Going to SXSWi? Part 1

If you’re planning on heading to Austin in early March to attend South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi), here’s a few tips that might be helpful to you. I’ve been twice before and this year will be my third trip to Texas. Every year it’s gotten bigger than the last and I expect this year to be no exception.


SXSWi is actually only one part of the whole South by Southwest conference. Interactive happens the same time as the Film conference with the Music one starting when the film/web geeks vacate the hotels. Judging from the pictures I’ve seen, the music part is pretty amazing but I’ve never been able to stay for the full run of both conferences.

1. Pack light and bring a big suitcase.
You WILL get a lot of swag (or at least offered it) so be prepared to bring a bunch of stuff home and give it to your friends/coworkers that didn’t get to go (unless it’s cool).

Since it’s usually very warm in Austin so you can wear shorts and a t-shirt most of the time and a light jacket at night. You can even just wear the swag you get to save even more luggage space….last year I came home with about 15 t-shirts. Last year was a little cooler and it rained but it was still shorts weather.

2. Bring/wear comfortable shoes
You’ll be doing a LOT of walking between the panels, parties and your hotel so bring a good pair (or two) of comfortable shoes. Hopefully they’ve changed the panel layout this year after last year’s craziness of having a panel end at one end of the convention center and the next one begin at the other end. It is Texas and the convention center is easily the size of a small Alberta town.

3. Don’t stress about note taking
This event is easily one of most blogged/photographed/podcasted events and since you can’t expect to be everywhere at all times, you should have no problem getting the full scoop from someone else. SXSWi also publishes videos and podcasts of many panels. Although these seem to be posted over a very long period of time (like months) and not right after the event.

4. Get your DSLR tagged
Nikon D40kk+ gave me this tip last year (unfortunately before I had my Nikon) – if you have a ‘pro camera’ (or something that resembles one) you may be asked (but do it if not) to get your camera tagged by the Event staff. This lets people know you’re taking event photos….however they didn’t seem to care about my little Casio point and shoot. This also has the added benefit of helping you get into some places you may not normally (think Press Pass) when combined with your SXSWi lanyard. YMMV on this one.

5. Plan your power usage
EVERYONE brings a laptop to SXSWi and there are so many Apple computers there, you’d think that you were at MacWorld. Plan on charging your laptop at night for the next day. As long as your battery is decent, you should be able to last through most of the day unless you’re Twittering the whole time. If that’s the case, expect to have to share the power outlets that are strewn throughout the place with a bunch of others. Forgot your power adapter in the hotel room? No worries, as someone is bound to have the same device as you and I also witnessed some of the event staff lending cords to forgetful attendees (again it was Apple adaptors as most of the event is powered by Macs).

6. Stay in touch
If you are going to SXSWi by yourself, be prepared to meet a ton of people – you WILL leave with new friends. Chances are there are already a few people that you know going. You can find out by stalking the Online Registrants Directory, and watching Twitter/Jaiku/Pownce for SXSW messages. You might also want to get some Moo cards and be prepared to go through them all. As March draws closer, there will be a ton of online services to help attendees get organized. Panel schedules, party planners and more will be everywhere. If you want to get a head start, check out the SXSW Insider.
You’ll also want to find out about your mobile situation. Depending on your plan, make sure you understand the implications of using your cellphone in Texas. If you’re from Canada like me, prepare to get screwed on roaming charges. Even if you forward your phone to voicemail, you may be charged the roaming fees if it rings through in Austin. A better bet is picking up a disposable (don’t really throw it out when you’re done) cellphone or pay as you go SIM card if you rock the GSM. AT&T has a cheap phone you can pickup almost anywhere south of the border for $10-20 that will give you a cheap local number while down south. I got my phone/sim from Radio Shack for $10 with a $10 credit (free+tax) then added a $25 card. T-Mobile also has SIM cards you can get from ebay but they apparently don’t let you use data on the prepaid SIMs unlike AT&T. Make sure if you do get a phone down there that you can find additional add on cards for it…the first year I took a US Virgin Mobile phone with me and couldn’t find the cards anywhere and they didn’t accept my Canadian credit card to top up online or over the phone.

Unless your company is paying (and doesn’t care), the pay as you go route will be infinitely cheaper than anything a Canadian provider will charge you. Don’t forget to change/disable/reroute your Twitter/Jaiku/Facebook mobile notifications as well as those can get costly when roaming depending on your plan.

The above information is woefully out of date…when I travel anywhere in the USA now, I always have an unlocked phone and use a SIM card from Roam Mobility. It’s cheap and you get free calls back to Canada! Don’t have an unlocked phone? Roam also sells an inexpensive phone as well as a portable wifi hotspot that you can use for multiple devices/people on your trip without the need to unlock. Read my review of their Liberty Hotspot.

That’s all for now….more as SXSWi gets closer!


  1. Peter says:

    Wow. As a SXSW First-timer, and I’m sure there are a few hundred of us, this is great info. Thanks for pulling it all together! But I don’t see the part that says where the Advils are sold, and the sunglasses, and all the other post-party stuff I’m going to need…

  2. John says:

    They actually give you a little book in the swag bags (pictured above) on places to eat and how to survive a hangover, etc.

    Thanks for subverting part two!

  3. Derek Allard says:

    John, I’m hoping we cross paths again this year. It was great meeting you at the Ellislab party last year, and this year should be bigger then ever. Make a point of tracking me down if you notice me!


  4. John says:

    Absolutely Derek! It was great meeting you last year too.

    We’ll definitely meetup in Austin….I’ve already read about the Moonshine Grill party this year ;)

  5. Ronald says:

    Ok, this is totally cool. I love gadgets. I saw your other site, I didn’t know you are a video game expert!

    I have been looking for any version of the 1986 standup arcarde game Slapfight (aka Alcon) I loved that game, I did find the circuit boards for it twice but they got scooped up before I could get them. Can you help with this?

  6. John says:

    Sorry Ronald all I can suggest is persistance with ebay to get those boards….do you have a method of making them work once you get them (like a compatible cabinet)? Although that game would be pretty rare to come across, Ableauctions.ca has arcade game auctions a couple of times a year in Coquitlam and you might luck out there as well.

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