A Kiwi guide to surviving and thriving at SXSW

SXSW is now one of the global digital technology brainstorming and networking events of the year. Simone McCallum captures the excitement and also the hassles!


This year I was lucky enough to be part of a panel at SXSW– a massive music, interactive and film festival held each year in Austin, Texas. And when I say massive, I mean massive. It’s like the madness of the RWC opening ceremony – but for nine solid days. Official attendance numbers for SXSW 2012 haven’t yet been released, but there was talk of between 30,000 and 50,000 people in total. In that throng were a handful of Kiwis, but we need more to add to the contingent!

If you are into any or all of the three streams, then I would definitely recommend heading along next year and joining in the madness. This is not just any conference. Be prepared for a huge amount of networking, partying, ideas and celebrity spotting. Business is done at food trucks, new apps are launched, rumours run wild and some of the smartest people in the industry share their ideas.

If you are a SXSW virgin, here are some tips to help make the craziness a bit less crazy.

1. Book your accommodation early. Places to lay your weary head are in short supply during SXSW. I heard rumours of hotel room rates rocketing as high as $2,000 per night – and that is USD we are talking! I was fortunate enough to be on a SXSW panel which meant I had access to SXSW booked accommodation. I was right across the road from the Austin Convention Centre (the hub of SXSW) which was fantastic. If you can’t get into the central city, then there are plenty of options in the ‘burbs and SXSW runs a shuttle service to collect and drop off attendees every day. One of my friends was staying in the Auckland equivalent of Hamilton (literally in the next city) and transport options were reduced to taxis (which were expensive). The flip side of that is one guy I met who turned up on Sunday and walked into the Hilton next to the Convention Centre and was given a room without any booking at all! Other options include renting an apartment or checking out Airbnb and Craiglist for rooms to rent.



2. Things to take. YOU WILL NEED BATTERY POWER. I grabbed a Mophie battery pack for my iPhone and extra batteries for the laptop would not go amiss either. You can get a Mophie at the BestBuy vending machine at the airport, or get one before you leave from Yoobee, Ubertech or Apple. You couldn’t move without literally tripping over people sitting on the corridor floors with their laptops, chained to the powerpoints. Don’t be that guy! AT&T had a recharge lockup station where you could leave your device (phone, tablet, laptop, camera etc) securely locked up on a charger – for free.

The FedEx Walking-Talking Charging Station

FedEx had walking, talking charging stations – although these had obvious limitations.

I also took a NZ four-point power board to plug all my NZ appliances into (and a couple of US/NZ adapter plugs). I had a phone, laptop, Blackberry, hair straightening irons….. you get the idea.


3. Order a US SIM card or pick up a prepay SIM when you get there from AT&T or T-Mobile. I ordered one from Mr Simcard and it was waiting for me at my hotel when I arrived. Unlimited Global txt (good for keeping in touch with home), Unlimited data and Unlimited US phone calls all for USD$70. Well worth the cost as the roaming charges on my NZ plan were $8 per MB. Yup.



4. Pack wisely. The Austin weather had it in for us. I landed at 2am in the middle of a thunderstorm and then we had two days of torrential rain (attendees starting calling the festival SXSWet). But the bad weather cleared and hot sunny days arrived eventually. Pack an umbrella/raincoat and sunscreen if the forecast looks anything like this. I found a packet of sticking plasters was a great way to make friends after non stop walking around Austin. And multi vitamins. And Panadol. And hand sanitiser.

Registration queues loop the Convention Centre – twice.


5. Go straight to SXSW Registration and do not pass Go. Queues to collect your SXSW page are a new kind of horror. I was lucky and discovered that there was a separate registration queue for speakers but for the mass attendees the queue just grew and grew. At its worst the queue looped round the entire Convention Centre – TWICE – and was over a two hour wait. So get in early in the day or very late (just before 9pm) to avoid the crush. I heard reports of SXSW badges being stolen on 6th St – which is a sething mass of drunken hipsters barhopping until 2am – but report it to the police  and go to SXSW and another one should be reissued.


6. Plan, plan, plan. Decide what you are going to SXSW for. Is it for the sessions and the keynote speakers? The networking? The parties? Or a bit of everything? There were tons of people I met who had no intention of going to a single keynote or panel session. They paid their registration fee just to gain access to the networking opportunities, and, baby ,they were working it. If you are actually planning on attending some of the sessions then you need to sit down BEFORE you leave for SXSW and sift through the 5,000 sessions to work out which ones you will shift heaven and earth to attend and which ones are optional extras. Then figure out where they are on a map. SXSW is held at several locations and not all are within walking distance. If you only have half an hour between two sessions but you have to schlep across 10 blocks to the next venue then you are not going to make it. This year the sessions were at 9:30am, 11am, the SXSW keynotes are at 2pm, 3:30pm and 5pm. Again, queues were a problem and popular sessions filled up quickly much to the frustration of the crowd. Sometimes simulcasts were held in a different room, but sometimes these weren’t available. If there is a session you really really want to go to, arrive early. Also, the SXSW GO app and the Lanyrd.com app are both good for keeping track of your schedules on your phone while you roam the streets of Austin.

7. My kingdom for a decent signal. Having so many geeks, musicians and film buffs in one place means the abundant free wi-fi buckles under the pressure and can be very flaky. The same applies to the mobile coverage so set your expectations low and you will be pleasantly surprised. When you do have some form of connectivity (there is heaps of free wifi everywhere), check foursquare to see which locations nearby are trending (if you want to follow the crowds). Super swarm badges are the norm.

Catch-A-Chevy and a mini car at SXSW

8. Getting around. With so many people at SXSW, transport is also at a premium. Festival road closures mean that travel by car can be lengthy. Your options are rental car (and parking hassles), taxi, pedal cabs ($10 per person flat rate), SXSW shuttle buses, Austin public buses, Catch-a-Chevy, and schlepping on your own two feet. Wear flat shoes and bring bandaids (see above). Don’t be in a hurry or you will be disappointed.

Feeling inspired? Give the Kiwi SXSW contingent a boost and mark these dates in your diary: SXSW 2013 PanelPicker proposals open on June 18, and the first days of SXSW Interactive 2013 is Friday 8 March 2013.

Let’s do this!


This post is also publish on Simone McCallum’s personal blog.

Editor in Chief at here SMNZ, I have a passion for social and digital media. When not writing and managing SMNZ I am the Head of Innovation at TAG The Agency, a digital ad agency and the Head of Sales and Marketing for End-Game, a software development agency. I'm also involved with a number of startups and I am always keen to support those that are bold enough to give things a go. Start something, better to try than to live wondering what if...

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