90 Tips on Preparing for SxSW

The last SxSW was a really great experience for me and so I decided to write down a few tips, with great help of Andrej Radovan Grezo and Wiktor Schmidt. I hope that it could help you prepare for and enjoy this unique conference.

PRE-TRAVEL PLANNING

Tickets

  • The sooner, the cheaper. Grab one ASAP.
  • If you are interested in tech, startups, etc. theInteractive is best for you
  • Consider purchasing additional services offered within the ticket (barbecue, etc.). It is a good chance that you will not get there, because you will find better program, meet interesting people, etc.
  • Think twice before you buy your ticket. They are not transferable.
  • Don’t. Lose. Your. Badge. Replacements come at full ticket price.

Accommodation

  • The most important part of preparing for SxSW!
  • Finding accommodation is rough. Stay as close as possible to the Convention Centre.
  • Avoid renting a car.
  • Good value for accommodation is around $1,000 per person for six days. 
  • To reduce the overall cost, share a multiperson flat or house.
  • If you end up far from the Convention Centre you end up paying additional expenses which can be higher than you would pay for the expensier appartment which were closer to the event.
  • Parking costs are around $10-30 per hour/day, depends on where you’ll find the place
  • Taxi to my accommodation last year ran as high as $100 one way.
  • If you can’t find accommodation close to the Convention Centre, try to find one on the shuttle route
  • If you can’t find a hotel, try Airbnb or something similar. 
  • If you choose a hotel, pay just for breakfast. You will often want to take lunch and dinner out. 
  • If you decide to rent an apartment, buy as much food as possible down the road from the airport (e.g. at Walmart or Target). Finding food at the conference is relatively difficult, especially in the last few days when startups run out of their marketing money.
  • Let me chime in one more time. Stay as close to the Convention Centre as possible, even for the price. Even if the hotel is not up to standards, the location will make it invaluable.

En Route

  • Tens of thousands of people descend on the city at the same time as you. I know it is logical, but it is necessary to fully realize.
  • Because of this it is necessary to plan your trip with a wide margin. 
  • Flights could be very easily delayed.
  • Some prefer to come in to Austin by road transportation.
  • The taxi from the airport to the city center is around $40.

FROM Slovakia/Czech/Outside US

  • It is advisable to come in to Austin from some other U.S. flights hub (NYC, MSP, DEN, etc.). Come a few days early. 
  • Click on the thumbnails at ESTA to see if you are eligible. You definitely need to have a biometric passport, otherwise you need to go to the embassy for a visa. I recommend you do this today!
  • The journey takes around 15-24 hours (depending on from where you fly, your transfers and delays). 
  • Search for good tickets on search engines such as Hipmunk, or any of your favorite systems.

Lectures

  • There were more than 1,000 lectures last year, about 60 running simultaneously. Reconcile yourself today that you will not see them all.
  • Decide early what and who you want to see. SxSW provides planning apps for iOS devices, Android, BlackBerry, Windows 7 and on their web interface, all available after the official program schedule announcement.
  • Plan your schedule based on who you want to meet. Most of the speakers come directly into the audience after their lecture, so you can meet them in person. So if you fancy to talk to someone or get to know them, don’t be shy and do it.
  • Consider where the lectures take place. The conference is spread throughout the city and the distance between buildings may be a pretty far. Fortunately most buildings are clustered.
  • If you don’t absolutely need to see the most popular speakers, don’t rush. Thousands of others will be and it can easily happen that you will waste your time and not get in (true story :/). 

Party People

  • Party is the primary motivation of many people who attend SxSW.
  • Parties are generally organized by startups and companies who attend SxSW.
  • The first few days are the biggest squeeze because they give out free alcohol. 
  • If you do not RSVP to a party or know the organizers, you probably won’t get in. 
  • If you want to go somewhere and see or make the fun, pay attention to logging in to RSVPs. It pays to RSVP to all parties even if you will only attend a few.
  • Some time before the start of the conference begins an increase in Twitter and Facebook activity regarding specific parties, as well as on company websites, eventbride.com or directly on SxSW schedule page.
  • It pays to follow the crowd, which in this case means Foursquare. Following the check-ins almost guarantees some sort of action. Last year Highlit app worked pretty good as well.
  • Watch your alcohol. Drink to fit your crowd.
  • Leave boring parties. There are too many other things going on to stay. 
  • Parties often run until morning, so calculate the next day (keynote speakers are usually later in the day, but you can miss events and interesting speakers).
  • You will be handed a lot of free stuff. Try to suppress that little greedy voice in your head and just say no. There is nothing worse than wearing a plastic bag full of crap.
  • The best parties are always hosted by the most renowned companies (DropBox, Google, Mashable, CNN, TED, etc…) so many people try to go. If you cannot get into the party within a reasonable amount of time, go elsewhere. There are numerous other, interesting parties where you can get in and enjoy yourself much more. 
  • For example, the small private parties often host famous people who do not like the attention of larger crowds (Tony Hseish, Biz Stone, etc). 
  • Remember, “Don’t Mess With Texas.” Be smart about who you provoke and don’t bother disagreeing with the police. (Police in Texas are trained to hold their guns. Don’t freak out if this happens, but better to be warned.)

Networking

  • You’re hopefully not going to this conference for the sole purpose of getting drunk. Take advantage of the fact that at this one time and place will be several thousand people who you would not have otherwise met, and network as much as you can. 
  • Learn to be bold and introduce yourself to anybody, literally anybody. You can train at home at the cinema, or anywhere where there are a lot of strangers (although public toilets might not be the best choice).
  • Bring business cards. Many of them. Distribute them like you’ve never done before. 
  • Install an application that can scan a business card and link it to your networks (like CardMunch).
  • Work with your new cards every night (scan and ask people to confirm friendship or connection). After the conference it is almost impossible to remember everyone, but the list of contacts in the social network may help in the future of your business or work life (I still work off of the contacts that I created during last years SxSW). 
  • Try a daily wrap-up with your new contacts. Send a short generic email. It’s hardcore, I know, but this is not so common, so you will stand out in people’s memories. 
  • Remember the rule of 6. You never know who you know and you can’t imagine how we are connected. Reduce the 6 to 5. :)

Packing

  • Austin is normally a very warm town (over 20°C in March).
  • It could be windy and cooler.
  • Pack less. Get free/cheap t-shirts from startups and Walmart.
  • Buy an external battery for your smartphone and cary some non-stop charger. With such a large concentration of people the signal constantly fails and your smartphone’s battery dries out very quickly

Once You’re There: Travel and Conference

International Flight

If you have never been in the USA here are a few tips. If you have been to the US, skip to the next section. 

  • I hope, that you’ve already registred with ESTA (and get your biometric passport).
  • Bring a pen in your hand baggage to fill out a customs form for when you land. 
  • Avoid the trouble and don’t bring any liquids in your hand luggage. 

Prepare for many questions

  • Upon check-in you will be asked questions such as “Who packed your luggage? Where did you pack your luggage? When did you pack your luggage? Did anybody have access to your luggage? How did you travel to the airport? Who bought your ticket?” and sometimes more. They also ask these questions to US citizens so don’t be offended, it is just as annoying for everybody. 
  • It is advisable to be prepared for these questions and know the answers.
  • Have your return ticket so you can prove you are leaving the country.
  • Know the address of your accommodation.
  • Prepare for questions such as “What is the purpose of your visit? (Business or pleasure).” 
  • Tell only one story. Don’t get sent home.

Phone Information

  • Go to T-Mobile and take the internet card ($60/month, $2/day for an EU iPhone (edge only) or $3/day for 3G). These programs have an unlimited calls and SMS within the U.S. 
  • WiFi pretty much does not work at the conference and there were also problems with the phone signal, but a functioning internet saved me many times from other problems. 

City Transportation

  • Don’t try public transportation because it won’t arrive. You can wait over an hour for the shuttle on the first day. 
  • Austin has enough taxis. They are quite expensive during the conference but will not kill you.
  • Beware of scams and cheating drivers. They spot your ignorance. Verify your route with GPS. 

General Advice 

  • Use Foursquare and find interesting people in the neighborhood. At the beginning of the event people are much easier to find and not feeling harassed, so the first day is a great day to reach out. Stay in the vicinity of the Hotel Driskill to come across bigger celebrities, investors and entrepreneurs.
  • E 6th St. had the best parties every night.
  • Get to bed early and wake up early for the first day, you will probably spend a long time waiting for your badge. 
  • Don’t worry about the huge number of people. The crowd is mostly thin enough you have freedom to move about.
  • The first day of the conference will be the worst morning due to the badge queue. 
  • Although you should pre-plan your days, don’t get stuck on your schedule because you will die of stress. Enjoy the atmosphere of the conference. 
  • Take a break in the lobby of the Hilton (Garden Inn).
  • If you haven’t pre-paid for meals, you’re on your own. My favorite place is the IHOP near the Convention Centre. Be prepared for long waits. 
  • Some startups and events offer food for registered participants and large companies tend to have snacks. 
  • Don’t lose your badge! It means the end of the conference!
  • If you feel lost, consult someone with a conference badge, holding a walkie-talkie, or police/firemen.
  • Don’t bother taking cash. Most places accept credit and debit cards. Just be sure yours will work in the US (consult with your bank). 
  • Consider getting a new credit card to prevent credit card theft (yes, it can happen, even if you still have it with you).
  • Dress up for the night, not for the day. You are unlikely to return home before evening festivities begin. 
  • If travelling with a group, identify meeting points and times. We had 2-hour interval check-ups at the Hilton lobby so lost or wanderlust members could easily meet back up with us. It saved much trouble and stress. 

Departure

  • Remember everyone is going on the same day to the same place. Thousands of people.
  • Your flight can be delayed. Give yourself extra transfer time. Minimum 4 hours. 
  • Choose to sleep the last night so you enjoy some peace of mind and a good meal before you travel. 
  • Planes might be overbooked. Keep your ticket handy and if you have the leisure of time you can take public offers for your ticket including frequent flier miles or cash. 

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me and I will be very happy to speak to you about my experience at last year’s SxSW. 

Most of all really enjoy it, and hopefully we’ll see you there. We’ll be there with our charming Christy, so feel free to find reach us.

Rastislav Turek, The founder and CEO of SynopsiTV

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