Making your first pilgrimage to the Texas tech Mecca? Elspeth Rountree tells you everything you need to know.
Q1 I’m taking the plunge and going out to SXSW this year. Just what have I let myself in for?
What aren’t you in for is the real question. SXSW has become the biggest industry event of the year, at least in the US. It’s sometimes referred to as "spring break for the technology industry", but with a lot more geeks than bikinis (but don’t worry, you will also witness geeks in bikinis, if that’s your thing). This will be my eighth year attending, and I’ve noticed it changes from one year to the next. Be prepared for lots of walking, talking, eating and general merrymaking. Yes, it’s a conference, but it’s different than your typical poorly lit event. You’ll be surrounded by lots of curious, interesting creators and decision-makers.
Q2 That all sounds brilliant. But how the hell am I going to justify it to my chief financial officer?
Hopefully, we’ve got past the point of having to justify SXSW to any CFO in our line of work. The conference is synonymous with having its finger on the pulse of the industry – and you need to be there, or else you’re square. Try to schedule a few meetings with clients while you’re there during the day at one of the surrounding bars or restaurants. Come back and drop lots of your newfound knowledge. Promise to give a presentation about "what I learned at SXSW". Those types of things will help your case.
Q3 I’ve heard that it’s a big place and there’s loads going on, so how much should I have planned in advance?
It’s easy to get lost in the noise. The best way to plan your stay is to take advantage of the official SXSW planning tool and plot out at least three to four panels each day that are in close proximity to each other. Plan a few backups if your first choices are full when you arrive. The next step is to RSVP. RSVP to everything you can. You’ll never know where you’ll end up. Also, wear comfortable shoes and bring lots of layers. The weather can get weird, just like Austin.
Q4 What type of seminars would you recommend attending? The programme looks vast.
It depends on what your interests are, but I tend to gravitate towards the unusual/weird. There are always a few gems. Last year, I got to see the man who did the "Honey Badger Don’t Care" voiceover, which was incredibly interesting from an internet fame perspective. This year, the Julian Assange panel looks like a historic interview – it’s definitely on my "do not miss" list. Pro tip: arrive at least 30 minutes early to the larger keynotes. They fill up fast.
Be prepared for lots of walking, talking, eating and general merrymaking
Q5 That’s a lot to pack in. Any special tips for surviving the days?
It’s a lot, but only if you make it that way. I’d suggest trying to go for quality, not quantity, because you can run yourself ragged. Take advantage of the special events throughout the day surrounding the conference centre and be sure to make some new friends. One way I did that was by bringing my own power strip and setting up shop to answer e-mails in the hallway. You’d be surprised by how many people you can meet by sharing your power.
Q6 Where will all those ‘in the know’ be at night?
Each year has some standout, larger-than-life parties (Foursquare, Tumblr and Pepsi come to mind in SXSW years past), but I tend to stay away from those. You’ll end up standing in ridiculous lines, so the best bet is to try to find some medium-sized parties or events. Most people head back from the conference around 5pm, freshen up/nap and head back out around 7.30pm for some Tex-Mex or barbecue. Catch a music show or simply walk around the bustling streets and see where the night takes you. I promise you’ll get into some parties.
Q7 It all sounds great. But I’m a Brit in marketing, not a tech entrepreneur. Am I going to stick out like a sore thumb?
Not at all! Actually, it’s even better that you’re a Brit because Americans love Brits and your accents. Believe me, I married one. There are not only lots of techies, but marketers, sales, IT, creatives etc. Last year, BBC America set up a tent with rugby matches and Doctor Who playing for more than 12 hours a day so, even if you get a little homesick, there’s always a slice of the UK around.
Q8 OK, so I think I’m ready for it. But can you give me a few opening lines to memorise so I can be sure to fit in?
I wouldn’t call them opening lines, but changing the way you say "butter", "water", "tomato" and "taco" to a more American way (don’t make it more nasally – stress the vowels) will make life easier in the American South. Promise.
Q9 Thanks. Any final words of wisdom?
If you can find the time, the Austin area is a great city to explore. Barton Springs are gorgeous and a good place to cool off. In the evening as the sun sets, make sure to catch the bats flying from the Congress Avenue Bridge. Don’t be fooled into purchasing cowboy boots. You’ll never wear them again. Bring lots of clothes for different temperatures and an umbrella. Try to sneak in some exercise (beer from hand to mouth does not count), otherwise you might end up hating life for two weeks post-SXSW. Oh, there’s also a thing lovingly nicknamed "the SXSW Sars". Be healthy and don’t catch that – it’s bad.
Elspeth Rountree is the director of comms at Deep Focus
SXSW: a beginner's guide
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