Navigating SXSW like a boss

Every March, hundreds of thousands of innovators, techies, and creatives descend upon Austin, pumping hundreds of millions into the local economy, for what is known as: South by South West.

SXSW spans 10 days, and 3 separate ticketed events: Interactive, Music, and Film (which kind of weave into one another) + a bazillion off-SXSW events (read: you don’t need a ticket to attend!)

So what is this insanity that is SXSW? Professionals come to learn about the latest trends, to network, and to… PARTY! I asked on Twitter what SXSW is in one word; veterans Esteban Contreras’ choice word was meta and (ahem, cutie) Adam Wexler’s was marathon. The overwhelming response though, is always: overwhelming. So here I am, quasi-seasoned SXSW goer, trying to break it down for y’all.

First, what are your goals for attending SXSW? To me, forget about closing sales. I am there to spark interest (and follow up after), expand on existing relationships, and make new, meaningful connections.

Tip #1: Try to do some a lot of planning in advance

Nexalogy’s CEO likes to go to SXSW every year as he says you can do your whole year’s business there since everyone is there and every brand is represented.

Tip #1.1: Try to book your accommodation waaay in advance

Average nightly hotel rates for SXSW-booked rooms reached an all-time high of US$330 in 2015. Over the past five years the average rates during SXSW have increased 55% (an unsustainable pace frequently criticized by attendees). [Source]

The demand for accommodation way outweighs the supply during SXSW. Everywhere sells out even though prices get jacked up. So much so that locals put their caravans etc up for rent as well. In 2014 we booked the entire 2nd floor of a cute old couple’s house (which had 2 rooms) via Airbnb. It was a bit of a ways away (weren’t surprised to learn that we were only the 2nd guests that they had ever hosted), but this was the best we could find given that we booked last minute. They even left a full breakfast at our door every morning, and drove us into town everyday.

Last year, we booked a duplex via VRBO. There we 3 of us, and 3 beds in 2 rooms. Somewhat last minute, we rented out our couch (the entire first floor) to someone we knew, so it came up to US$100 per person per night – which is really cheap. It was in the wealthy neighbourhood of Travis Heights to boot, right across the lake from the Austin Convention Center. We went for runs by the lake (gorgeous!), and walked back across the bridge twice.

Haven’t found a place for this year? You’re bound to know someone who’s attending SXSW, or at least someone who knows someone who’s attending. Ask to rent their couch, else beg to crash on their floor.

And once SXSW 2016 ends, immediately book your accommodation for SXSW 2017! Personally, I would rent a massive bungalow; even if you can’t fill it immediately, you definitely can closer to the date, and for much more.

Tip #1.2: Schedule meetings in advance

Schedule meetings with current/prospective clients and partners in advance by milking your connections. Last year with Nexalogy, we compiled a “hit list” and checked if we had any 1st or 2nd degree connections at each company via LinkedIn. For example, we didn’t have anyone that could introduce us to someone at Spredfast, so, we showed up at their location, managed to speak to the right people, and were even treated to massages and manicures!

Tip #1.3: Sign up for events in advance

A lot of events require pre-registration, and tend to sell out (even if they’re free!). So do your research, and sign up to a bunch in advance. For Nexalogy, social and big data is our thing, so those were the type of events we signed up for. Colleagues were also forwarding us SXSW-related email invitations they were getting; I remember one from our vendor, Bitly, as well as a breakfast invite from another vendor, Simply Measured. So make sure your office is in the loop re: your plans to attend SXSW!

Where to find events online?

  • Eventbrite: do a search for SXSW, and a separate search for what you’re interested in, or what your company does. Personally, I would search: marketing, SaaS, data.
  • GarysGuide has a pretty extensive list of events in 2016
  • I found Sprinklr’s Ultimate Guide to SXSWi 2015 for Marketers pretty useful. And they have another one this year, woot!

Scour the interwebs for what you’d like to attend. Many things will overlap, and that’s ok. Sign up anyway and decide on the fly. That being said, don’t feel like you have to fill every single time slot.

Tip #2: Leave room for serendipity

IMG_8536In 2014, we ran into someone that my CEO met briefly on the set of HBO’s Silicon Valley, and he brought us along with him to a party at Techstars. We also heard from this CEO’s rabbi cousin (who attends SXSW every year!) that the Mashable party is the party to go to. We went. Skipped a line that went for eternity. And ran into all sorts of Canadian cool cats: Ethan and Hicham of Frank & Oak, Greg of 5by (acquired by StumbleUpon), Maeghan of PasswordBox (acquired by Intel), etc.

In 2015, while at Sprinklr’s penthouse party (which we somewhat crashed), I got invited to a screening/premiere of a film featuring a Hollywood A-lister (though I couldn’t attend because I had a flight to catch). Also, as per tip #1.2, I had signed up for a Digital LA meetup. They had 1-2 tables in a crowded bar, and a turnout of 10+ people. Among these people though was Joel Gascoigne, CEO of Buffer. At the time, Buffer was a team of 30. Now, they’re 80, and Joel and I remain in touch.

“… SXSW brings swarms of influential people together in one place at one time. That many like-minded people in one place yields huge opportunities.”

– Pigeons & Planes

On a more frivolous note, here are some more chance encounters:

In 2014, I caught Grumpy Cat at the Mashable House, happened to walk by a grown up Success Kid at Marriott, and ran into Ray from Girls as well as Guillermo on Dirty 6th.

In 2015, I caught YouTube star Tyler Oakley, Shiri Appleby and Taystee from OITB at the Samsung Blogger Lounge, saw the Twinsters on the street, and Taystee again at a party at the WeDC House.

Tip #3: Don’t do any marketing

(Unless you have tons of dough)

In 2014 when I went with Brandicted, we were super ambitious. We had planned to launch at SXSW’s first edition of Release It, have a booth at the trade show, and execute a guerilla marketing campaign. To save $ and not have to fly more people over, I turned to Craigslist for help, and interviewed candidates over Skype. We were looking to hire a street team, as well as someone to man the trade show booth. The latter worked out extremely well, but the former, not so much.

The street team was less enthusiastic than I would have liked, so in hindsight, I should maybe have gone through a talent agency with a repertoire of brand ambassador-type people, even though that would have cost more. Also, the streets of Austin are flocked with people doing the same, so it’s very hard to stand out. Many of whom are throwing freebies at passerby’s, making it even harder to compete. A memorable example is the Samsung team taking your (Samsung) phone’s battery and replacing it with one that is fully charged.


Another memorable activation was dot matrix skywriting on March 14th aka Pi Day, spelling out 3.14… It wasn’t clear to me who was behind it at the time, which was kind of refreshing. #advertisingfatigue But in prepping this blogpost I found out that it was – so if you have tons of $ to blow…

I know a company who’s spent a lot of money at SXSW, 2 years in a row. One year they had a marching band, a we’ll-stand-in-line-for-you service (there are lines everywhere at SXSW), etc, but I don’t think it was very successful i.e. I don’t think they had a huge spike in app downloads. Everyone is marketing. People are overwhelmed.

(Here’s how Twitter did it with $11,000 in 2007)

Tip #4: Jack be nimble

Pack light. Leave extra room in your suitcase for all the swag you’ll collect, or bring a foldable duffel bag. You don’t even have to bring any t-shirts – you’ll get a ton.

Don’t carry around your laptop. The extra weight will wear you out by the end of the day. The Austin Convention Center has desktops you can use, else you can always use your phone or tablet.

Tip #5: Rest up

Before SXSW, and during. Have downtime. The PayPal Lounge in the Austin Convention Center is a good place for that, with wifi and free and good coffee. The Samsung Blogger Lounge is a good place as well, with wifi, a free juice bar, and celebrity panels. Or, book a nap. Both years I went, I was out of the house by 8/9am, and only back at 1am or so. Though a lot of the action happens at night, so you can actually get a later start on the day, and go past 1am.

Tip #6: HAVE FUN!

I think one of the reasons SXSW is so popular is because it’s a mix of fun and work.

The Mashable House and Spotify House always have something fun going on. As mentioned, I met Grumpy Cat at the Mashable House in 2014 – they always have great activations. Last year they had a giant wrecking ball (à la Miley Cryus) that you could actually climb onto!

I caught Chromeo at Fader Fort in 2014 (yes I came all the way from Montreal to Austin to catch a Montreal band), and Snoop Dogg (ish) at the Spotify House. I had planned to catch Stromae at the Spotify House last year, but I think I got caught up in a meeting. #workfirst

First time in Austin? Or do you have a bit more time before/after SXSW? BuzzFeed has a great list of 35 things you should do in Austin. The Nexalogy team and I did #3 last year: see 1.5 million Mexican Free-Tailed Bats emerge from underneath the Congress Bridge at dusk, and I highly recommend it. It was a nice experience to share together, amongst other fun, team building activities we did:

Here’s some fun things to do at SXSW this year (without a badge!):

Last few quick tips:

  • Have fruit and veg any chance you get. Austin is BBQ heaven, but you’ll soon get sick of all that fried food. 🍏 🍎 🍐 🍊 🍋 🍌 🍉 🍇 🍓 🍈 🍒 🍑 🍍 🍅 🍆 🌽 🍠
  • Don’t spend any $ on food/drink – you can eat and drink for free at most, if not all of these events and locations. Or, follow @thefreenoms on Twitter.
  • Quality > quantity. There’s no point collecting tons of business cards “to follow up after” if you didn’t have a meaningful connection. Slow down, be genuine, and have a thoughtful conversation.
  • Be shameless (Seems like this is a recurring tip: How I went on 17 trips in 2015 while working full-time) Ex: that Sprinklr penthouse party I mentioned that we “somewhat crashed”? I had met someone from Sprinklr briefly, and he mentioned “We’re having a party on X day, you should come”, just like how folks say “Yeah! We should catch up”. Well, I showed up. With 2 colleagues in tow + no official invitation and our names not on the guestlist. 😛
  • Have CHIPOTLE! #murica

Never been to SXSW? And/or always wanted to? You totally can without breaking the bank, without purchasing a US$600 – $1,600 ticket. I didn’t have a ticket last year, and when I did in 2014, I only caught 1 talk!

  • Only spend on flight and accommodation (eat and drink for free!). Odds are you know someone who’s attending SXSW, or at least someone who knows someone who’s attending. Ask to rent their couch, else beg to crash on their floor, or beg the Bates Motel to let you in.
  • Hang around the lobby in the Austin Convention Center where there’s tables, wifi, and many connections to be made.
  • Hang around the Austin Convention Center, 6th Street, Rainey Street, Red River… where there’s something going on everywhere you turn.
  • If you’re based in Quebec, you can get discounted tickets through l’AAPQ, LOJIQ, or Planete Québec.

Not gonna lie, all this planning is a pain in the butt; here’s what my itinerary looked like last year. At SXSW there’s massive FOMO with so much going on, concurrently. It’s hard to stay on top of everything, especially all the top-secret, elite insider parties. You can try following this Twitter list I curated, but either way, have a rough itinerary and don’t sweat it if you don’t make it to everything!

T-minus 10 days. Listen to this SXSW 2016 playlist on Spotify to get you pumped up!


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