A User's Guide to Navigating (and Surviving) SXSW, 2023 Edition
With the start of the SXSW 2023 Interactive Festival nearly here (activities kick off on March 10), I'm fielding questions across my inbox, LinkedIn and DM's from colleagues, acquaintances and clients asking how they can get the most out of the nine-day experience, or however long they'll be in town for. That's because over the last decade, I've enjoyed dozens of memorable and mind-bending moments at the event—which is one of the highlights of my year—allowing me to feed my brain, fuel my inspiration and make real connections with people and ideas alike. SXSW is more than a shallow networking opportunity or industry party, it's a community, and an opportunity to expose yourself to ideas and perspectives that don't often get talked about in-depth by our industry—there may also be an abundance of tacos and margaritas, but who said learning can't be fun?
With that in mind, I thought I'd share a few "how-to's." Whether it's your first time in Austin or you're simply returning for the first time since the pandemic hiatus, this is an event worth approaching with a proactive mindset—to make the investment of both time and dollars truly worth it, so that you leave feeling exhausted but also enriched.
Plan your talk schedule.
The part of SXSW that is hands-down the most intimidating to both newbies and veterans alike, is trying to plan the "perfect" schedule. The good news is that you should stop worrying, because it's an impossible feat. If you accept this reality from the get-go, you'll enjoy your time more in every conceivable way. However, that's not to say that planning is a waste of time. You can and should still build a battle plan that allows you to make smart decisions on the ground, striking a few musts off your to-do list as well.
It surprises me every year when I hear attendees out and about on the night before the kickoff that they haven't checked out the schedule yet. At any given time slot (and there are at least five or six typical start times each day) there are at least a dozen or two talks taking place, spread across multiple venues throughout the city, so some planning is essential. Search on the SXSW Schedule for keywords that relate both to your day job and your passion points, "star" talks and take the time to read those round-up emails the SXSW team sends to your inbox every few days, announcing new talks and highlights. To begin, just focus on favoriting what and who sound interesting, and don't worry about when or where they are. And think outside the box—I'm a sucker for talks by neuroscientists and anything NASA-related that allows me to revisit my childhood passion—exposing yourself to smart people will only make you smarter.
Be prepared for disappointment.
Once you've got your favorites marked, you'll be able to view "your schedule" on a calendar and sense check things for time and place. I guarantee there will be at least one slot where you have two talks that you desperately want to see happening at the same time. But my advice, at this stage, is not to start editing. You don't need to resolve conflicts now, you want to create space for yourself to opt-in and out of things as you feel so inclined, as you'll absolutely find that once you're on-the-ground and in-the-moment, one will make more sense than the other.
Download the app and use the SXXpress Pass—ahead of time.
I've been going to SXSW long enough to remember when the app was first released and drained everyone's batteries on the first day, thanks to some misguided attempts to use Bluetooth beacons for navigation.
Thankfully, this is no longer the case, and now the app is an essential tool for not only navigating the schedule, but also interacting with SXSW Social, accessing quick floorplans and finding maps of (and to) venues.
For the last few years, it has had an extra-essential use: Access to the SXXpress Pass.
Every day at 9 a.m., express passes are released for most talks happening the following day. These passes allow you to skip the line and pretty-much guarantee entry to in-demand talks, meaning they're a must-have for those things on the schedule you really want to see. However, there are a limited number available for each talk, and Interactive/Platinum registrants can request just three passes per day—so make sure you've given some thought before 9 a.m. as to which talks you want to use your passes on, then get on it quickly once they're released.
Speaking of registration...
If you can, try to get to Austin on the Thursday, rather than the morning of the first day (Friday, March 10). You can pick up your badge any time from Sunday, March 5, at the Austin Convention Center, and on Thursday, March 9, pickup is available until 11 p.m.
Trying to pick it up on the Friday morning might mean a wait time of one hour or more, which is less than ideal. And once you've got it, don't lose your badge! Wear it around your neck proudly, because if you lose it, you will have to buy a new one at full price—and there's no exceptions. Treat it like it's worth $1,500 dollars (because it is). Your badge will also be essential to get into most gigs/events in the evening, so don't leave it in your room once the talks are over!
Stay powered-up and hydrated.
A basic of getting around any large-scale festival where you're constantly on the go, tweeting, taking pictures and in regular communication with fellow festival-goers is to take some spare battery power (and remember to recharge it every night). A power-pack of some sort is more essential at SXSW than any other festival I've been to. There's a good chance you'll be out from breakfast until dawn without going back to your hotel/short-term rental!
Similarly, it's easy to forget to power yourself up. Constantly running from venue to venue, stopping to eat is not always easy. There are plenty of good food trucks parked up around the convention center, there are also often branded popups that offer free food (and sometimes drinks) in exchange for you handing over an email address or letting them scan your badge. Plus, there's the Registrants Lounge situated next to the convention center, which always has music, beverages and snacks—and your badge will give you access to one free drink there daily.
But more generally, don't underestimate the amount of sustenance you can get for "free"—check out the brand-sponsored bars and experiences on Rainey St., find drink receptions hosted by brands and businesses in the hotels—and the larger activations—downtown. It's worth registering/RSVP'ing for as much as possible in advance, and there are services that will do it for you (for a fee) but the Austin Chronicle keeps a regularly updated list of everything going on in town too. So if you spent more on your lodging than you'd intended, know you can more than likely save a bit when it comes to food and drink.
And finally, bring a refillable water bottle. There are refilling stations in almost every venue and Austin can get pretty toasty in March. The last thing you need when sitting down to listen to a talk about Quantum Computing and A.I. is a dehydration headache.
Dress for success.
To reiterate, Austin in March can be hot. But Austin in March can also be cool. And wet. I've yet to see snow, but I'm not willing to rule anything out. Check out the weather in advance and come prepared. Comfortable shoes are a must whatever the weather—there's a lot of walking to be done, and getting Ubers everywhere is not only expensive, but unwise, for the most part.
Regardless of the weather outside, the conference halls, ballrooms and hotel suites are heavily air-conditioned, so make sure that even if it's 90 degrees out, you've got something to keep the air-con chill off inside. My secret? Layers, and a lightweight backpack.
Leave room for the unexpected. And if you can, aim to attend the closing remarks.
The very best SXSW experiences are often serendipitous. Some of my favorite talks and experiences have only happened because I didn't get into a talk I'd favorited and ended up diving into the room next door because it was that or nothing. All to say, create space for spontaneity.
Don't get too stressed about missing out on anything—or if you pick a talk that turns out not to be what you expected—there's plenty to see and do, and SXSW is there to be equal parts inspiring and enjoyable. Let it wash over you, and if in doubt, walk into the nearest room and take a seat. And if you can, seek out science-fiction writer and patron saint of SXSW Bruce Sterling's annual "closing remarks," which will certainly leave your head spinning in the best way possible.