Once a year, the streets of Austin, Texas are swarmed with the creative and technologically savvy. South by Southwest, or SXSW for those in the know, is like San Diego Comic Con, minus the cosplay and comic book vendors. Like San Diego Comic Con and New York Comic Con, the entire city gets involved in the fun. The event sprawls across multiple hotels and a couple convention centers. It is impossible to take everything in, even with a full week under your belt.
SXSW is divided into three separate festivals, all under the SXSW heading. These are the Interactive, Film Festival, and Music Festival. Interactive, the newest of the party siblings starts off SXSW itself. Film finds itself in between, and running through the Music Festival. This allows attendees to choose the type they want to attend.
In addition to this, all of Austin has things to do without a badge and discounts for SXSW participants. Here is a breakdown of the 2016 festivities and some suggestions on how to handle your first SXSW experience.
- The Preacher exhibit from AMC was simple, but amazing. Featuring an upside-down church atop a pile of rubble, two giant video screens and a church welcome sign greeted visitors. The rubble and dirt gave the feel of visiting West Texas after something cataclysmic. Fans were given a chance to collect a special Preacher portable charger when they took a photograph with the church and uploaded it to Twitter and Instagram. I have mine on my desk.
- The F*Society Carnival from Mr. Robot and USA Network was fantastic. Fans could have a t-shirt made, take a picture in an F*Society mask, ride a giant Ferris Wheel, or just hang out playing skeeball and old school arcade games in the hacker lounge. For fans with good eyes, a business window across the street even featured an E Corp logo.
- The Fargo Waffle Truck was a popular site, but then again who wouldn’t be all over free waffles? With the slogan “Waffles worth dying for” it was hard not to argue. The Waffle Truck traveled around Austin during the weekend dispensing waffles to those willing to wait in line.
- People watching is one of the best parts of the SXSW experience. Whether it was people running down the street in banana costumes, crowded beer gardens or even the Violin Monster howling whenever he received a tip, people watching is key. For the most part, people are in good spirits, even when waiting in line for thinks like the Samsung Galaxy Rooftop experience or giveaways from Pandora and Spotify. Big companies like to give out free stuff during SXSW to both attendees and people just wandering the streets of Austin.
- Traffic is a nightmare into Austin. As someone who lives out in the boonies, it was insane to see traffic that packed. For two weeks, Austin traffic actually rivals that of Los Angeles or New York City. Even taking Uber pretty much everywhere during the festival, I found myself a bit freaked out whenever a petty cab would ride directly into the path of our vehicle.
- The crowds can be pretty intense. If you have social anxiety, this is either an event where you stock up on your anti-anxiety medication or skip the festival weeks all together.
- Lines will become your natural place of order. While this does often get you free food, drinks, and swag, be advised you are going to be waiting for it for a while. Plan accordingly.
SXSW Interactive 2016 was crazy busy. It included networking meet ups, special parties, conferences, the SXSW Interactive Innovation Awards, SXSW Gaming Expo, the SXSW Trade Show, a Job Fair, SX Create, and even a SX Health & MedTech expo. Let’s put it this way, if you’re looking to make connections, get a job, or find out about the latest and greatest coming to the tech market, Interactive is where you want to be. A great deal of the interactions went on at the Austin Convention center, with folks pouring from what seemed like all angles. It was also the location of the SXSW Trade Show and Job market.
If movies are your life, the film festival is where it’s ad. SXSW has an incredible line up every year and this was no exception. Some of the highlights of the festival for me were YARN, The Smiling Man, I Am the Blues, and Another Evil. Sadly, I missed the screening of Pet, the new film staring Ksenia Solo from Lost Girl. Trust me when I say it looks super creepy.
While I didn’t have a pass for the music festival, my friends had a great time. Concerts fill the city and local parks with music and there are a few awesome secret shows you can watch from the comfort of deck chairs in booths set up by folks from groups like Spotify and Pandora.
Tips and tricks for your first SXSW experience:
- Use the official SXSW calendar and apps for planning. This calendar even indicates what you can get into with which pass you purchase.
- Use Lyft, Uber, or public transportation. The traffic is terrible and you will be in hell if you try to drive your own car.
- Bring a portable phone charger.
- Bring water and actually drink it.
- Don’t be afraid to talk to people in line.
- Wear shoes that are comfortable.
- Get the pass for the festival you want to attend. You have the option to buy badges for Interactive, Music, and Film separately, but you can also opt for a Gold or Platinum pass to combine two or more.
- If you can’t afford a pass, volunteer to work SXSW. Look for opportunities to get involved around January 2017.
- Book a hotel far in advance. If you’re looking to save money, try Air BnB or HomeAway for better deals. Hotels in Austin skyrocket their prices during SXSW.
SXSW is one heck of an experience.