Preparing for SXSW madness: Schedules, apps, food and more

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The annual South by Southwest (SXSW) conference is about to kick off, with tens of thousands of interactive, film and music fans descending on Austin like a legion of ravenous zombies. Sequence has never attended, but based on everything I’ve heard, it sounds a bit like Burning Man without the playa (and with much better food): huge crowds of interesting people, a cult following, amazing entertainment, and very long lines for the bathroom.

Given that this year marks the first anniversary of Sequence attending the (interactive) event, I thought I’d share how I’ve prepared for the madness. In a nutshell, and not necessarily in the following order:

  • Register, book hotel(s) and flights
  • Read tips from seasoned veterans
  • Make a schedule of sessions to attend
  • Install iPhone apps for location-based services, scheduling, food and other useful stuff
  • Connect with other attendees
  • Figure out where to eat, drink and party
  • Breath deeply to keep head from exploding (repeat often)

Tips from veterans and others
SXSW has been around since 1987 (music) and 1994 (interactive and film), which means there are plenty of veterans who can provide advice. Here’s a list of some of the best resources I found:

Planning and Scheduling
SXSW interactive is jam packed with interesting events. It’s tough to figure out which to attend, and even tougher to find the scheduling app that fits your needs best. It’s a pretty mixed bag, with different apps and sites catering to different events and needs.

  • Sched* Unofficial Guide to SXSW: This web application is probably the best of the bunch for pure scheduling: good layouts, multiple views, iCal export, printing, sharing. It’s pretty much got all the basics right.
  • My.SXSW and companion iPhone app: The definitive resource for events. The web site is a little tough to use, but it does have grid views that provide a decent overview. Because they’re a little tough to use, I hacked together full screen grabs and created a printable schedule of interactive sessions (9a-6p, 5pp PDF, tabloid).
  • Riotvine: This site is devoted mostly to parties (not sessions), and has some nice social features.
  • SitBy.us: A web site meant to show which of your friends are attending which sessions and help you find where people are sitting. Not really useful for planning purposes, but we’ll see when it comes to actually attending events.
  • Plancast: Everyone is raving about this social calendar service, saying it’s going to be the next FourSquare of SXSW interactive. We’ll see. I didn’t find it useful for planning, but your mileage may vary.
  • Google Calendar: Once I created my schedule, i dumped the iCal format and imported it into Google Calendar, which makes it available to sync with other calendar apps like Tungle.

iPhone apps
I’m not going to lug around my laptop during the SXSW sessions (or at night), which means my iPhone is going to be my lifeline to social networks, geo-services and anything else digital. Here are the apps I installed (or plan to use):

  • Tungle: Social calendaring application that syncs with Google and Outlook
  • i-nigma: QR code reader to scan those nifty 2D barcodes from people’s badges (which will then add them to the list of people you follow on my.sxsw)
  • my SXSW: Official iPhone application for the conference, with schedules and more
  • FourSquare: My location-based application of choice, which will hopefully make it easier to connect with people
  • Yelp: Bookmarks here are a good repository for food and drink recommendations, not to mention searching on the ground (see below)
  • TabbedOut: Order and pay for all those drinks you’ll be having with newly found friends (or so the app claims)
  • Taxi Magic: Call taxis quickly and easily and pay using your phone!
  • Bump: Just in case those business cards run out…
  • Around Me: Location-based search by category (e.g., restaurants, banks, grocery stores)…Just in case everything else #fails

Making connections
SXSW has great content and sessions, but it presents an unparalleled opportunity to meet smart, interesting people. Making these meaningful connections matters more than any session. Here’s what I did to foster the human side of SXSW:

  • Ping friends and networks: Friends and social networks are the place to start. I sought out friends who are going to SXSW and reached out to people I follow on Twitter.
  • Ask friends for introductions: Some of my friends can’t go to SXSW, sadly, but they know others who are going. I asked for suggestions of people to meet, and introductions were made.
  • Set up a Twitter search for #sxsw: People use Twitter a lot to talk about their SXSW plans, make recommendations, and ask for advice. It’s not a bad spot to find people you might want to meet.
  • Create a Twitter list: Of the 10,000+ who will be attending SXSWi, there are a few I’m interested in meeting if possible. I created a special Twitter list for these people, friends of friends, and anyone else whom it would be nice to meet IRL.
  • Set up meetings: When possible, I set up scheduled meetings to avoid relying on bumping into people in sessions, hallways or parties.

Eat, drink and party
Aside from a great conference, SXSW is jam packed with parties and other events. Austin also has amazing food that’s not to be missed (Texas BBQ and breakfast tacos are on my must-eat list). I was able to identify a bunch of great possible spots, which I then bookmarked in Yelp. For more information, check out some of the sites below:

You’ll note there’s nothing in that list about all the great parties going on. That’s because I haven’t even gotten to that yet. Fortunately, there’s still tonight after I pack.

Final thoughts
I’m excited to finally experience SXSW after all these years. It feels a bit like the night before Christmas, with many surprises in store. Every session is a bit like a present under the tree, and just like Christmas, some will be great and some will fall short. Regardless of the haul of intellectual presents, the best gift will be to connect with some of the smart and passionate people at SXSW who are changing the world.

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