All conferences are different. South by Southwest was described to me as: Spring Break for tech and social people. It’s overwhelming and easy to feel left out. If it’s your first time, take the time to watch and observe the game. Because that’s what it is: a game.
There are rules, some implied and others explicit (mostly, don’t be a jerk). Once you learn the rules, the game becomes easier to play, but here’s the catch the rules (according to those who have attended more than one SXSW) change every year, but once you learn the basics playing the higher levels is easier.
First, learn the logistics. This year’s SXSW was spread across 10 campuses, miles apart. If you weren’t lucky enough to be in a downtown hotel, add parking or taking the shuttle to the list of things to navigate. As Omar L. Gallaga of the Austin American Statesman points out in his Austin360.com blog, spreading out the campuses meant overcrowded panels in some places and near-empty sessions in others. Some lines were worth waiting in and others once you got in, many people wondered out loud why they waited for the session. Accept that ahead of time.
Second, realize you’re there to meet people, not just attend panels. Gallaga states, this year’s attendance at SXSW jumped nearly 36 percent over last year to 19.364. That’s a lot of people! It was easy to make friends and exchange business cards (another type of game play). Have your 30 second elevator speech ready and if you want to provide additional information that what your business card already has, write it on the back before you head to the convention center.
Third, be flexible. The more flexible you are, the more prepared you’ll be when the session you want to go to is full or when a stranger invites you to dinner. However, flexible does not mean unsafe. You have gut feelings for a reason, use them.
Fourth, pre-plan. Look over the conference schedule as soon as it comes out. Know which sessions are a must attend (either by your choosing or your boss’s choosing). Then when the times get attached, it will be easier to decide where to be when.
Fifth, accept the learning curve. If it takes you two days of a five-day conference to feel like you have a handle on what’s going on, then at least you figured it out. There’s a reason people return to conferences year after year, and not just SXSW. They understand what’s expected of them and what they can expect of the sessions, workshops, panels and other attendees.
Bonus: It helps even more to connect with someone who has attended the conference before. They can be a great resource for knowing hidden information, such as if you hate a session, feel free to walk out (not accepted at all conferences). Also, don’t get overwhelmed by the have-tos. Go do some sight-seeing. Visit a restaurant off the beaten path.