Everything I Wish I'd Been Told Before My First SXSW Adventure

sxswSee those big bottles of wine? They weren’t as appealing after five nights of open bars.

Yesterday I returned home from my first-ever trip to South by Southwest. Life today is a blur. It’s hard to think about much else besides sleep and coffee — and maybe a breakfast taco.

As a SXSW first-timer, I thought I went prepared. I checked the weather and noted a 30 degree swing from Friday to Monday so I packed shorts, hoodies and umbrellas.

I knew I’d be both partying and sitting on panels, so I packed professional attire and jeans.

Last week I spent my nights resting to prepare for inevitable late SXSW nights. I also brought multiple chargers and a big bag for toting my lap top around Austin.

My hotel was a 10 minute drive from the conference, so I purchased a $70 R&R shuttle service and scheduled R&R limousine airport pickup and drop-off.

And I, who never carry cash, took out $300.

Surely I was prepared.

I was not.

There are a few things I wish I had been told to maximise the experience.

As soon as you know you're attending SXSW, book a hotel room.

Hotel rooms were completely sold out for SXSW's interactive portion in early December.

That made it pretty difficult to book a hotel when when I tried in January. Luckily I was speaking on a panel so SXSW hooked me up.

The second you know you'll be attending, go on SXSW's site and register for housing.

Try as hard as you can to get a hotel within walking distance of the convention centre.

My hotel, Omni Southpark, was beautiful but it was a 10 minute drive from the convention centre. I spent every day wondering how and if I would make it back to the hotel.

There are only 700 cabs in Austin and SXSW has 30,000 attendees; I wasn't able to go back to my hotel in between panels. I left my hotel by 10 AM every day and did not return home until 2 AM -- I had a laptop on my arm the entire time (SXSW needs some gym lockers).

Austin is a city of pedicabs, but a pedicab isn't going to get you over the highway. Uber hasn't launched in Austin yet either.

If you have to stay driving distance from the convention centre, don't buy an R&R Limousine shuttle pass.

SXSW pushes R&R Limousine's shuttle service to attendees because it is the official transportation sponsor of the event. Don't fall for it.

The pass costs $70 for five days or $20 per ride. But it doesn't operate on a set schedule. It will roll up to your hotel when and if it feels like it.

The service says to expect the shuttle every '30-45 minutes'; It also warns people not to waste the company's time calling if you don't see an R&R shuttle.

I magically caught the shuttle service three times while in Austin. The other times I bummed a ride or shared a cab with other attendees.

Carry a phone charger with you at all times.

You'll be on your phone all day at SXSW making plans with people, swapping numbers, stalking attendees on Highlight, and using Google Maps to navigate Austin.

The battery drains quickly. Many people carried their iPhones in Mophie charger cases to give their devices extra juice.

There are many panels and most of them are poor.

Unlike TechCrunch Disrupt or Ignition:Media where most of the panels are worth attending, time at SXSW is better spent partying than listening.

First, there are too many panels scheduled and they are spread out all over Austin. They're not just held in the convention centre; they're also held in surrounding hotels which means you have to hike to them.

At least 20 panels are in session at the same time and at least 100 panels are scheduled per day. Sifting through the list on SXSW's site to find the gems is at least an hour-long process.

In many cases, panels were poor. Audience members felt they were smarter than panelists. Keynote speakers weren't big tech names either.

The best panel I watched was an interview with Pinterest co-founder Ben Silbermann and angel investor Chris Dixon. Dennis Crowley and MG Siegler were good, too. Other than those, I didn't extract value from panels.

Do not feel like you have to attend everything.

Attending everything SXSW has to offer is impossible. Attending every party you're invited to is also impossible.

I tried. This is what I accomplished:

  • Friday: Attend AOL Ventures and Beachmint's parties.
  • Saturday: Attend panels, SecondMarket, IVP and Turntables parties.
  • Sunday: Speak on panel, grab lunch with Stamped, crash Gawker, Foursquare, and Path parties
  • Monday: Attend panels, grab lunch with investors, see Jay-Z perform live, crash Rapture and GroupMe parties.
  • Tuesday: Attend panels, attend Turntable dinner, go to General Assembly event
  • Wednesday: Wake up at 3:45 AM for flight home, unlock Foursquare's 'School Night' badge for being 'out after 3:00' during the work week.

There's a lot more that I wasn't able to fit in.

Stick to one or two events that you've pre-planned with friends. It's also OK to take a night off. I didn't do this, but I wish I had.

It's an incredible networking opportunity.

I was told this before I left, but it's even more true than I thought.

You will find yourself hanging out with many of the same people you knew before SXSW. Consider them your party crew. But once at the party, it's easy to meet other people, and many of them are worth getting to know.

I met many people in person whose faces I've plastered on SAI. A lot of influential tech people attend SXSW, and it's easier to interact with them there than anywhere else.

Sean Parker was 4 feet from me and if I had been braver I could have said hi. I've never had an experience like that -- where everyone is accessible.

Open bars are a blessing and a curse

They're a blessing at night and a curse in the morning. And after five evenings straight of open bars, free booze loses its luster.

It's important to pace yourself and stay hydrated so you have enough energy to last the week.

There are a lot of dudes.

This is intuitive, but really -- there are an absurd amount of men at SXSW.

One startup party I attended hired 40 women from UT-Austin so the ratio of men to women would be better. It didn't make a difference.

Three days is all you need at SXSW. Four tops.

I stayed for five days and I was practically skipping out of the hotel.

Tuesday morning would have been an appropriate time to leave (I arrived Friday afternoon).

But bottom line: SXSW is a blast.

Austin is a fun town with a lot to do. No matter how much you plan before you go, everything will change once you're there.

Go with the flow, stay hydrated, and enjoy the warm weather. Overall, it's an amazing and fun experience.

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