How to Maximize your SXSW Experience

March 4th, 2013

It’s that time of year again!  SXSW Music starts next week and I’m already getting pumped.  In honor of my 5th year attending the conference (yes, we all know people that have been going for way longer, but 5 years isn’t bad!), I thought I’d pass on some tips for sxsw newbies.


Plan in advance!

Don’t wait until you get to Austin to start planning your schedule.  Every year, starting probably 2-3 weeks before the conference, I create a word doc and write out all the shows/panels/parties/etc that I want to attend.  A new feature – SXSW now let’s registered attendees customize their schedule online.  You select what shows/panels you want to attend and the website puts together a schedule for you, which can be integrated in your ical (or whatever you use).  It isn’t perfect – I would love to be able to add customized events, like meetings, private parties and unofficial events – but I’m giving it a try (in addition to my word doc).


How to make a SXSW schedule:


  • Write down all events that you are interested in, even if they conflict. – You probably won’t make half of them, but you don’t want to rely your schedule on making one event.  Plus, if you don’t know the Austin area well, you may end up far away from the event you thought you’d attend but close to another great one.
  • Include all necessary details. – You will most likely never look at the flyer/invite again so write down everything you need to know now, including time/date, location, name of party, and maybe a reminder if you’ve rsvped already or if there will be free food/drinks (never underestimate the importance of a breakfast taco at SXSW).
  • Mix it up. – There to check out music and party? Look into panels that might interest you or the trade show (there was a great indie designer market last year open to the public).  Only focussed on networking? Go to some parties that also include live music and free food/drinks.  The point – don’t only focus on one type of event.  SXSW has so much to offer; you may be surprised at what you find most valuable.
  • Print it (multiple times) / Email it / Save it to all devices.  Your phone will die, you will lose your first copy or give it to a friend, you won’t have reception.  Make sure to print physical copies of the schedule and also keep a back up online somewhere and easily accessible on your mobile devices.  If you really have a lot of time (or an intern), save it all in your online calendar.

How to find events:

  • Start with the official SXSW events. – Know that if you don’t have a badge, you probably won’t be able to go to these.
  • Like the ‘Unofficial SXSW Guide’ on Facebook and check out the parties they list. – Non-badge friendly!
  • Check out this list.
  • If you’re there for the music, check out your favorite artists’ website or track Austin that week on Songkick.  Most shows aren’t officially through the conference, so you can see tons of music that isn’t listed on the official website.
  • Ask your friends/colleagues for their schedule or if they recommend any bands, events, etc.


Be realistic about your schedule:  You will not follow it.

So now you’ve made a detailed schedule and mapped out what you’ll be doing every minute from 9 am to 2 am every day of the festival? Perfect!  Now you’re not going to follow it.

Use your schedule as a reference.

Don’t get too caught up in following your schedule perfectly.  Start each day with 2 – 3 events that you definitely want to attend and begin like you will do them.  See where your other listed events logically fit in between as the day continues.  Location, scheduling, and who you run into at events will affect the rest of your day.  Don’t be afraid to veer off your plan and head with a friend to something they have scheduled.  That’s the best way to discover great music, food, people, and networking.  If you have a buddy with you, make sure you take time to do your own thing if you want to see something different than them.  Flying solo is one of the best ways to meet people in general.  If at the end of the day, you only made your first ‘planned’ event, don’t be upset at yourself.  There’s always tomorrow to catch that informative panel or take advantage of free BBQ.  Plus, you probably had a better day by being spontaneous and not forcing yourself to attend things that didn’t make sense in the moment.

Listen to your body.

SXSW is exhausting! That fact will never change but don’t kill yourself or change who you are.  If you’ve never been a morning person, this isn’t the time to assume you’ll be making an 8:30 am panel or coffee meeting.  If you like a lot of sleep (like me), don’t spend the first couple nights at shows until 2 am.  I was so proud of myself that last year I was in bed by midnight for the first two nights.  I felt refreshed during the next days and wasn’t completely burnt out by the weekend.  Make sure to eat properly and regularly (free breakfast tacos are awesome only if they’re not your only full meal of the day), drink lots of water (watery beer does not count), wear sunscreen, and take naps/downtime when you have a lull in the action.

And a word on packing….

Every year I bring lots of work out clothes because I seriously think I’m going to use the hotel gym every day. It doesn’t happen.  Don’t overpack or bring things you will never wear.  If you’re a gym-rat, assume you will go once on the first day you arrive and never again.  Check the weather before you leave.  One year I brought all the usual sundresses, shorts, and sandals and it was colder than in New York.  I spent the whole trip in the one pair of jeans I brought and my winter coat I never thought I would need after I got on the plane.  Even if you have meetings and/or are an attorney, you will not wear a suit at SXSW.  Don’t forget sunglasses (or a cute hat if you’re a hat-person).  The sun gets brutal.


Schedule meetings strategically.

This year I’m trying something new.  Rather than scheduling meetings and then planning my event schedule around them.  I’m planning meetings around my schedule (or things I know I always attend/definitely will go).  Last year, I had a bunch of random meetings through SXSW Social.  Unfortunately, I kept having to change them around because my must-attend events conflicted.  This year, I’m looking at where I’ll definitely be and planning meetings around those times/locations.

Also – feel free to mix business and your scheduled events.  If there’s a friendly contact that you want to reconnect with at SXSW but don’t necessarily need a formal ‘meeting’ environment, suggest that you attend a showcase or party together.  That way, you won’t have to miss checking out the great band you wanted to see or supporting a colleague’s showcase, and you can also have some hang time with your contact.  People go to SXSW to network, so your contact will appreciate you introducing them to whoever you came to see at the event.


Bring a phone charger wherever you go. 

You will need it.  And you will meet more people through it.  The phone charger is a great networking ice-breaker.  Someone may ask to borrow it and then they’re bound to talk to you or at least buy you a drink. Power outlets also end up being a good social hang out area (especially if you’re flying solo and awkward) where you are forced to talk to other people because you can’t distract yourself with a mobile device.


Take a minute to listen to the music.

I cannot stress this enough.  Yes, I’m also often irritated by the people who attend SXSW just to party and see shows (this is a conference after all!) but don’t over-focus on the business side.  We work in music because we love it.  Use SXSW as an opportunity to reconnect with your love of music. Discover new things.  Don’t just talk at a party or play Words with Friends on your phone while waiting in line for a beer – listen to the band playing.  Every year I discover at least one new incredible artist.  An artist that I go home excited about and immediately start exploring their catalog of music, social media, etc.  An artist whose music changes my outlook on life.  You really can find this at SXSW amidst the thousands of bands playing, just be open to it.


Follow Up.

It’s Monday morning after SXSW.  You’re exhausted, dehydrated, sunburnt, and have 300 unread emails in your inbox….

First, drink some water, sleep, respond to urgent matters, and call your mom so she knows you survived.

Then, make a pile of all of the business cards you collected at SXSW.  Divide this into 2-3 sub-piles: (1) the people you met and actually had a conversation with that are ideal business connections, collaborators, friends, etc., (2) the people you met but didn’t really speak to long but seemed like they could be a good connect, and (3) people that gave you their card when you didn’t want it or did something to offend you during the course of your conversation with them.

During the first couple days after SXSW - 

Write everyone in pile 1 a personal email.  Subtly remind them how you met and ways that you might be able to work together.  Be specific and follow up on your conversation.  If you had told them about a great restaurant in Brooklyn, send them the info.  If you suggested that they would find an industry organization valuable, remind them of the details and invite them to join you at an event.  Suggest that you get coffee or lunch once the post-SXSW craziness has died down.  Actually get coffee or lunch once the post-SXSW craziness has died down.

Within 2 weeks after SXSW

Send a brief note to everyone in pile two.  Yes, you can write the type of detailed email that you send to the Pile 1-ers, but I usually am swamped with work and don’t have enough time post-SXSW to do it.  In this brief note, remind them of who you are and where you met (if you remember).   Remind them of what you do and how you might be able to work together, complement what they do.  Give them your contact info.

Throw away the business cards in Pile 3.

Or if you’re an office-hoarder, put them in a drawer and never look at them again.  Trust your instincts – if you didn’t love meeting someone the first time, you probably won’t want to connect with them again.  If they email you first, of course respond, but protect yourself and move forward in the relationship cautiously if you felt that they were creepy/unprofessional (it happens).

Listen to all the great new music you discovered!


Have fun!

And let me know what you’re up to down there – I’m putting together my schedule now and would love to meet up or check out your showcase/event!  My email is