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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! :)

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