SxSW for rookies
If you are planning to attend SxSW in 2012, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Analysis paralysis: There are hundreds of talks, panels, core conversations and workshops to choose from on the Interactive track and you are guaranteed to feel like you are missing out. Deal with it. Consider choosing a theme: gaming, mobile, future of journalism, social media, marketing, design/development etc. and sticking to it. I found that six talks a day was my limit (9:30, 11:00, 12:30, 14:00, 15:30, 17:00). By 18:00 you are suffering from info overload – reset your brain with a good meal (see below), SxSW chit-chat with your many new friends (you will meet many) and great music (Austin by night is your oyster).
- (Wo)man with a plan: Each morning I would plan my day by choosing which talks I wanted to attend. Often there are two or three talks on similar topics. Researching who the speaker/panelists were for each event helped with the decision making process. Doing the research – Google is my friend – on those presenting, especially the keynote speakers, enriched the experience dramatically. It’s worth checking where the keynote speaker will be presenting and getting there early as space is limited and simulcast just isn’t the same.
- Stay connected: Data roaming charges will kill you, so be sure to turn it off when you reach US soil. AT&T and T-Mobile both offer great pre-paid deals with data bundles included. There is no RICA rigmarole, which makes life considerably easier. The Austin Convention Centre and all the campuses have free wifi. Be sure to check that your hotel has wifi before you book. Ivo’s hotel only had 250 connections for 209 number of rooms! If you are going in a group or know others who will be attending the conference, choose a group chat app like Beluga, Skype or Whatsapp to stay in touch. It makes organising dinner and party plans a breeze.
- Off the beaten track: When the crowds got too much I headed out to South Lamar and found some great fashion, music and second hand shops. Be sure not to miss Howl, Unbridaled, Moss, Cash America and Music Makers. The Warehouse District offers a great escape from Sixth Street and for a shopping fix go to The Drag on Guadeloupe. Here you will find old favourites like American Apparel and Urban Outfitters. Although I never got the time to try it out, milk + honey spa on 2nd Street in downtown Austin looked amazing. When you spend eight hours of your day sitting or running to the next presentation, a massage is just the thing to help you relax and unwind.
- Whole Foods: This store deserves its own article! For an experience of a lifetime, pay this grocery store heaven a visit. You won’t be disappointed.
- Avoid 6th Street at all costs, you will land up there anyway. Instead explore the hundreds of official and unofficial parties on offer all over town. The Ning Unofficial SxSW Guide can be downloaded as an app from the iStore and is a great resource for party seekers of all descriptions. Side note: The Frog Design party is not to be missed and neither is the Film Closing/Music Opening party. This year the surprise act was the Foo Fighters. Just a pity all the geeks were tweeting about it instead of enjoying the show.
- Food food glorious food: My favourites:
- Uchi – if you like Japanese food (think fatty tuna sashimi, sea urchin and quail egg champagne shots and saba shio norwegian mackerel grilled with parsley and preserved lemon) don’t miss Uchi.
- La Condesa – stylish Mexican food without the cheesy nachos, music or décor. They also serve the best martini I have ever tasted: watermelon and elderflower. Yum.
- La Crepe – a great breakfast spot just two blocks from the Austin Convention Centre that serves what we South Africans would call pannekoek.
- The Flying Falafel and Po Boy – with only four tables, no waiters and a stern warning to beware of the claws when you order the crawfish gumbo, this family owned restaurant was the best surprise. Dirt cheap, squeaky clean and a little confused (it serves both traditional Cajun food and Lebanese food) it is well worth the trek up to Guadeloupe.
- And if it’s just a good ol’ American burger you’re looking for, go no further than the burger stand outside the Convention Centre. Depending on the time of day the wait can be tedious, but you will be sure to make friends in the queue.
- Accommodation: It ain’t cheap and hotels fill up fast. It’s worth staying more central or picking a hotel that is situated on the shuttle route ($50 for five days of unlimited rides). A king size bed, wifi, in-room dining and laundry service is key, but breakfast is not. This is America, swing a stick and you’ll hit three Starbucks’ where the coffee is good and the pastries are fresh. I stayed at the AT&T Conference Centre and Hotel, which was wonderful. Classy with impeccable service, free wifi and the fist stop on the shuttle route, it’s worth booking early. If you prefer to be a little more central, The Hampton Inn is only two blocks away from the Convention Centre and four blocks away from Sixth Street. If you are high up enough the street noise shouldn’t bug you.
- Getting there: It’s a long haul and time zones are a b*tch, but if you diligently chew your anti jet-lag tablets, avoid the alcohol, book an aisle seat (easy access to the loo), take a cushy pillow and load enough e-books on your iPad, you will survive. No doubt business class is the way to go, but we can’t all be that lucky. SAA will soon be offering direct flights from Johannesburg to Washington DC and from there it’s a hop skip and a jump to Austin, Texas. What ever you do, don’t take the route I did on the way home: Austin – Kansas – Washington DC – Dakar – Johannesburg. It’s not worth the R1000 you save on the air ticket!
See you next year.