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From the moment you step foot into Austin Bergstrom International airport or enter Austin City Limits, you will feel the energy, smell the delicious food, hear good vibes, taste the margaritas and sense all there is to love about my hometown for the past 10 years. Something about being in Austin just makes you hungry – and hungry to learn when you’re attending the SXSW Interactive Conference. It’s no wonder people flock to this place and Austin has become one of the fastest growing cities. The SXSW Festival is also among the biggest of its kind in the country, if not the world. Austinites have a lot to be proud of, and hopefully you’ll get the chance to experience the Southern hospitality soon, if you have not already. These tips will prepare you for what to expect as a rookie to town and how to survive the South By Southwest madness.
SXSW Interactive Dates
Sure, South by Southwest began as a music festival and then film, but the interactive festival has become just as popular as it’s now one of the biggest conferences in the media and online community, bringing together speakers to the stage from all industries and from all over the world. The past and upcoming dates for SXSW Interactive ar:
- SXSW Interactive 2013: March 8-12, 2013
- SXSW Interactive 2014: March 7-11, 2014
- SXSW Interactive 2015: March 13-17, 2015
- SXSW Interactive 2016: March 11-16, 2016
- SXSW Interactive 2017: March 10-19, 2017
Read on for some great tips on what to do, where to stay and how to make the most of each day during this amazing event each March.
Tips For Attending SXSW Interactive Festival
Before The Festival
Book a Place to Stay Early – Hotels in Austin are hard to come by. Many conference goers stay as far out as 30 minutes away due to lack of availability. Even if you are not sure if you’ll make it, go ahead and reserve your rooms up to a year in advance. And don’t be surprised if prices are high as the hotels will be looking to make an extra buck and take advantage of the high demand for rooms. Looking for a more affordable options? Crash with a friend, or better yet, look into home sharing sites like Airbnb as an alternative – you might end up crashing on the floor but at least you’ll be spitting distance to all the action. (Side note: Airbnb co-founder Brian Chesky spoke at the 2013 Festival).
Buy Conference Passes Ahead of Time – The early bird definitely gets the worm and as soon as passes go on sale, jump on the opportunity to buy them. Interactive passes start at around $650 but can jump up to as high as $1,100+ for the walk up rate. And keep in mind, if plans change, you can transfer your pass to someone else but there is a change fee of around $100 to do so.
Download the Mobile App and use SXSocial – The SXSW mobile app is great for having a pocket-sized, personalized version of your schedule handy at all times. The app updates daily to reflect any schedule changes. And if you register ahead of time online using SXSocial you can search for and connect with other conference registrants and panelists. It is like a mini social network for attendees. The other bonus of registering for SXSocial is you can upload your photo in advance, saving you time in the badge pick-up process during registration. ?
RSVP to Parties – RSVP for all the parties you are thinking you might like to attend, even if you don’t know if you can go yet. Just go ahead and get yourself on the list. But what parties and where to find them? Sites like Do512 and the new RSVPster.com have popped up to help aggregate the hundreds of free day and night parties going on and even RSVP for you.
What to Pack – Skinny jeans in every color, comfy shoes (flip-flops, Toms or Cowboy boots) and plenty of tops (flannel shirts, screen printed American Apparel T’s are both popular). And of course don’t forget to accessorize with your Sunglasses, iPhone and IPad. Plenty of business cards or if you are socially savvy, you’ll use an iPhone app to exchange personal contact info with others. A water bottle to refill on water and stay hydrated. 5 Hour Energy and caffeine to keep you going. A moleskin notebook or something to take notes with (if you attend the conference) and a poncho just in case (it rained in both 2012 and 2013 during the interactive festival).
Get Charged – Make sure you rest up and get plenty of sleep before (and during) the festival. The interactive conference is 6 full days of being on, mentally and physically, and it can be very draining. So the more you can prepare your body for fatigue, the better. Eating regular meals and drinking water are always key to keeping your body energized. Also make sure you have plenty of chargers for your gadgets. A uNu Power Case doubles the life of the iPhone battery.
During The Festival
Have a Plan, But be Flexible – Things change, sessions fill up, rain happens, so does traffic, and as much as you plan ahead, you never know how things will shake out. I sat next to a girl who said she had a plan A, B and C. Prioritize yourself and make sure you always have a backup plan.
Remember You Can’t Do it All – No matter how many times you have done the festival, it can feel overwhelming to try to pack it all in. And if you’re like me (the kind of person who thinks they can do it all), you must accept that it’s just not possible. Accept this and don’t feel guilty if you’re missing out on a few things. A great way to get the most out of the conference is to go with another person or group. That way you can divide and conquer. But have no fears, someone (and likely more) is covering every session somewhere online so you can always find the best tidbits from each, whether you are there firsthand or not.
Take Advantage of Public Transportation – Although most of the SXSW footprint is walking distance, and this year they provided shuttles in between venues, I used bikes, pedicabs and Car2Go to get around to speed up the process. Car2Go, a car sharing program, saved me on many occasions. Not only is it a fast (dry) and cheap way to get around, they had VIP spots (including valet at the front door of the convention center), making it convenient to zip between locations quickly. With Car2Go you can register ahead of time, and then use your member card to unlock and lock smart cars around town. You can use the iPhone app to locate the nearest vehicle and reserve it for up to a half hour.
Be Patient – It’s inevitable that there will be hundreds of thousands of people, everywhere. So be prepared to wait in traffic, wait in line for everything, and wait some more…Remember: patience is key.
Freebies & Swag / Create a SXSW Email – Brands everywhere will be sponsoring events, handing out useless (and useful) promo items, and more or less trying to sell you the next big thing. Whether it be a cup of joe, an idea, or an app. Take it, smile and don’t be surprised when get an inbox full of random emails from now until eternity. So be sure to sign up for a “SXSW only” email you can use to RSVP for parties and enter giveaways that will not interfere with your normal email communication inbox.
Have fun! – This is pretty self-explanatory and it goes without saying but sometimes it can be easy to burn out, get caught up in the hoopla, and be “over it”. But, at the end of the day, it’s all about learning, meeting new people, and having fun. So suck it up (or take a quick break) when you’re tired, don’t give up, learn a lot and have the time of your life!
Tips for What to Do in Austin, Texas
Food Recommendations in Austin
Tex Mex: Guero’s Taco Bar on South Congress, Chuy’s on Barton Springs or Hula Huta on Lake Austin Boulevard overlooking Lake Austin.
Sushi/Asian: Uchico (north Lamar, better if you have a car and get reservations) East Side King (3 food trailers on East 6th & a new brick and mortar location in dive bar near the University of Texas campus on “the drag”) both by Paul Qui (James Beard and Top Chef Winner). If you go to ESK, get the fried beets, amazing.
Food Trucks: Many pop-up food trailers come around for SXSW. In fact, for SXSW 2013 Paul Qui curated a selection of gourmet food trucks called SouthBites located right across the road from the Austin Convention Center. Other good food trailers to hit up year-round are Mighty Cone, Gourdough’s, Peach Tortilla, Flip Happy Crepes and Chi’lantro. There is something for everyone. Here is a guide and yes, there is even a cookbook of the food trucks in Austin, Trailer Food Diaries Cookbook: Austin Edition, Volume 1.
BBQ: Stubb’s Sunday Gospel Brunch (must get reservations), Iron Works (both on Red River, traditional style) or you can do Franklin’s trailer on east 11th (but be prepared to wait a few hours and you must get there by 9-10am before they sell out). Another option is Lambert’s which is a more upscale but one of my favorites. Get the garbanzo beans, delish! [note: I am a vegetarian so no actual BBQ for me]
Whole Foods Corporate HQ: Located at the corner of 6th and Lamar in the heart of downtown Austin, the Whole Foods flagship store at its corporate headquarter is like Disneyland for foodies. Very casual with several “restaurant” style cafes inside and every cuisine type imaginable. And, it even includes a bar complete with beer and wine too!
Things to do in Austin
Shop: Head down to “SoCo” (South Congress) to check out a wide selection of cowboy gear at Allen Boots, and a number of vintage shops and cool boutiques. Also check out the new 2nd street district.
Live Music: Almost every bar downtown will play live music of some sort 7 nights a week. Pick up a Chronicle (weekly free newspaper) at the airport or when you get to town to see who’s playing where – usually free or for a small cover charge. The most iconic locations are Continental Club on South Congress and Broken Spoke.
Great Outdoors: In March it’s a little too early to see the bats on Congress bridge (usually can be seen May-October) or going to Barton Springs Pool (which opens in April), but head down to the hike & bike trail on Lady Bird Lake where you can take a stroll or maybe even rent a kayak or paddle board. But if you don’t have time or it’s too cold (yes, it does get cold in Texas sometimes but not by Yankee standards), it’s just an excuse to come back and visit.
Downtown Austin Neighborhoods
6th Street – The area between Red River and Congress. It’s the touristy part of 6th street. On the weekends and during festivals, they shut down thru traffic and it turns into a mini Mardi Gras.
West 6th Street – Between Congress and Lamar you’ll find lots of young professionals and locals at places like the Ranch, Key Bar and J. Blacks.
Rainy Street – A new pocket of bars that has become extremely popular (near Red River and 1st Street), this neighborhood consists of a bunch of old houses turned into bars. Parking is a pain, so cab it or pedi-cab (bike taxis) for a great laid-back vibe and cozy atmosphere. Clive is my favorite restaurant in this area and if you go there G’rage m’jal Indian food trailer across the street is amazing. It’s BYOB and fresco/outdoor seating only but since it’s cold you can call in and pick up to take into Clive’s bar.
2nd Street – Be sure to walk by the ACL (Austin City Limits) theater on 2nd (aka honorary “Willie Nelson Blvd”) and see the Willie Nelson statue. There are good people watching from Trece bar at the W (attached to the ACL theater) or from one of the many patios along this busy street.
East 6th – If you’re feeling adventurous you can go out to bars east of I-35 but be prepared, it’s a little up-and-coming still. Here you’ll find cool dives bars and less tourists. And, yes, this is more the scene for local hipsters.
Share Your SXSW Austin Tips
So there you have it – the best of Austin and how to explore your way around the “Live Music Capitol of the World” during SXSW.
What are your best tips for the festival and city?