The Rules for Mastering SXSW Are the Same for Mastering Life (and Every Other Conference)
Be normal, interesting and don't make life harder than it needs to be.
Entrepreneur is on the ground at SXSW. Watch our coverage for highlights throughout the festival.
SXSW is finally here. The annual festival of music, tech and movies starts this weekend. That means that those who are going won’t stop talking about it (sorry) and those who aren’t going will somehow think they can ignore it entirely. Neither course of action is exactly right.
But making the most of the festival isn’t unlike making the most of life itself. So here are some tips that that can help you navigate any big event.
Have some common sense.
First off, there’s a treasure trove of good -- albeit evergreen -- advice out there. Bring extra chargers. Remember your umbrella. Take extra business cards. Download the SXSW app. Stay hydrated. Wear clean underwear. Get to hyped events 30 minutes early to make sure you get a seat.
I wish I didn’t have to cover this, but the obvious can never be overlooked. Missing any of these things -- at SXSW or any other event -- will create havoc and sadness for you and waste your time. Worse than that, you’ll look like a mess to people you don’t know and who you’d like to have a beer with but can't because you just got caught in a spring downpour or you’re searching for your charger. Covering the basics always works.
Remember: Life doesn’t have to be hard.
Those who succeed at SXSW, like those who succeed in life, rethink the rules a little bit. A guide I wrote a couple years ago gives some examples of this, like setting up a virtual assistant and arranging pedicabs in advance.
And while there are thousands of sessions, and the festival can be overwhelming even to veteran attendees, SXSW loves you and wants to help. If you’re tired of lugging your bag around, the Austin Visitor Center will store it for you for $7 a bag. If you’re tired, book a nap. Need business cards? Get them hand-delivered to you. See where I’m going with this?
Ask your hotel what specific experiences are available for guests. Donna Savage, a concierge for the W Austin, says the hotel’s offerings this year range from the fun, like morning acoustic sets, to the practical, like free rides from Mazda, the ability to rent an URB-E (a foldable scooter) and iced coffees from Chameleon Cold Brew.
So at SXSW -- or any event -- take note: people want to help you.
Rethink your apps.
What works during your day to day or even the average conference won’t work as well at SXSW, so you might need to adjust accordingly.
Getting around: Don’t assume you can get around Austin like you might another city. Uber and Lyft left the Austin market, so if you do end up needing a ride, Lana McGilvray, principal at Blast Public Relations and advisor at The CMO Club, recommends you download the Fare, Fasten or Ride Austin apps in advance. (Although she acknowledges you might also rethink ridesharing altogether. “A super pro trip is to rent a bike from the kiosks around town or from one of many bike shops. It sometimes rains but if you are 'close in' walking and biking are often the best options.”)
Taking notes: Put your laptop away and stop fumbling for the recorder on your phone. This year, Evernote is part of the festival’s Workplace track and will take notes for you at more than 30 sessions. Download the app and get access to free templates to organize your notes. (If you need tips for better note taking, Evernote offers a number of tips here.)
Protecting sanity: We don’t think twice about sharing our business cards, but at big events, there’s a reason to think twice. You might not actually want a pushy salesperson to follow up with you, and if your cell number is on that card, you might want to control who has it. The app Burner can generate a local phone number that lets you text and call without giving out your actual information. It’s a layer of privacy that can mean peace of mind.
Take a break.
There’s a whole world outside of the festival. Take advantage of the chance to see Austin. Geoff Cottrill, president of MullenLowe U.S., Boston, has attended SXSW for 20 years. He recommends the Continental Club for local music or Salt Lick BBQ for great food and a signage-free atmosphere. And Sam Davidson, who started the agency Cultivate after directing events for the Austin Film Society, suggests you dig through your swag bags.
“A lot of local businesses will mix promo items in their bags and taking advantage of those is a great and inexpensive way to try local Austin restaurants and watering holes,” he says.
Speaking of watering holes, choose these strategically, since the best people watching and meeting will likely happen there. At any conference, but SXSW especially, a hotel bar can be a great place to find interesting people when they’re ready to unwind. Several people we talked to recommend the Four Seasons, for instance. McGilvray says the patio is perfect for lunch while celebs and VCs often gather at the bar upstairs. Cottrill holds meetings there in part for its central location.
If you can’t get away, take another look at the SXSW programming for ways to unwind and relax, such as this year’s Spirit Animal Meditation and Yogi meetup. Come for the light yoga and guided meditation and stay for the “dash of magic.”
Be interested and interesting.
Sometimes when people don’t have interesting things to say, they complain. I’m convinced this partly fuels the annual philosophical debates over whether SXSW has or hasn’t "jumped the shark." Whether it has or hasn’t might seem like a fresh idea, but a ham-fisted Google search will tell you that Mashable asked this very question in both 2015 and 2016 and that TechCrunch declared in 2011 that saying SXSW was over was actually over.
Do you see how boring this is? SXSW -- and any conference -- provide a chance to learn new things. Let people catch you being interested and interesting -- not complaining.
Put your phone away.
Nearly any experience -- SXSW or otherwise -- can be improved by not holding a phone up to it. When you get the urge, just remind yourself that mere hours after you take that photo or record that Facebook Live that you won’t remember why that seemed so important to document.
"Just grab a beer,” Cottrill says, “and enjoy the moment you're in.”
That means having a few must-sees planned for each day and leaving the rest of the day up to fate, says Danny Turner, global SVP of programming and production at Mood Media. Though he’s looking forward to a number of things (including booking naps), he’s had his best experiences not getting locked to any online calendar.
“We’ve hopped into lines for shows we didn’t know were happening, and have had the best luck in capturing lightening in a bottle,” he says. “Last year we watched a 74-year-old George Clinton teach everybody how it was done. A three-hour set at Antones, and by the time we all fell out of there, we were soaking wet, exhausted and officially fully funked.”
Making plans and making room for magic? It’s a formula we could all put into practice more often.