Your SXSW Survival Guide

For the first time in 10 years, the lead-up to SXSW is, well, quiet. The usual influx of party invitations, Twitter stream inundation and press speculation around what’s going to be this year’s “breakout app” just hasn’t happened. Perhaps it’s because March is creeping up on us, having SXSW start earlier than usual. Or maybe the signal vs. noise ratio finally exploded, making this year’s festival not that appealing to old-timers like myself. (In fact, many bastions of the “old guard,” us veterans who have been going since 2002, are sitting this year out. And gloating about it, those lucky bastards.) Whatever the reason, I welcome the silence. (And hope I didn’t just jinx us by posting this a week out.)

That said, as one of these aforementioned SXSW veterans, I feel I’ve earned the title of our company’s SXSW Seer. It’s a badge of honor after not just seeing, but (barely) surviving the rise of this behemoth of a festival, the onslaught of the large brands, and the absolute chaos that 10 days in Austin during the world’s largest music, interactive and film festival brings. And trust me. It’s been brought.

But despite the (relative) calm before the (unavoidable) South-By storm, if you’re going, I urge you – no, I implore you (and not just because I don’t have nearly enough chances to use that word) — to prepare. It’s a crazy few days, kids, and The More You Know…well, just think of those late-80s PSAs you’d see on TV*. Consider this my personal SXSW Public Service Announcement, just minus Phylicia Rashad looking all earnest as she tells you to stay away from drugs. Oh, and with more “colorful” language.

Pack for the worst (and hope for the best). Last year’s weather was exceptionally craptastic; branding winners were GroupMe with their rain ponchos to help fend off three days of downpours. (Good job, BrewPR team!) Bring a sweater, a warm coat, and an umbrella. That said, keep an eye on Weather Underground (they forecast two weeks out) and pack for changeable elements; it can be 40 degrees one day and 75 the next. Bring extra sunglasses. Warby Parker’s are my fave.

Take a night off. Especially helpful for (insane) people like me who are staying all 10 days. Pick your night, turn off your phone, and SLEEP. You’ll need it.

Pace yourself. The thing about Austin is that it’s cheap. Beer? $2.50. Wine isn’t too much more, and I’ve heard (read: know first-hand) that Iron Cactus makes a mean marg. But nights are long and we’re not as young as we once were. (DAMN IT.) Take your time, drink water between your (free) drinks and you’ll thank me later.

F*ck FOMO. The only thing you’ll be missing out on by skipping that “hot” party with the gigantic line is serendipity. Grab your friends and head across the street to the dodgy bar with the mechanical bull or the one next door that has scantily clad waitresses in bikinis serving shots. (I believe it has a misnomer of a name like ‘Bikinis.’) My favorite night last year was surrounded by old and new friends in that aforementioned half-empty bar, catching up and having a blast. Make that memory.

Grab a friend and go off-grid. Last year, during Rainmaggedon, a friend and I ducked out of an afternoon event and propped ourselves at the Driskill bar, holding court for hours. Through the course of the afternoon – and without sharing on social media – other friends came through and joined us for a hello, a drink, a bite to eat. It resulted in an afternoon full of unexpected conversations, and I ended up meeting one of my dearest friends that day. I can’t imagine if I had stayed at the soggy CNN Grill instead.

A few more tips that I shared last year that still hold true.

  • Don’t wear your company’s brand on your shirt every day. Makes you look ridiculous.
  • Spend time with someone new. And if that happens to be at 4am in your room at the Hilton, go rock that. Kissing yields serotonin, and serotonin kills hangovers. (I have no idea if that’s true, but I’m going with it.)
  • Exercise. Do it. There’s a running trail around Lady Bird Lake and likely an (empty) gym at your hotel. Even if you’re exhausted, a 30-minute workout will rejuvenate you.
  • Say hello to a stranger on the street. Find out their story. Share yours. That’s what SXSW is all about. And I promise you, it’s not that hard.***

And for you event planners out there, a few last-minute, time (or event!)-saving suggestions:

  • Get there early. It’s likely too late for you this year if you’ve decided to arrive for Saturday, but consider this your suggestion for next year: If you’re throwing an event during the weekend, arrive well in advance. That one day of calm will do wonders for your sanity.
  • Buy a cheap desktop printer and have it shipped to the hotel. This $60 will save you many times over.
  • Check on deliveries. The Hilton charges you for each box you send; most others don’t, but a phone call to double-check may save you hundreds.
  • TaskRabbits are your friends. You think you’ve got it covered; but inevitably, your founder loses his iPhone in a cab (*cough* KRose *cough*), your camera breaks, or the band decides to get creative on their Rider. Having an extra set of hands is worth every penny.
  • Weather insurance. GET IT. Cover your food/beverage deposit at the very least; if it rains, people hibernate inside and you’ll be out thousands of dollars.
  • For you ladies, get a blowout at Joie de Vie salon. $40. Lasts two days. One less thing to stress about when you’re running around trying to locate your drunken CEO.
  • Buy your entire team Mophie battery packs. And with the new iPhone 5 cables, get a few extras of those just in case.
  • Wine. Ship yourself a case to the hotel. You’re welcome.
  • Advil. THE BIG BOTTLE. And if you’re lucky enough to have someone coming from Europe – or hell, know how to use the Interwebs – get some Berocca. This magical Vitamin B-laden hangover prevention from Europe will SAVE YOU.

I don’t want to make light of this; SXSW is a lot. You’ll likely feel pulled in many directions. You’ll miss meeting up with someone you wanted to see, but will run into someone completely unexpected. You’ll ignore half of my advice but the experience you had was completely worth it. I’m a firm believer in preparing, and at least now you know.****


*Who am I kidding? Most of y’all were two when these came out. And yet I still date you…

**But not mine. You should totally come to mine. For reals.

*** Basically, I just wanted a “That’s What She Said” reference in this post.

****And knowing is half the battle! GI JOE! (Yes, I watched boys’ after-school cartoons. What of it?)

Aubrey Sabala has been going to SXSW since 2002, and has pictures that most of the founders of tech’s largest companies would never want resurfacing. Then again, she doesn’t either. Her company, Sailthru, and Automattic are throwing a party at Stubb’s to benefit charity:water on Sunday, March 10. You should come. And follow her on Twitter @aubs.

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