schedule book that came in our registration packet and found comfort in being able to flip through something by hand, rather than scroll through the pages online (which was ironic at an interactive conference). SXSW did have a GREAT mobile app that Rachel referenced religiously on her iPhone and iPad that allowed her to quickly reference anything that was happening at SXSW at that minute or access her own starred schedule, but the app was very large and kept crashing all of my Droid devices. (The one time I leave my iPad at home…)

Once we took the time to sit down and figure everything out – it all made a lot more sense.

For starters, not everything was in the Austin Convention Center as we had both originally assumed. SXSW had really taken over all of downtown Austin.

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All of the sessions were separated into different themes (i.e. Branding and Marketing, Convergence, Content, Social Networking, Gaming, Meet Ups, Etc. <- 15 in total!) and each theme had it’s own interactive campus (i.e. a hotel conference center or a floor of the the convention center) somewhere around downtown. Each campus had roughly 4 or more sessions going at any given time (some campuses had 10+!), which meant that, theoretically, at anytime you had between 60 and 80 sessions to choose from! INSANE! I believe I heard a statistic somewhere that this year’s SXSW had a grand total of 1150 different sessions over the course of the 5 days. Wow.

Downtown Austin is really walkable, so having the sessions spread out wasn’t terrible (in theory), but the first couple of days of cold and rain threw everyone for a loop. Suddenly something that was only a block or two away seemed like an eternity. When the sun did come out – or when I was better prepared with rain boots and an umbrella – it was much, much better (times a million!).

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And if you didn’t feel like walking, SXSW had several interactive shuttle buses you could take from one campus to another (I never ended up taking one, but I heard they ran on a pretty smooth schedule) or a Catch-a-Chevy, which became harder to track down as the week went on and people realized what they were for. There were several other modes of sponsored transformation you could take by tweeting the company or using the designated hashtag, but I never put any of those to the test.

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Since the sessions were so close together time wise (only 30 minutes between them) and most of them filled up so fast (you needed to arrive at least 30 minutes before hand to guarantee a seat in some cases), it was really hard to navigate a schedule with sessions that weren’t in the same building. Most of the time we stuck to the same theme just because it was easier. I would have LOVED to attended more sessions, but it just wasn’t possible from a logistics standpoint. I think if I were to return again, I would study the schedule a little more closely before making the trip and prioritize what I want to attend. I would also research the details a little more instead of just skimming the title, I made that mistake a couple of times and ended up in sessions that were completely different than I was expecting.

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Staying Connected

This was a conference for tech-savy, socially connected people. I had never seen so many iPads in my life. I had also never seen so many people on their phones at once. It was actually kind of random when you saw the lone person taking notes with paper and pen. Paper and pen? Pshh… Old school. Oh, wait. That was me…

The first day I made the HUGE mistake of bringing every piece of technology I owned to the conference. I was lugging around my laptop, two cellphones, my Droid XYBoard Tablet (part of my Verizon ambassadorship), my DSLR camera, my point and shoot camera, and ALL the chargers that went with them. Rookie mistake.

The next day I downsized by leaving the DSLR and a few of the chargers at home and the last day I made it out the door with only one cellphone, my Droid XYBoard Tablet, my point and shoot camera, and just one charger that worked for both the tablet and my phone. My shoulders and back did NOT like me this trip. Not one little bit.

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I originally lugged the laptop around because my plan was to get some work done during the conference, but there was so much going on that I only managed to pull it out once in the morning of day 2 to put up a quick post, but that was it. I was also in the minority with the laptop, apparently they’re old school now as well -iPads are where it’s at in a conference setting.

Something that did surprise me was the lack of free WiFi. I mean, in a conference of this size, it’s understandable to not have the bandwidth to hold everyone in attendance, but it is an interactive conference where online access is kind of important.

Some hotels did have WiFi available to SXSW attendees, but it was hit or miss. I mainly relied on my Verizon Droid Razr’s hotspot capabilities for internet access and I noticed that this was a theme for my fellow attendees as well. Some people had personal MiFi devices they carried with them or their iPads had 3G capabilities.

I wish I had gotten a picture of the guy we walked by on the street who had on a shirt that said ‘I am a 4g HotSpot’ and was holding a mobile hotspot device and passing out fliers promoting a cellphone courier. I guess if you really needed internet access, you could just stand by him and work. ;) (Edited to add: I’ve since learned that there is actually a huge controversy in the news right now regarding the ‘I am a 4g HotSpot’ folks from SXSW. There are reports that companies were underpaying homeless men to stand on the streets and act as wireless hotspots. (more info can be found here) The main controversial element being the ‘charitable experiment’ behind it. Folks were asked to make a donation towards the homeless person before using the WiFi. I’m not sure I agree with the ‘charitable experiment’ part of it. It sounds like one company’s failed attempt at putting themselves out there. )

I did notice something that was constantly being sought after during the conference (and a lot of sponsored lounges promoted) was charging stations. It felt like everyone was constantly needing to recharge their cellphones or other devices throughout the day and most places were more than happy to accommodate that need.

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My favorite was the mobile charging jacket that I saw several people roaming the conference wearing that was sponsored by FedEx.

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I guess the jacket was lined with rechargeable batteries that you could plug the USB end of your cord into and charge off of it. Pretty cool, right?

Party Hoppin’

If SXSW is known for one thing, it’s the AWESOME parties that take over downtown Austin during it.

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There are hundreds of sponsored parties, recharge lounges, food trucks, and various other events that rule the interactive portion of SXSW. Most companies take over bars, restaurants, or just any open space and set-up shop for the week. During the day they’ll offer a place to crash and refuel between sessions and at night they crank up the music and turn into a party house.

I believe the most famous party spot would be ‘Google Village’ which really takes up the whole stretch of Rainey St. near the convention center.

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They shut the road down and Google literally takes over 4 or 5 houses on the street and turns them into themed party houses. Each house had it’s own bar (pay bar!), but they also had cool interactive features that boosted networking and free food.

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Most of the night parties, at least the good ones, were badge only and you had to RSVP in advance. Trying to navigate the night scene past 8:00pm was a little crazy. There were lines everywhere and it just got to be overwhelming. Honestly, most nights we just gave up and went home.

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The day parties were much better. Unlike the night parties, there weren’t any lines and the freebies and networking opportunities were so much better. Tons of free food, games, drinks(!!), and just plain fun. And since it wasn’t terribly crowded, loud, or dark yet, I was able to make plenty of new friends along the way and exchanged more business cards than I had at any other time during the conference. SXSW Networking for the win!

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Ok, this is getting a little long winded. I’ll have to write a second post with final thoughts.

Stay tuned! :)

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Megan @ Megan's Munchies March 14, 2012 at 1:25 pm

You officially made me want to go next year!!! And now I have all the tips I need! Thanks girl!

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2 Megan March 14, 2012 at 1:36 pm

It sounds like a great time! I only knew about the music & film side of the event – who knew there was SOOOO much more. Thanks for sharing all of your tips :)

I actually read several articles about those 4g hotspot people. Some were actually homeless people that they paid to walk around the event. It’s drawn a lot of criticism from an ethical standpoint but it’s similar to the newspaper program that employs homeless individuals to stand on street corners selling newspapers. Here’s a link to one of the articles: http://money.cnn.com/2012/03/12/technology/homeless-hotspots/

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3 lynne @lgsmash March 14, 2012 at 4:33 pm

Was going to comment to say the same thing about the 4g people. Interesting concept and I haven’t quite figured out which side I’m on yet.

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4 Lindsay March 14, 2012 at 1:38 pm

Those mobile 4G hotspots have been the subject of a lot of national criticism because the company hired homeless people for $20 a day to roam around town and serve as the hotspots.

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5 Megan @ Life As Megan Knows It March 14, 2012 at 1:38 pm

It seems like the whole event was really great but could have been a little more organized. Everything would have been over my head as I am just getting into the social media thing.

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6 Hillary March 14, 2012 at 1:38 pm

I heard that Austin was paying homeless people to actually be mobile hotspots on the street during SXSW—maybe the guy you saw was one of them?

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7 Ryan March 14, 2012 at 1:44 pm

The person you saw on the street with the T-shirt advertising 4G was a homeless person. I just heard a couple stories about this on public radio. It was a very controversial marketing ploy where you are supposed to approach this homeless person, hear their story, make a donation and then use free wifi. I would love to hear your thoughts on this!

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8 Meghann March 14, 2012 at 2:25 pm

Whoa. I was not aware of this until the comments started coming in. It’s a very interesting controversy that I’ll be sure to reference in the above post as soon as I’m back at my computer. I’ll have to collect my thoughts on the topic first.

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9 Jessica March 14, 2012 at 2:17 pm

It’s so interesting to read the SXSW experience of someone not from Austin. I live in Austin and during SXSW, I avoid downtown… ha!

Too many people overtaking the city. ;)

Hope you had a good time though!!

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10 Annette @ EnjoyYourHealthyLife March 14, 2012 at 2:35 pm

WOW. I feel overwhelmed just reading about it all….haha. But seriously amazing conference–I have never even heard of it?! SO this is COOL stuff. Thanks for the tips/info!

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11 Dena @ 40 Fit in the Mitt March 14, 2012 at 2:59 pm

That place is huge…it looks like so much fun

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12 julia March 14, 2012 at 3:00 pm

i think i would have been completely overwhelmed if I had gone! sounds like a cleaner version of bonnaroo–which I’ve heard it fantastic, but would be too much for me.

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13 Kelley March 14, 2012 at 3:07 pm

All of the Google houses had open bars starting at 5PM until the F+B minimum ran out. Should have come later – the parties were insane and no RSVP required.

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14 Meghann March 14, 2012 at 3:36 pm

I did not know they all went open bar after 5PM! Good to know! I did try to make my way back over there Sunday evening, but by then the crowds had invaded and I didn’t feel like waiting in line. If I had known there were open bars, I might have waited. ;)

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15 Hope @ With A Side Of Hope March 14, 2012 at 3:16 pm

I definitely watched Real World Austin! The event sounds awesome but very overwhelming! :)

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16 Christina March 14, 2012 at 3:34 pm

This sounds like an amazing experience! Glad you met up with Rachel and yall were able to get some things sorted out with the schedule.

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17 tricia minnick March 14, 2012 at 3:43 pm

I’m interested to hear what sessions you attended and what you learned.

Happy the sun came out Sunday

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18 Meghann March 14, 2012 at 3:47 pm

I’m going to add my thoughts on that in my next SXSW post, but you can see what I attended in my daily recaps: http://mealsandmiles.com/2012/03/10/south-by-southwest/ http://mealsandmiles.com/2012/03/11/eating-and-learning/ http://mealsandmiles.com/2012/03/12/party-hoppin-at-sxsw/

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19 Justine Duppong @ Life With Cheeseburgers March 14, 2012 at 4:13 pm

Wow that sounds nuts! Can you imagine what people even ten years ago would think, seeing something like that?

It’s always a task for me to keep up with technology, just so it doesn’t swallow me whole ;)

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20 Jessica @ The Process of Healing March 14, 2012 at 4:18 pm

It sounds like SO much fun but a tad overwhelming!

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21 Rachel Wilkerson March 14, 2012 at 7:58 pm

So funny what you said about the parties being where you got the most business cards…I was talking to my coworker today about the parties and how I wasn’t sure all weekend if I should go to them or go home to rest, and he said, “Oh, so you were still thinking these parties were like…the parties you’re used to? And not like…work?” Apparently in a lot of industries, parties aren’t like…fun. They are all about networking. I don’t think either you or I realized that going into SXSW, but now, of course, it makes perfect sense. My coworker felt pretty strongly that the parties were more important than the actual panels!

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22 Krista March 14, 2012 at 8:05 pm

This event sounds way too overwhelming for me! I think I would be in misery.

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23 RunEatRepeat March 14, 2012 at 8:17 pm

I could hardly keep up just reading your posts! Sounds like a crazy awesome time :)

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24 Sara@RunningInPinkProject March 14, 2012 at 8:19 pm

Honestly, I would not know what to do with myself at such a massive event but Id L O V E to give it my best shot. ;) And I totally watch The Real World Austin too. :D

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25 Sara@RunningInPinkProject March 14, 2012 at 8:20 pm

*watched

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26 Andi March 14, 2012 at 8:47 pm

I have been trying my hardest to get to this conference for the music since the 90′s, and now that I run a web design company, I’m most interested in the interactive side … yet still, I can’t ever seem to get away this time of year. This year, weddings. Last year, kid.

Glad you jumped at the chance – it’s truly a unique and not-to-be-missed experience, and I’m glad I get to read about it :)

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27 Heather March 14, 2012 at 10:14 pm

wow I had NO IDEA it was THAT big! I just love love the charging stations and the fed ex charging jacket, some people are just so darn clever!

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28 Army Amy* March 14, 2012 at 10:31 pm

I had heard that Danny and Melinda got divorced. I was honestly really surprised when I heard that they actually got married. *

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29 Emily March 15, 2012 at 8:34 am

Looks like some fun and some struggle all at once. Lots of people intimidate me, big time, so I am not sure that SXSW is the right kind of place for me!

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