10 Tips for Enjoying SXSW

This will be my fourth year at SXSW Interactive. It’s definitely my favorite big conference; I love it because a large numbers of freelancers and web workers attend, and I always get a chance to have interesting conversations and hang out with really smart people. However, SXSW can be a little overwhelming, so I thought that I would share a few of my tips for enjoying your experience there.

  1. Parties. SXSW is all about the parties. Seriously. OK, maybe it’s more about the people and the conversations that you have at the parties. More on the parties in later tips.
  2. Pronunciation. SXSW is correctly referred to as “South by Southwest” or”‘South by” for short. Never refer to SXSW as S-X-S-W.
  3. Pace yourself. It isn’t unusual for various activities to continue well into the night. Nothing starts before about 9:30 a.m., so sleep in, plan for an afternoon nap if you need one, and pace yourself by not drinking too much or too early.
  4. Skip the big parties. The big, official parties are usually too crowded to be able to move or have conversations with people, so skip those and head out to some of the smaller parties or informal gatherings. You can usually find these by asking about them on Twitter or keeping track of your friends on your favorite location-based social networking service.
  5. Prepare to walk. Just assume that you will need to walk further than you expect. The convention center is huge, with sessions spread out all over it; you’ll probably want to walk somewhere for lunch, and many of the hotels and parties are a short hike away. Wear comfortable shoes and think carefully about how much gear you want to lug around all day. Consolidate everything into one bag, since it can be too easy to lose track of things in the crowd.
  6. Arrive early. SXSW is a huge show, and it suffers from long lines and overcrowding. The line to get your badge on Friday is likely to be very long, so plan for something to do while you wait. You should also arrive early to keynotes and popular sessions, since they often fill up quickly and start turning people away or moving people into overflow viewing areas.
  7. Power is scarce. Arrive with a full charge and don’t count on being able to easily find power. The back of many of the rooms and the hallways often have power, but you’ll find a huge crowd around most of the outlets. Consider bringing a backup battery if you have one or a power strip to share power.
  8. Attend sessions. SXSW has some amazing speakers, so plan to attend the sessions. It doesn’t hurt to do some advance planning to work out which ones you want to attend, but you should also talk to people and be prepared to switch sessions based on feedback from others. If you get into a session that isn’t as great as you expected, take a quick look at Twitter to see what sessions people are talking about and move on. The number of sessions is overwhelming, so attend what you can, but keep in mind that in past years, the sessions have been released as podcasts after the event. I attend what I can in person and then catch up on a some others after the event by listening to the podcasts.
  9. Crazy weather. The weather in Austin is unpredictable. I’ve seen it alternate between pouring rain and blinding sunshine or freezing cold and really warm, so dress in layers and bring a rain jacket or umbrella. Like most convention centers, the indoor temperature can also vary widely, so dressing in layers can also help while you are inside attending sessions, too.
  10. Guacamole. The Iron Cactus makes fresh guacamole right at your table, and they have decent margaritas. Enough said.

These are my top SXSW tips. What are your favorite SXSW tips and tricks?
For the GigaOM network’s complete SXSW coverage, check out this round-up.