I always heard about this super cool event called South by Southwest which happens once a year in the city of Austin, Texas. What I never imagined is that one day I’d move here and have the chance to experience it up close. But even being in the Austin metro area for almost one year, it took me a long time to decide attending the event.
In this post I’ll share my expectations, whether they were met and hopefully help you decide if SXSW is also for you.
What SXSW is all about
First timers may not immediately get what “South by” is about.
SXSW has 3 tracks: Film, Music and Interactive. I’m not a musician nor a filmmaker producing features or documentaries, and the purpose of the Interactive sessions was not black and white to me. I am a content producer (creating mainly web videos and travel articles & photos), social media enthusiast and I have a background in journalism. But when you check the schedule at their website, the amount of sessions, keynotes, showcases, etc, is overwhelming, making it sometimes hard to read beyond the day 1 program.
At the same time, I was decided to seize the opportunity (although buying the ticket a few days before the event would cost me hundreds of dollars more as if I had opted for the early bird back in September). I dedicated extensive time to research about the speakers and the sessions in all 3 tracks and narrowed down my choice between Film and Interactive.
In the end, I thought that Interactive would be a better choice for coders, designers, and other creative and tech professionals. Although some sessions truly cater to this crowd, there are other simultaneous presentations that I wish I could have seen, like the ones with Tim Ferriss and Charlene Li. For some reason I had the feeling that Interactive is the heart of SXSW, as the track joins people from multiple backgrounds, matching them with the top influencers in business and innovation.
Opting for Film was the right decision for me though. At least for this first year. Most of the sessions are really geared towards short & feature films and documentaries, but I could find some exciting presentations on content production and social media (remember that sometimes there’s a convergence, I mean, people from different tracks can join the same presentations).
Other sessions, despite the enticing title, ended up raising disappointing discussions. This was exactly how I would summarize my first days. I thought some of the presentations were really for beginners, and by the end of day 2 I started questioning whether SXSW was a good fit for me.
The turning point
Instead of regretting spending $700 bucks (which today would be almost double this value), I decided changing my approach. I knew that some of the top creative professionals were in town and actively participating at various events, so I just had to find them. That’s when I started focusing on networking.
I hand picked some mentor sessions where I could openly exchange ideas with top marketing experts and publicists (areas I wanted to further push my knowledge), joined several meetups with like-minded people, attended side events, cocktails and started picking sessions based on the speakers I wanted to meet, not necessarily the content they’d be talking about. And I made sure I personally met all of those I had selected.
The change was like night and day. In the middle of that chaos I even made new friends and we started hanging out together, helping each other. In the picture above for instance I’m with Cássia Martins, author of Born in Rio, who I met there.
That’s when I understood that SXSW is all about the connections, that’s what makes this event so unique. During the 10 days it lasts, downtown Austin becomes the most lively, vibrant and eclectic part of the USA. Several streets are closed for traffic in order to accommodate the visitors and Austinites who want to join in. And to fully benefit from SXSW, you must take advantage of that, you must let yourself have fun. By the end of week 2 I was totally exhausted, but very happy for having had the most productive time since my move to Texas.
Now, if you can’t afford or are not ready to buy a badge, don’t get discouraged. SXSW offers several events for free and open to the general public (just make sure you arrive 20-30 min beforehand to guarantee admission). Film lovers will also have plenty of options, as all movies have tickets for sale for $10. Keep in mind that priority seating is for badge holders followed by wristband holders (available uniquely to residents of the Austin metro area to attend movie screenings and concerts. More info here). But if the theater or event is empty, they’ll also distribute free tickets to whoever is passing by.
Planning for SXSW
With the event’s app, you can favorite those you’d like to see, then only select your favorites. It also makes it easy to see the location for each event (as not everything happens at the Convention Center), take organized notes from each and connect to relevant people.
Now, the CAP Metro app helps you with public transportation. You should avoid driving downtown for SXSW. With several streets closed, it’s almost impossible to find parking on streets. Those that offer parking have meters, and you may end up paying for less time than you will need, risking getting a ticket. You can definitely find parking lots, but the close ones cost $40 a day and the ones you will need to walk 5-10 min cost $20.
If you are staying downtown Austin, it’s worth considering Ride Austin (Uber and Lyft don’t operate in town).
But if you’re more than 5-8 miles away, I’d recommend checking the public transportation, especially if you’re coming from North Austin or the suburbs north of Austin. The reason is that in this case you can use the MetroRail, a reliable and relatively fast train which unfortunately has only one line. You escape the huge traffic jams caused by the event while only paying $27,50 for a weekly pass which allows you to ride as many times as you need. The app shows you the schedule, suggests stops and gives you the option to conveniently buy your electronic ticket.
South by Southwest: The verdict
This first experience was very worth it for me, but I’m not sure I’d go back. For next year I may consider getting the Interactive badge depending on who will the speakers be and on which projects I’ll personally be focused on. It’s a way of keeping up with the industry and the industry leaders by networking. At the same time, if all you want is knowledge, it may be worth reconsidering the event as today you can find everything online. You just need to know what you’re looking for.
Hope that helps! If you have also attended one or several previous editions of SXSW, I’d love to hear your impressions and learn with your experience. Maybe it was very different from mine, maybe it was similar. But it would be good to understand how different people from different backgrounds can benefit from such a massive exposure to content, networking, and fun.