Conference Conundrums: SXSW Tips for Beginners

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A man dressed as a space bug does the Macarena. A couple walk past gnawing at hunks of meat that any caveman would be proud to bring home. A robot plays space invader.

 In your jet-lagged, sensory-overloaded daze, you might wonder how you ended up here. Or for that matter, where you’re headed. And with these slippery thoughts swirling about, it happens. You cross the invisible threshold and pass into Austin’s downtown. With the appearance of the conference centre, you’ve reached the SXSW event horizon. There’s no stopping now, as you and your fellow somnambulists are reeled in by the allure of strange, new things.

It’s a month on from SXSW, and we’re reflecting on the experience as a first-timer: the ‘do’s’, the ‘don’ts’, and the ‘we’re still not sure’s’.

Queue travel montage / time warp.

Agency Tour Conundrum #1: To fly with the colleagues, or not to fly with the colleagues?

Flying from Sydney to Los Angeles is always a disconcerting experience. To spend close to fourteen hours in transit, and yet land four hours before you departed (according to your watch), leaves you feeling a little like Marty McFly.

 Having booked our flights separately, I found myself sitting apart from my colleagues.

 The Pro’s:

— 14 hours of me time. Watch that doco. Read that book. Take a nap or two.

— No chance of falling asleep on your workmate’s shoulder. That means no sleep drooling and no awkward sleeping-face photos to be circulated around the office.

 The Con’s:

— You could, and I did, get smooshed between two strangers. We’re talking zero elbow room. Zip.

— You miss out on cool stuff like the Inaugural American Airlines Chess Championship.

So, what would you choose?

Agency Tour Conundrum #2: Regimented schedules vs. winging it

Did you know that at SXSW 2018 almost 5,000 speakers participated at over 2,100 sessions, with 569 musical acts playing across the city? To the person who wants it all, all the time… not going to happen. What you can do is do your research, lay out your top events and start strategising. And your first port of call should be downloading the SXSW app.

This year, SXSW issued SXXPress passes that become available at 9am and give you priority entry to events – if you can get them in time. Our record was securing 2 for the one day. So pro tip: set an alarm for 8:58am every day and get those fingers feeling dextrous.

Even with meticulous planning, you’re probably not going to be able to make it to everything that you want to. SXSW FOMO is real, folks.

The trick? Plan, but don’t be afraid of being dragged off course by other shiny things. Keep an eye on the daily newsletter and your social media to stay on top of any late announcements.

Agency Tour Conundrum #3: Nerdy Norming vs. Peacocking

Austin is one cool city, with a strange infatuation for all things Horror. From free horror book-swap booths to gargoyles in burger bars, they’re down with their Prince(ss) of Darkness vibe. Put this with the world’s top creatives who have flown in from all over the world, and you have one hell of a fashion show on display.

So. Do you make your mark?

Queues to get into the major conference halls stretch the length of the conference centre. Then down the fire stairs. Then the length of the conference centre again. And, if you’re really unlucky, you’ll be down another floor again. Probably shouldn’t have stopped for that coffee on the way. Same rules go for music and film. So unless you’ve nailed your SXXPress pass, you’re going to be  on your feet for hours at a time.

In this instance, we’d recommend going with the Bauhaus mantra “Form follows function”. No good looking like a peacock now if you can’t shake your feathers on the dance floor later. Choose sneakers, not stilettos.

Agency Tour Conundrum #4: How much fun is too much fun?

Speaking of dancing shoes.

Now this one is a tough one. It’s all well and good to set yourself limits and bed-times. Sleep is great, and you’ll need it to get through the conference in one piece. But when you find yourself surrounded by a group of people whose drinks have been spiked with the limitless potential of human creativity throughout day, choosing home can feel like a cop-out.

Keep it under control for the first night. That’s where the real damage is done to first-timers (and yes, we’re speaking from experience here). Many of the main events and keynotes are held on the second day and sitting in a conference hall for 4 hours is definitely not a hangover cure.

Agency Tour Conundrum #5: Sharpen up those scooter skills.

There were literally thousands of electric scooters at SXSW 2019, with heavy-hitters like Lyft, Uber, Lime and Bird all trying to cut themselves in on the action.

Alternately described as a “scooterpocalypse” or “the greatest thing that has ever happened to mankind” by our colleague Craig, these death machines were definitely divisive. After holding out for a mere 24 hours, the Haimat team were all-aboard and clocking max speeds of 17mph down 6th street.

The verdict? Say yes to the scooter, and make sure you have the apps downloaded and ready to rumble.

What would we change for next time?

  1. Make sure you bring matching denim jackets with matching, sequinned team names on the back (we’re tossing up @BreakTechSpeed for 2020. And yes, we are open for membership applications).
  2. Covering most of Austin’s downtown, SXSW is a big event with lots of things to see and do. Don’t waste your time being a plebestrian.

Agency Tour Conundrum #6: Separate ways vs. Keeping the dream team together

It’s your first SXSW experience. The lights are bright, the people are colourful, and everything smells like barbecue. It’s natural to want to koala-hug your closest colleague and softly whisper “Never leave me” in their ear.

But sweet child, the time has come to make your own way. If you’re lucky enough to be travelling in a cohort, the best thing that you can do is go your separate ways. Pincer manoeuvre the hell out of the conference. Divide those conferences up, and conquer that knowledge. Riding solo, you’re also more likely to meet a ton of new, interesting people from across the world.

That just about brings to a close the conference conundrums chapter of our agency diary. Our top tips for first time SXSW attendees:

  • Sit with your colleagues on the plane. You know what you’re getting, and you could be Chess Master 2020.
  • Planning is key, but don’t be afraid to let the moment call the shots. Keep your eye on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter #sxsw tags as well as your SXSW email newsletter to make sure you’re on top of any new additions and conference announcements.
  • Get those sneakers on. Pull your corduroys up high. Maybe tuck that shirt in if you’re feeling funky. But most of all, get comfy – because odds are, you’re going to be here for a while.
  • Pace yourself, young padawan. Enough said.
  • Kick Push Motor your way to SXSW fulfilment.
  • Divide and conquer.

Extra tips for the keenest beans:

  • Book your accommodation early. Really. Early. Lots of people. Limited space. Supply and demand. You get the picture.
  • LAX airport is… tricky… at the best of times. Give yourself plenty of time to make that connecting flight, especially if you are among the first flights to land. Speaking from experience, we spent an hour and a half just getting through customs (and that was with an express pass).
  • Pick up your SXSW pass the day before to avoid those classic conference queues.
  • The food truck scene in Austin is EPIC. Do yourself (but maybe not your body) a favour and get a Turkey leg on one of your low days. I’ll say this: Turkeys NEVER skip leg day.

If you have any questions or comments, we want to hear from you! Get in touch with us here to chat about digital marketing, unicorns, or how to join the 2020 Scooter team.

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