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15 Tips for a Great Experience at SXSW Interactive 2017: A First-Timer’s Guide

This will mark the third consecutive year that ChappellRoberts has attended the SXSW Interactive conference. As the largest interactive conference in the world, there’s no better way to keep our team and our clients on the forefront of emerging digital trends, technology and creativity. This year, Hunter Taylor and I will be heading to Austin, Texas, on March 10th to soak in a jam-packed week of inspiration.

If this is your first year attending the conference, here are some helpful tips and recommendations we’ve learned (many of them the hard way) over the past two years:

1. Try to pick up your badge the day before the conference, or be there early on Friday.
On the first day of the conference, there is typically a badge pick-up line wrapped through the entire Austin Convention Center. And if you’re not in it early enough, you might risk missing the first few events on the first day – so be there early. Better yet, try to pick up your badge the day or night before. Most of the pick-up locations are open until 11 p.m. the night before the conference starts.

2. Figure out where you’re going.
The SXSW Interactive conference encompasses dozens upon dozens of venues throughout downtown Austin – each one a crowded maze of escalators, hallways, and auditoriums. Make it a point to study where you’re going in advance, or use the SXSW mobile app to pull up floor plans of all the different venues. You’ll be confidently walking to your destination and grabbing a front row seat next to a power outlet while hundreds of other people frantically try to figure out where they’re going.

3. Attend at least one session you know absolutely nothing about.
You’ll be inclined to attend sessions on topics that are relevant to you and your career – as you should. That’s probably why your boss is paying for you to be there. But make it a point to attend at least one session on something you know absolutely nothing about. It just might open your eyes to something interesting you never would have known existed.

4. Attend some workshops, but don’t forget to RSVP.
While typically much longer (2-3 hours) than the standard SXSW sessions and keynotes, the Workshops are your best opportunity to really immerse yourself in a particular topic – generally including some hands-on activities to help you better understand what you’re learning. Unfortunately, these Workshops have limited seating and require an RSVP several days (sometimes several weeks) in advance, depending on the popularity.

5. Don’t miss the keynotes. Or do…
The SXSW Interactive Keynotes attract some of the brightest, most influential people in the industry and are not likely to disappoint. That being said, the Keynotes generally tend to be more inspirational than educational. So depending what you’re attending the conference for, you might consider skipping them and attending something that’ll give you more actionable take-aways.

6. Understand the various conference formats.
In addition to the Workshops and Keynotes, there are a number of different event formats – each suited to different types of content. The Featured Sessions, much like the Keynotes, are always worth a look. The Panel Sessions and Roundtable Discussions tend to be more loose and conversational, while the Solo/Dual Sessions are generally more of an educational, presentation format. Meet-ups are an opportunity to network and mingle with folks with similar interests. Mentor Sessions offer one-on-one time interaction with an industry professional, but, like the Workshops, require an advance RSVP and fill up fast. Learn about all the formats here:

7. Plan for some nearby backup sessions and don’t hesitate to walk out of a bad one.
Even the biggest interactive conference in the world will have its share of bad speakers, unfortunately. If you find yourself sitting in a bad session, don’t feel rude and hesitate to get up, walk out and find a better one. If possible, have a couple of nearby back-up sessions or activities on your itinerary that you can easily switch to.

8. Prepare to be constantly on the move.
It’s not uncommon to find yourself traversing multiple city blocks between each session, so plan accordingly with some comfy shoes, an umbrella, a good backpack, water and some snacks.

9. Don’t miss the Trade Show.
Keep some empty time in your schedule to wander around the Trade Show. It’s an incredible showcase of emerging platforms and technology … and salespeople who desperately want you to come play with it all.

10. Download the SXSW mobile app and use it.
It contains a wealth of valuable, informative and constantly updated conference information that you’ll definitely want to stay plugged into.

11. Use Twitter.
Love it or hate it, Twitter is a great way to monitor all the buzz. Check in periodically to see what other attendees are doing and what you can’t afford to miss out on.

12. Bring power.
You’ll likely be taking lots of notes and taking lots of pictures, so make sure you have adequate power for all of your devices. Power outlets are a hot commodity, so don’t expect to find an open one. An external USB power backup is definitely handy. Or, if you want to make some new friends, keep a power strip in your bag. If you’re looking for some ways to extend the life of your laptop battery: Turn off bluetooth, Turn off WiFi (unless you need to be online), Turn off your keyboard illumination, Close any applications you’re not using, and reduce the brightness of your screen. If your laptop has a healthy battery in it, those simple things should easily give you a full day of battery life.

13. Leave some extra space in your suitcase.
Because free stuff. Free stuff everywhere. In fact, don’t even bother packing t-shirts because you’ll be given enough to clothe yourself for the duration of the conference and then some.

14. Explore Austin.
SXSW Interactive is much more than speakers, workshops and trade shows. Mega-brands like Google, IBM, Intel, McDonalds, Samsung and HBO (to name just a few) are known to create gigantic, immersive installations all over town. Two years ago, AMC built a temporary Bates Motel in front of the Austin Convention Center. Last year, USA turned an entire city block into a full recreation of Coney Island as seen in their show Mr. Robot.

Last but certainly not least…

15. Talk to people.
SXSW Interactive draws people from all over the world – people who do the same stuff you do, but in totally different places and cultures. That can make for some very interesting and enlightening conversations. So don’t hesitate to strike up a conversation with the people around you while you’re waiting in line for that food truck or your selfie with Grumpy Cat.

Let us know if you have any other great tips to add to this list! You can follow us both on Twitter at @Cmilitello and @HunterGathered.

Have fun, stay safe and eat BBQ.