SXSW Primer for the First-Timer



or: I’ve Never Been to SXSW and I Don’t Wanna Look Like A Tool

If you’re reading this you:

  • have never been to SXSW or other big conference
  • have been and wanna know if I might have tips for you

I attended SXSW in 2009 and 2010, and have bought myself a pass for 2011 – and these are my ground rules for SXSW. They may not all work for you, or you may feel differently about some things than I do. And if you have a clever solution that beats mine, please tell me about it!

Preparing for SXSW


In 2009 I got the online SXSW schedule before going down to Austin, and thought “Eh, I’ll look this over later.”

The first day I looked at the daunting, massive schedule and I had no idea what I wanted to see. I also ended up missing the sessions I should have been in.

This year I’m looking over the schedule one conference day at a time, taking it in small bites, and researching not only what the panels propose to be about, but also the work of the panelists. Session titles can be mighty cryptic, or irrationally seductive, and if you’re not absolutely sure how the panelists see the world you can pick some real lemons (I’m sure they’re wonderful sessions but if you’re not interested, they’re lemons to you).

Also, pay attention to the “advanced/intermediate/beginner” designations (sounds obvious, I know) but one session I sat in on (for a few minutes only, mind you) there was in-depth discussion on something and I had no idea what they were talking about. Switch!

There are several classes of presentation:

  • keynotes, opening/closing remarks – These are widely attended and feature big-name presenters. Expect a crowd and if you show up late you’re outside or seated on the floor. On the other hand if you seek a little peace and quiet, this can be found during the keynotes.
  • panel – I attend more panels (more than two presenters) than other programming. They provide a broader perspective on a topic and there’s almost always a Q&A period where all panelists offer their opinions.
  • core conversation – usually small, guided conversations on a topic with people of shared interests with moderators. I try to avoid these now because I’m at SXSW to learn something new, and too many of these sessions aren’t well-directed, and most attendees come to the sessions for answers, too, not to share their knowledge. On the other hand, with smaller groups, there is more opportunity for YOU to participate in the discussion.
  • dual – two presenters, two points of view on a topic – deeper analysis of the topic
  • solo – one presenter. You’d better hope he’s an expert. Seriously, though, usually they’re quite well-vetted

The beauty of South-By (that’s what the veterans call it) is that there are exquisite panels during every time period, and while that can be agonizing, it’s awesome, because if so-and-so turns out to be a horrible presenter, or they are telling you stuff you already know, you can easily move to another panel. Be sure you have an alternate panel ready to go, and you know where it is – your alternate panel will probably be at the opposite end of the ACC, and since they last only an hour, you’d better get movin’.

Other things I have discovered about panels:

  • if it’s a solo presenter talking about their book, buy their book later and read it – save your time for the panelists who haven’t written books and are right there in the flesh.
  • if it’s a panel about how ___ can change the world of ___ with XYZ Technology and the presenters are from XYZ company skip this one too unless you’re in for an hour-long commercial.

So in summary:

  • research panels/panelists beforehand
  • have a plan of attack
  • have alternate plans

Gold Pass or Interactive Only?

I’m a web designer by trade, but getting into the field of motion graphics, and there were amazing panels in both the Film and Interactive programming that I really wanted to see in 2009. I bought the Gold pass for 2010, but the panels I wanted to see that included title design and motion graphics information were…open to Interactive attendees, too, making me feel like I’d wasted my money.

I also wanted to see some of the films showing at SXSW 09, but alas, without the film pass, I couldn’t get in to some of the best ones. I bought the Gold pass for 2010 and only went to see…one film. The rest of the time I was in Interactive or Film & Interactive panels and presentations. Found out later you can buy passes to most of the films one by one if you so desire. So, for 2011 I did not buy the Gold pass – we’ll see if I end up regretting it.

Location, Location, Location

Get a hotel room as close as you can; parking is limited, and running ALL the way back to your cheaper hotel out by the airport to drop off your 30 lb. bag of swag and your laptop and running all the way back into town and finding parking for the fun evening parties takes a lot of time. You’ll probably end up carting stuff to every party you go to instead, and you’ll sorely wish you’d sprung for a hotel room across the street from the convention center.

Laptop Debate

To lug or not to lug? I found that in 2009 I was better off without the laptop, though I was jealous of everybody who had theirs. Not lugging it around meant more mobility and no hunting for the “plug seat”. I spent a lot of time on the floor, running around, etc. and leaving the laptop in the hotel meant I didn’t have to worry about it getting jacked.

However, the Great AT&T Crash of ’09 meant that my iPhone was not working every time I needed it, but neither was the Wi-Fi, so even if I was pushing the API limits tweeting from a device, I couldn’t have tweeted from the laptop anyway. I used the power up every day on the iPhone battery backup, so if you plan to rely on your smart phone, bring a rechargeable backup power supply.

In 2010 I brought a tiny, light netbook but ended up using it more for Twitter and charging my iPhone than anything else. Also, I typed too fast for it, and lost half of my notes waiting for it to catch up. ugh.

For 2011 I don’t know what I am going to do but it’ll probably involve a lot of laptops and backup moleskines. My handwritten notes won’t be as cool as Austin Kleon’s but I’ll have them.

Comfy shoes

Have I mentioned there’s a lot of walking in the ACC? It’s got a “unique” layout, too, which means that you can’t always get from the 1st floor to the third floor without walking halfway across Texas. OK, maybe not that far. Halfway across Austin. And your sessions will be all over the convention center.

If you wear your shoes because they’re cute and not because they’re incredibly comfortable, you will be hurting. Oh, and bring band-aids for blisters either way just in case. I thought the shoes I’d brought were comfortable but HAHAHA.


I heard about SXSW SARS from friends who’d been before, so I took an Airborne tablet every morning before I went out, pink lemonade breakfast vitamin concentrate. Blech. Even “better” was the Apple Caramel chew, was a little bile-flavored elegant idea, poor execution product (so not recommended).

Honestly, I don’t know what medical validity these supplements have, but I don’t take risks with health success; I didn’t get sick the last two years, so I’m gonna take Airborne again this year.

When You’re There


There are a bazillion people at SXSW and the only time they’re not crowding the halls and escalators is…pretty much never. If you want to get downstairs fast, take the stairs. During the keynote there’s a smaller crowd but there is always somebody in the halls. Always. Plan for it when going from one panel to the other. During the height of the day it can take the entire 30 minutes you have between sessions to get to the next one. On the other hand, the earliest sessions are usually sparsely attended.


Stay hydrated – the brain works better that way. At SXSW ’09  and ’10 they had water stations set up all over the convention center, and they were almost always full and ready to go. I carried a water bottle with me all day, every day, and I kept it full. There is much running around during SXSW and you’ll need the water. I’ll be bringing an aluminum water bottle to further help the environment, and my wallet, because at $3 a bottle, water gets expensive – and it’s right in front of you for free!

Eat (no, really)

You’ll be tempted to skip lunch, or breakfast or both, and run around the swag room but trust me, I was going every day solid from 8 AM to midnight. The missed meals were a mistake every time. Bring snacks in your bag if you must, but don’t skip the food. There’s actually a cafe inside the ACC that sells not-so-bad food that’s way better than being hungry. Try the fajitas.

Hand Out Your Cards

Don’t spray them around the room like insulation, but have them, because, well, everybody else does. Determine whether this person is a personal or professional contact and hand them the appropriate card. Your personal card should have at least your name, Twitter handle, maybe Google voice number and email on it.

Don’t be shocked that everybody has Moo cards. Some hipster will invariably say “Oh. Another Moo card.” You do get bonus points for creativity.

Here’s a kindness tip for you: take every card offered to you with a smile, but put important and not-so important cards in different places. The cards you don’t intend to keep, put in one pocket, the cards you intend to keep in another. If you want to remember everybody you meet, make an effort to add them to your tweetstream or your address book. Write identifying info (flattering only) on the cards of the people you want to remember. Go back to your room (hopefully sober) at night and make meaningful connections to the people you met that day, or guaranteed, you’ll forget them. And then what’s the point?

Don’t throw away the cards you don’t intend to keep in the trash bins at the ACC – throw them away in the hotel room.

I’ve always kept all of them, because, well, you just never know.

Be Nice. No, Really.

Now, I’m nice normally, but some people really aren’t. They’ve got their snazzy top-of-the-line laptop and their trendy glasses…I’ll stop right there, you know who I’m talking about. I’ve attempted to socialize with some of these people between panels and they treated me as if I were interrupting the Force. Yet they had Tweetdeck up, which to me indicated some desire for social interaction (just not with strangers?).

I’m no big dog, but how do they know? At SXSW the person right next to you might be a lead to that big break you’re waiting for, or they could be your professional idol if you’d just look up from the computer screen. They could introduce you to your next favorite band, or be the lead singer in your next favorite band, and have a wicked afterparty planned for tonight. I’m not saying stalk everyone you meet at SXSW but be open and friendly — you never know who you could meet (or piss off).

Lemme know if I’ve missed anything!


My Flickr Sets from 2009 and 2010

11 Responses

  1. Ben smithson

    I wish I could go. Still house poor and not enough vacation time saved up. Maybe next year!

  2. Raul Colon

    Thanks for the great feedback I appreciate you took the time to give us such great advice on getting ready for SXSWi.

    • stealingsand

      My first year at SXSW I was looking for advice and didn’t really find much. I love SXSW and the potential for making connections and learning is so incredible — I wanted to help others new to SXSW at least have a leg up 😀

    • stealingsand

      Thanks so much Liberty – I’ll put that “meat up” on my schedule! 😀

  3. Dennis Guten

    Really good SXSW pointers. I went to interactive last year and it was really crazy. I lugged a 13″ MacBook Pro around and was sorry I brought it. Lugging it to a party was not fun. Most of the time the AT&T signal worked and the iPhone was enough. I really wish I was going this year, but budget cuts at work and wife retiring make it not realistic this year. Have fun.

    • stealingsand

      I’m thinking about just bringing a netbook and the backpack for the camera. oh boy, decisions decisions… 😀

  4. Sarah Magee

    Good job, lady! Will mo def bring a water bottle and snack bars! Also, a flask sounds like a good idea 😉

    Possible solutions to the note taking/ computer dilemma: 1) borrow a friend’s iPad (I know…slim chance) 2) take pictures of slides in presentations, your hand written notes & others notes w your phone & save them to Evernote. You could also create a dropbox folder & share notes between friends.
    Hope I run into you at some point!
    SXSW Virgin

    • stealingsand

      More than welcome, sweets 😀 Brilliant ideas on taking pix of the presentations – I actually did that for a while but it seems like every other day I decided the camera was too much trouble to lug. A phone cam is good for the smaller sessions but in the keynotes or larger sessions where there are about 1000 people you might not get a great shot of the screen…Good ideas, really making me think 😀