I heard that from several friends when I asked them about their SXSW plans for this year. This, along with the reviews I heard from people that attended last year (which I missed), made me a bit worried about what my third SXSW experience would be like.
It was my best trip yet to SXSW, hands down.
The wonderful thing about SXSW is it’s the only place in the world that gives you access to such an amazing group of people. I got to talk brand advocacy with Jackie Huba and Virginia Miracle. I talked marketing to teens via social media with marketers from Nokia and Coca-Cola. I watched as a few brilliant people organized an effort on the fly to raise tens of thousands of dollars for Japan quake victims. There’s only one place on the planet where all this could happen, and it is in Austin, Texas in March.
The SXSW experience isn’t perfect, but as is such with much of life, it is what you make of it. For example, one of the biggest complaints I have had (and heard from others), is that it doesn’t make sense to spend a couple of thousand dollars to go socialize for 3-4 days in Austin every year. I was determined to get real business value and leads from SXSW this year. So as soon as I had it finalized that I was attending, I started reaching out to companies/people that I wanted to connect with, as well as letting everyone know what my schedule would be. It made a HUGE difference in my experience in Austin. Hell I was talking business with a SXSW attendee in the Houston airport for my connecting flight TO Austin last Friday. Better planning and being proactive about attempting to connect with people made all the difference.
The Sessions: I honestly only attended one actual session, Valeria Maltoni’s session on Influence, and I only caught a few minutes of it. I did catch the Content Rules book reading with Ann Handley and C.C. Chapman, as well as David Merrman Scott’s book reading of Marketing Lessons From the Grateful Dead. But I heard from many people that the sessions were surprisingly good this year. I was happy to hear this, because the quality of the sessions had been woefully lacking in my 2 previous trips to SXSW. Good to hear that wasn’t as big of an issue for 2011.
So the bottom line: Should you attend SXSW next year?
My advice is yes IF you properly plan. Here’s what I would suggest you do if you want to attend SXSW:
1 – Buy your badge as soon as possible. This will save you money, and you can always sell the badge to someone else later if you decide you can’t make it.
2 – Reserve a room in a hotel downtown. A big reason why you want to buy your badge early is so you can also get your room booked. Now a big reason why my SXSW experience was so much better this year was because I was able to get a room at the Hilton, which is literally across the street from the Convention Center where SXSWi is held. But you don’t have to go with the Hilton, the Marriott and Hampton Inn downtown will all put you within 2-3 blocks of SXSW and most of the off-site events and parties you would want to attend. I believe the Four Seasons is close by. Yes, these hotels are a bit more expensive, but I think the convenience factor makes up for it. Other than the cab ride to the airport, you should never pay more than $10 for a cab fare anywhere, even if you can’t find a buddy to catch a ride with.
3 – Decide exactly WHY you are going to SXSW, and plan accordingly. Are you going to socialize? Then make a list of the people that you absolutely have to meet/connect with, and start contacting them ASAP. Also, figure out where the ‘hot-spots’ are for people hanging out (The Blogger’s Lounge is always a safe bet. Figure out where it is located and use it as your ‘home base’).
Are you going for business leads and networking? Then same thing, make a list of the people/companies you have to connect with, and find a way to make that happen. You want to do this planning because NO plan is safe at SXSW 😉 Schedules are constantly changing, I had meetings run over, I had other people cancel meetings, I had others wanting to schedule some on-site. Everything is fluid with SXSW, so the sooner you can plan ahead and lock people down, the better.
4 – Let everyone know where you are and will be. I’m not a big FourSquare user, but I was using it often at SXSW, simply to let others know where I was in case they were looking for me. I was also doing the same thing, I actually avoided one party because I saw that only a couple of people that I knew were tweeting from there, while another event had more people I knew. And also write a blog post sharing where you will be, I had several people contact me to meet after I wrote a post saying where I will be.
5 – See if you can get help covering travel costs. Going to SXSW *is* expensive. Even if you book early, you will still pay $450 for your badge, plus $300 a night for hotel, and probably close to $500 for flight. Add in food, cabs, and anything else you want to buy while in town, and you could easily hit $2,500+ for the cost of the trip. If you work for a company, see if they can pay some/all of your costs for you to go to connect with others. If you are an independent, see if you can go with a client and have them help defray your costs, in exchange for connecting them with others while there. Or if you are a blogger, maybe a company would be willing to sponsor your trip? The great thing about SXSW is that almost all of the ‘big names’ in the social media space are there. And companies want to connect with these influencers. If you are an influencer or can help your company/clients by connecting them to these people, there’s value in that for companies.
6 – If you are a content creator, take advantage of SXSW. I really didn’t do a good job of this, other than taking a few dozen pictures. As I’ve said before, you have unprecedented access to smartitude at SXSW, so take advantage of that to chat with people, interview them for posts, shoot a quick video with them, etc.
After having gone three times, from my own experiences and from the feedback I’ve gotten from others, I can tell that the time you invest in planning out your SXSW experience has a HUGE impact on it. Yes, serendipity happens often in Austin (and it’s amazing), but you can’t make serendipity your plan. If you want to connect with certain individuals, make that happen, the earlier the better.
Here’s a few more pics from SXSW, and tomorrow I will have a full review of the 1st ever LIVE #Blogchat!