How to win at SXSW -- and live to brag about it

CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman has been going to South by Southwest for years. When a friend asked for advice on how to get the most out of SXSW, he had plenty of suggestions.

Surviving SXSW can mean letting yourself be totally in the moment, like Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley was a few years ago. Caroline McCarthy/CNET

Dear Katrina,

How cool that you're going to be coming to South by Southwest (SXSW) for the first time. You're going to have so much fun, meet a lot of terrific people, and see a lot of cool technology. Sleep? Probably not so much.

I'm glad you asked me for some suggestions on how to get by while you're in Austin. I feel that -- as a seven-time attendee -- I've learned a lot about how to survive . I think I can even help you win SXSW.

So where to begin? A lot of people will tell you to RSVP for everything you get invited to. That's sound advice, because there's a million things going on during SXSW -- parties, panels, special events, bar-b-ques, meetups, and so forth -- and you don't even stand a chance at getting into many of them if you don't RSVP.

So, yeah, RSVP for everything, but then be prepared to skip it all. Sure, there's going to be a terrific party over at Stubbs on Saturday night, but then you'll get a tweet or a text message telling you that someone's having an impromptu gathering at the Ginger Man. Believe me, the last-minute thing is way, way more fun. Even if drinks aren't free. Don't forget to keep your phone charged up, though. You can't see the tweets or get the texts, or take that phone call if your battery is dead. And make good use of mobile apps like Twitter, Foursquare, GroupMe, Highlight, and so on, for staying in touch. The #SXSW hashtag, slammed as it will be, is your friend.

If you do decide to go to big parties, be prepared to wait in line for an hour, often even if you have a VIP wristband. Once in, you're going to be crammed into a bar, or a club, or a restaurant, it's going to be too loud to talk, and you'll have to wait in line again for a drink. That's fun?

I think it's way more fun to wait in the line, talk to the fun people around you, and then, when you reach the front of the line, bail. And repeat at the next one.

People think SXSW is mostly about the parties, but a lot of folks have forgotten that there's amazing panels, keynotes, and discussions on the schedule. Bre Pettis, the CEO of MakerBot is keynoting, and so is Elon Musk, CEO of both SpaceX and Tesla. Al Gore's talking, and so is Neil Gaiman. How great is that? And, of course, I'll be interviewing Acting Undersecretary of State Rose Gottemoeller about innovation in arms control and international security. And my CNET colleague Rich Brown is moderating a panel on the future of 3D Printing. You'll come check those out, right?

To be fair, I shouldn't tease you about seeing both Al Gore and Neil Gaiman speak. Unfortunately, they're on at the same time. And that happens all the time at SXSW: The two (or even three) things you most want to see are all head to head. It sucks, but you just have to be Zen about it. Roll with it, and you'll find lots of other great things to do.

What else? Well, remember that the time changes on Sunday morning, which at SXSW really means Saturday night. It's kind of a cruel trick, but it happens every year. It means that, yes, you lose an hour of sleep just when you need it most.

People will tell you to take a night off, since SXSW is so intense. My approach is a little different: Dive in full-force every day and night you're there. But let yourself sleep in if you need to. Do not -- and I mean this with all my heart -- make plans for earlier than 10 a.m. You'll just be too tired. Because if you go to bed early at SXSW, you're definitely doing it wrong.

Either way, I won't judge you. But you should know that you'll look pretty funny if you don't plan on rain. Right now, the weather report says there's rain likely over the weekend, especially on Sunday. So just be ready. Then again, if it does, a million tech companies will try to be the smartest ones in the room by handing out plastic ponchos on the streets outside the Austin Convention Center. Trust me: they're ugly. Bring a raincoat.

The other thing you should know about taking care of yourself physically is that eating is hard. Who's got time to eat when there's so many interesting talks to attend and people to meet? Still, try as hard as you can to eat something for breakfast, and then, even if it's one of those awful salads that are available inside the Convention Center, grab it. If you have more time, there's a slew of good food available all around the Convention Center and all over downtown Austin. Just please try as hard as you can not to eat those horrible pizza slices that are sold late into the night on 6th Street.

I think that's about it. South by Southwest can be overwhelming, and exhausting, and you'll no doubt have some moments where you feel like you've been run over by a truck. It's okay. It happens to everyone. Just pace yourself, take a deep breath, have some coffee, and keep going. You're going to have a great time.

 

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