Do you know how to survive SXSW? 75,000 people are about to descend upon Austin, TX for SXSW, one of the world’s premier music, film and tech festivals. While SXSW is mostly known for its music festival, what really brings the money to Austin (and $350 million plus of it at that), is the Interactive portion, which draws a young audience of inventors, investors and risk takers looking for networking opportunities and the next big thing. At any given moment all over the city there are thousands of opportunities to learn, network, workshop and cultivate relationships. For 10 years now, I’ve been working for the Sales Department at the event, as a SXSW event photographer responsible for documenting the return on investment for their sponsors. It’s exhausting. It’s exhilarating. It’s incredibly fun. If you’re attending for the first time and looking for some answers on how to survive SXSW, I got you boo. Here’s the first of a two part series on how to survive SXSW like this pro.
1. PLAN, but only a little bit.
Plan, and then plan a little more, and then throw all those plans out the window because something better is going to come along. You have to be flexible.
SXSW did away with their official paper schedules a few years ago, which is unfortunate because honestly they were nice to have while the data is being bogged down by thousands of people or the wifi isn’t working. Now, the best thing you can do is go through the schedule ahead of time on the app and favorite the things you are interested in. For music, I spend hours while working every day the month before listening to SXSW Official Playlists and Staff Selections playlist and cross referencing and favoriting the artists I enjoy in the SXSW app ahead of time. That way, if I have nowhere to be and nothing specific I’m interested in, I can pull up the schedule and with one glance find something that once piqued my interest nearby.
For tech and conference must-dos, the haps can be found:
in the official schedule
in the twitterverse X-verse at #SXSW and #SXSW2024
Some of the best events happen during Interactive, where money is infused by major brands to create huge installations promoting various brands, shows, and new startups. The booze is usually flowing, the food is free, and the bands play starting on the very first day.
2. Cut Your Losses
Break all your plans. Follow serendipity. Don’t waste your time at an event or show that isn’t serving you.
SXSW has something for everyone. Sometimes that everyone they are targeting is not you. If a panel, event, show, or presentation isn’t helping you in the long run, or serving your SXSW goals, don’t be afraid to walk away and walk away quickly because next door might be Cheeselandia, or it might be the best podcast you’ve never heard of, or it might be a 11 piece brass band from Germany that does EDM covers. All of these things have happened to me. Explore the houses: there’s almost always a house for Australia, the German Haus, Amplify Philly, and the Michigan House, among others. At any given time of day you may meet a person, a band, or an interesting piece of technology there that has something to offer you.
3. Be AVAILABLE.
Network. Network. Network.
NEVER leave a great discussion with an awesome person for a panel. Take plenty of business cards and make sure to take notes on when, where and why you connected and then follow up afterward by email to keep those connections. Some of my best connections have been made at random events at SXSW, including people that would eventually come to hire me for their own future SXSW events and panels.
It’s easy to get into the trap of staring at your phone when you’re in a busy place and feeling alone, but if you make yourself available, stay off your screen, and introduce yourself to the people around you, I promise you’re going to find incredible value, possibly future job connections, and just perhaps, lifelong friendships. You never know if you don’t try.
4. Eat real food and drink real water.
You can only live on free booze for so long.
I know, the temptation is there. Especially during Interactive, there free booze seemingly around every corner. Make sure that you sneak a TON of water in there while you’re drinking all day, otherwise you’re going to crash and burn or be the only guy dancing badly by himself on the dancefloor at the tech party that night.
Also, eat food. Real food. When you can’t, always steal as many KIND bars as your bag will fit when you walk through the Stephen F Austin to get to the always enjoyable Film Happy Hour every day. There’s a happy hour for every location and every interest every day, I promise. But you gotta pace yourself and by that I mean eat food and drink water.
5. Plan a REST HOUR.
This actually ties in very nicely with the above suggestion. After happy hour every day, I plan an entire hour to sit down at a REAL meal at a REAL restaurant with REAL people and relax, have yet another glass of wine, and eat REAL food. It’s a way to get off your feet, calm down for a little bit before the chaos of the night, and give yourself a much needed reset. It’s also a way to make sure that you eat food and drink water. Being on your feet all day is incredibly exhausting and I assure you that I couldn’t get through the 10 days of the festival without this daily tradition.
If you’re there alone, make it a point to invite someone you networked with to dinner every day. Opentable and Resy are awesome for finding hidden gems nearby that have tables available at the perfect time, which I find to be 6:30 PM because nothing happens at SXSW between 6:30 and 8:00 PM.
Lauren Lindley is an Austin and Lake Tahoe based traveling event photographer. She has been photographing SXSW for 10 years. You can see previous posts on her SXSW experience here. Part 2 of How to Survive SXSW is coming up in mid Feb 2024.