The A-Z of SXSW 2012 (a beginners guide)
So you’re considering attending SXSW. Awesome. I had my first experience of this melting pot of cutting edge start-ups, countless bands, good ol’ fashioned Texas BBQ and handguns earlier in the year and I can’t wait to get back for another go.
Time to drop any preconceptions, decide on your badge, bock some flights, and prepare yourself for a huge couple of days. So what do you need to know to get the most out of your experience? Here are a couple of my tips:
A – Accommodation
This can be a tricky one. Hotels (especially downtown) book out very early and cost and arm-and-a-leg. The further you stay from the conference centre the cheaper your room becomes. That said, transport to get downtown – despite a well publicised shuttle bus – can be hard to come by.
Sure, staying a bit further out might save you a few bucks, but in my opinion you really want to stay close to where the action is. Rocking back-to-back sessions can be exhausting, especially if you’re nursing a hangover. You want to be able to walk between home and downtown if you decide it’s time for a nap.
Last year our group found a private house listing via Craigslist. The place we stayed was amazing; close to everything and about 1/5th the price of organising hotels for all of us. Be warned, competition for private rentals is fierce, so be prepared to work (and pay) for the better options.
B – Beluga (Facebook Messenger)
Beluga is a group messaging/SMS replacement app for iPhone and Android. Keeping in touch with people can be hard and group messaging helps let everyone knows where you are and what you’re doing. One of the great benefits of Beluga is the geo-location tagging, so big groups can quickly work out where everyone is!
Ps: By the time you read this Beluga may no longer exist, replaced by the new Facebook Messenger, though at the time of writing this still isn’t available in the Australian Apple store. Same thing, different name.,
C – Charger
Your smart phone is going to experience a workout during the festival. Good luck getting your iPhone battery to last into the first party of the evening. Invest in a charger. Hell, invest in two if you want to be safe. I use the Mophie Juice Pack Air.
D – Downtown
This is where all the action happens. The closer you are to the action the better. Great bars, great people, great food, and most importantly, the vast majority of venues across Interactive, Music and Film.
My one tip for downtown: Surprisingly (for such a party town anyway) every bar closes at 2am. Plan your after-party in advance!
E – Eating out
I came to Austin thinking it was going to be meat, meat and more meat. For the most part, I was pretty much spot on. Texans love their BBQ – and it’s definitely an experience all must try, but you’ll also find great great diner food (prepare yourself for Chicken and Waffles), tex-mex, or even a selection of awesome organic salads should you wander down to Whole Foods (see W).
F – Film Badge
Like your movies? A film badge is your must have item for SxSW 2011. With this you gain access to all film screenings over the first four days of the festival. Be warned though: even with a badge you may be looking at a long wait for some of the more popular screenings.
Also worth bearing in mind; film happens during the four days of interactive so attending the world premier of the new Jake Gyllenhaal may come at the cost of free drinks courtesy of Microsoft.
G – Gold Badge
Utterly Pointless (in my opinion). You get access to Interactive and Film, but not music. Spend a few extra dollars and purchase Platinum. Alternatively, save a few bucks, purchase Interactive only and party while the movies are no.
Now if someone decided to provide a Gold badge for interactive and music only, we’d have deal!
H – Hotels
Yes, we have already cover accommodation (see A) but the relative complexity involved booking a SXSW hotel deserves an entire letter. Should you decide you’d prefer the convenience of a hotel room over a Craigslist private rental (or better yet, work is paying for everything) there are a couple of things to remember. Firstly, you cannot book a hotel without a badge. No badge, no hotel. All reservations for every hotel in Austin are controlled though the SXSW housing desk. Once you’ve paid up for your badge you can browse though available rooms and ask the housing desk to arrange your booking.
When it comes to selecting where to stay you’ll want to get in super early to ensure you find a room downtown. They sell out quick. In fact, if you’re reading this they may have already sold out. Don’t dispair, if your preference of hotels has sold out it is possible to request a spot on the waiting list as cancellations are common (often people book a room ‘just in case’ they can’t organise private accommodation elsewhere).
Hotels outside of downtown usually take a bit longer to fill up, but regardless, the key here is GET IN EARLY. You don’t want to find yourself frantically searching for somewhere to stay two weeks out from March!
I – Interactive Badge
Chance are if your reading this blog post, Interactive is your primary reason for attending SXSW. Featuring five days of compelling presentations from the brightest minds in emerging media and scores of exciting networking events hosted by industry leaders, SXSW Interactive offers an unbeatable line up of special programs showcasing the best new websites, digital projects, wireless applications, video games and startup ideas the community has to offer.
Your badge provides you access to all the interactive sessions and parties over the first four days and nights.
J – Jogging
This one is a bit selfish but one of my highlights of SXSW was Austin’s amazing running culture. Home of Lance Armstrong, Austin is a superfit city with a number of awesome running routes. If jogging is your think make sure you check out Luke’s Locker to update your gear and experience some amazing customer service
K – Keynote speakers
SxSW keynote speakers are the true rockstarts of the nerd world. Past keynote speakers at the SXSW Interactive Festival have included Jonathan Abrams, John Battelle, Stewart Brand, Valerie Casey, Ana Marie Cox, Mark Cuban, Felicia Day, Al Franken, Henry Jenkins, Jaron Lanier, Brenda Laurel, Eli Pariser, Craig Newmark, Howard Rheingold, Frank Warren, Evan Williams, Will Wright and Mark Zuckerberg. Each day of the SXSW Interactive Festival, March 9–13, brings a special presentation from top thought leaders in the industry. Find the most up-to-date information on keynotes for 2012 here.
L – Learning shit
Whether you are attending Interactive, Film, Music or all of the above, learning is really the reason you should be attending SxSw. An incredible wealth of smart people talk on a whole range of topics during the 10 days of the conference. Head over to the panel picker and get yourself some smart.
M – Mobile Phones
If you are flying in from out-of-town, you are probably keen to bring your iPhone along. Be warned, it’s a bit of a process. You’ve got a couple of options here: you can pick up an AT&T microsim, but chances are they’re going to give you a hard time regarding your need to purchase. Alternatively, go to any T-Mobile store an grab a pre-paid card. You can pick up an pre-paid monthly unlimited plan for around $70. Be warned though, you’re going to be riding the Edge – 3G is a lot less prevalent that back home.
N – Not buying a badge
Badges are expensive. Even if you only want to attend Interactive you are still looking at dropping over $500 for the privilege of access to the sessions. So can you just avoid purchasing a badge and still be involved in the fun?
Look, it’s possible to get by without checking out any of the panels, some would argue it’s even possible to dodgy your way into some of the sessions and partys. But is it really worth it? You should pay for a badge for SXSW, as it is an event that is definitely worth the price. If you do it early it’s fairly affordable. If you’re going to pony up the cost of getting yourself to Austin, find that little bit extra and enjoy the full experience!
O – Open bars
You’ve got up early, grabbed a quick breakfast from Whole Foods, attended a Yoga class, diligently attended back-to-back interactive session, studiously took notes for you blogs. Now, time to reward all this hard work with a sneaky couple of drinks!
As the internet bubble continues to expand, tech companies – big and small – use SXSW as they launch pad for new products and celebration of achievement. And the best part? You’re invited! Last year I happily drank on Microsoft, Foursquare, Yammer, Podio and countless others dime. As long as your rocking an Interactive, Platinum, or Gold badge there is no reason you should be paying for any booze during the first four days of the conference.
The party bus does slow a little bit once Interactive ends and Music begins, but with a bit of searching and preparation a free beer is never too far away.
Want the inside scoop on all the best parties? Check out Austin: My Open Bar index
P - Platinum Badge
The Platinum Badge - The very best there is. When you absolutely, positively got to attend every motherfu*king session on the program, accept no substitutes.
This is your pass to everything on the program: All of Interactive, Film, and Music. All the parties. All of it. Be careful though, that’s up to $1395 of badge you’re causally wearing on a lanyard around your neck. If you lose it, it will not be replaced. Treat it like gold (or platinum I guess).
Q – Queues
Queues are an unfortunate reality of sticking 14,000 people in a small convention centre. While some sessions have a few spare seats, the keynotes and more popular speakers will always fill up well before the session is underway. If there is something on the program you absolutely must see, ensure you arrive 30 minutes early.
R - Registration, Rates & Refunds
So you’ve decided to take the plunge and get a ticket. Awesome, but I suggest you keep a couple of rather conflicting decisions front of mind. Firstly, registration; the earlier you do it the cheaper it’s going to be. Platinum badges start at $995 when purchase prior to September 23rd 2011, with the price shooting until finally reaching the walkup rate of $1395.
While it’s obviously a good idea to get in early be careful if your plans are likely to change. All purchases are non-refundable, though they can be transferred for a $195 fee.
Read the SXSW registration FAQ for more details.
S – South Congress
The epitome of ‘keeping Austin weird’. Check it:
T – Transport
SXSW is spread across a bunch of different locations all over Austin. This can make getting from session-to-session a challenge if you haven’t put in some good planning. Cabs are around, but don’t expect to be able to hail one on the street whenever you feel like it. Better to book well in advance if you know you need to go somewhere.
In-and-around Downtown you can hire Pedicabs to get you around. Be warned though, they can be expensive for fairly short distances covered.
U – Ustream
V – Volunteering
Badges aren’t the only way to get involved in all the action of SXSW. More than 3000 volunteers contribute hours of their time each year to SXSW. They are the faces of SXSW, working in the Austin Convention Center or the other interactive, film, and music venues; often the first ones to greet our out-of-town registrants.
All conference volunteers work towards earning a perk:
- 50 – 59 hours = VOLUNTEER FILM or INTERACTIVE BADGE or MUSIC WRISTBAND
- 60 – 79 hours = VOLUNTEER GOLD or MUSIC BADGE
- *80 hours or more = VOLUNTEER PLATINUM BADGE
W – WiFi
WiFi was fairly ubiquitous in and around the convention centre last year. It’s not too bad, but it does get loaded down pretty heavily. Text-based things will move OK, data-heavy stuff like image and video are more problematic. Back up and save everything, write things offline in text files and THEN post them into a blog post. Also, good luck getting your hands on a spare power outlet in the convention centre.
BONUS W!! – Whole Foods
Whole Foods is the greatest retail concept that has ever existed. It is the answer to everything wrong about America. It is almost as much a reason for me returning to Austin as SXSW itself.
Located about 15 minutes out of down town this half-supermarket, half-food hall, half-gourmet restaurant has everything. Coming from Australia you will be shocked at the size and scale of this place. It is as if they’ve combined the quality of produce found in a David Jones Food Hall with the retail footprint of Big W, and the prices of Safeway.
Stop in to grab a piece of freshly prepared Salmon served with organic buckwheat salad. Sit down at the bar and enjoy a plate of cheese and a glass of wine. And don’t forget to pick up a bottle of Veuve on the way out ($45.00!).
The is nothing starting with X relating to SXSW. Deal with it. Be thankful you got the bonus W.
Update: One of our crew from last year contributed a SXSW X!
Y – Yoga
All the early mornings and late nights are sure to take it out on the body. SXSW Interactive has offered a morning yoga session for several years now—it is a “come as you are” session meant to accommodate mixed levels of experience with minimal need for special equipment or previous experience. Do the body and mind a favor by starting one or two of your days with an Upward-Facing Dog.
Z - Zilker Park
A beautiful recreational area in the heart of South Austin. Go check out the Barton Springs Pool or Lady Bird Lake. The perfect way to relax after a huge week of South-by partying!
Want to know more:
My posts from SXSW 2011
- SXSW Day 1 – Lovepod and Liver Damage
- SXSW Day 2 – Banks, Innovate or Die
- SXSW Day 3 – Bulletproofing your UX Strategy
Check out these great blogs