Survival Tips from a SXSW Pro: Part 1

Cross-posted with permission from Acquia.com

No matter how you approach it, SXSW is a vast matrix of possibilities spread over several square miles of Austin and environs over several days. To get the most out of it, you need to prepare early and thoroughly. In the immediate gratification era in which we live, I wish I could simply tell you, “There’s an app for that.” But while there are many apps which will make your life easier (and some which will be indispensable at least for the Interactive portion), there’s no substitute for doing your homework for this one.

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What follows are a few pieces of advice I’d give you if you were going to Austin for the conference for the first time. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s a good start, and taking these tips to heart will help you get the most out of SXSW, however you define it.

Part One: Before You Go

1. Do Your Homework—
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You want to set aside a couple of hours (yes, hours!) to sift through the various panels, sessions and keynotes to identify those which appeal to you. I did this on the plane down on my iPhone with the SXSW Go app (which has been updated again for 2014 and is very well-designed), but I was wishing I’d taken the time to do it ahead of time and then enter it all into my phone’s calendar. Not doing so was probably my biggest mistake.

2. Pay Attention to Location – Location. Not as in “Based Services,” but rather: “Have I planned to attend a panel at 2pm in the Convention Center, and another at 3pm 2 miles away across the river at the Hyatt?” Try to identify at least two panels in each time slot you’d like to see (in some cases there were five or six at the same time I wanted to check out), but having options you’ve researched ahead of time is good…You never know how your day will actually play out. Try to familiarize yourself with the layout of Austin before you go and note where each session is. They’re not all in the Austin Convention Center. Some will require a cab, a pedicab (these are plentiful in the city) or a very long walk to get to.

3. On Packing: Less is Usually More – For some of you this may be a tough one to stick to, but you should take less than you think you’ll need. Why is this? Simply put, daytime activities often blend into the evening, and what you wear during the day will usually be fine after the sun goes down. Days in Austin generally are on the warm side relative to, say, New England (sometimes even hot, though they weren’t this year), but the nights are generally cool. A 20 degree difference between day and night is not uncommon.

Versatility in your clothing choices is key – So is comfort. It’s a pretty laid-back environment at SXSW, and most people are nowhere near “business casual.” T-shirts and jeans are very common. ”Geek chic” is one way of describing it, I guess. Check out my photo-journal of SXSW to get a sense of what to expect (note the panelists in t-shirts and baseball caps). Finalize your packing a day or two before you leave based on the forecast. You’re going to be moving around a lot, so comfort is key. Which reminds me…

4. Take Care of Your Feet –
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Comfortable shoes (at least for the daytime) are essential. You will be walking and standing a LOT. A few days of this in stylish or dress shoes (read: uncomfortable and not supportive) and you’ll be wondering aloud how all that brain-power in Austin could be squandered on community-building, location-based marketing and UX principles when there are massaging hover chairs to be invented. A new pair of Dr. Scholl’s gel insoles in my Adidas got me through six straight days on my feet with nary a blister. Highly recommended.

5. Get a Lightweight, Versatile Jacket With Zipper Pockets – Sound a little specific? Well, it is. A garment like this is important for two reasons. First, you never know what the weather’s going to be, and if your hotel is too far to return to before going out for the evening, you’ll need something which is packable (or at least breathable) when you need it to be during the day, and warm when the temperature drops at night.

The second critical factor is zipper pockets. If you have 2 (or preferably 3+) zipper pockets, you can carry things like your phone, a charger, a spare battery, business cards, and other small things without risk of them falling out. And the more you can carry in your jacket, the better the chance you can just ditch your shoulder bag or backpack when you go out at night and yet still have all your tech with you. Bags are a real hassle when you’re in a packed party or in a restaurant.

I found a great deal on the Columbia Rain Tech II jacket at one of their outlet stores. It’s lightweight and you can roll it up pretty well to stuff in your backpack or bag, it’s completely waterproof if the need should arise, and has plenty of zipper pockets.ng.

6. Leave Room in Your Bag(s) for Schwag —
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Without even trying, you will come home with t-shirts, hats, and every kind of tchotchke under the sun (if you want them). I barely made it all fit for the return trip. You don’t need to come home with everything, but you’ll be surprised at the gear you do come back with. You may even win some cool gadgets. Leave room for it.

Have some tips you think I forgot or anything to add? I’d love to hear your comments.

Stay tuned for part 2!

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