With SXSW 2011 freshly wrapped, it struck me that I might put together a good tip guide to the event while it was still fresh in my mind. Here’s a 10-point guide for keeping your SXSW 2012 experience AWESOME.
Lodging – Get Your Own Place
The smartest decision I made during my stay in Austin for SXSW was getting a condo for the length of my stay. Now, a lot of people will tell you to book a hotel as early as possible, and there are several great hotels in downtown Austin that would be close to the action. I only recommend doing this if you’re going down for a few days. The longer your trip to Austin, the more a condo or vacation rental makes sense. I trolled Craigslist for weeks looking for deals on week-long stays and grabbed a condo north of UT in Hyde Park for only $1200. That ends up being MUCH cheaper than a multi-day stay in a hotel which will invariably also tack on parking fees and taxes.
The great thing about a place away from downtown Austin is that you have your own little oasis. The hotels get packed full of people during SXSW, and it’s not always easy to get away and relax when you need it. You may have to rent a car and drive between your rental and the convention center, but it’s worth it. Plus, this will put you in a new Austin neighborhood to explore, which is just as fun if not more so as SXSW itself.
Next year, I plan on going down with a group of people for the express purpose of sharing a large house that we’ll rent for the week.
Cars & Parking
If you choose to rent a condo or stay in one of the hotels that are quite far from downtown, you may want to rent a car. I heard a million horror stories about the SXSW shuttles, and me being me, I did not want to remain dependent on someone or something else for my own transportation. A car comes in particularly handy when you want to get out of downtown and party in one of Austin’s other fun regions like SoCo or the East Side. Many people balk at the expense of a rental car and associated parking, but for a week, I came out under $1000 with a Toyota Camry rental from Alamo. Trust me, this is worth the expense.
I found a couple clutch parking hacks in Austin that will save you some money. Most public lots will raise their standard rates of $7 a day to $15 and $20. You may end up having to duck into one of these lots on days when you haven’t planned well, but here are a couple better options:
- The Omni Hotel. The Omni in downtown Austin has $7 a day parking during SXSWi. Even better? The garage attendant leaves at midnight and opens the gates, so if you leave after that time, your parking is FREE. Be warned though: Omni jacks up parking rates during the music festival at SXSW (usually beginning on a Wednesday) and the garage attendant stays all night, so be wary.
- Residential parking. There are a number of residential and corporate areas near downtown where you can stash your vehicle. There’s a small but popular one close to the convention center and Magnolia, but it sometimes gets roped off. If you wake up early and do some hunting, you can find a ton of these hidden spaces all over town. Be prepared for a hike though as some of them end up quite far out from the convention center.
- Greasing the skids. I never tried this but heard it worked for many people in Austin. Valets at many of the hotels are all about the tips, and if you can guarantee them a certain amount of income from you during the week, they may let you park for free at the hotel. A slipped $20 does wonders if you do it right.
You will be on your feet ALL DAY, EVERY DAY at SXSW. If you don’t do well on your feet or walking, I suggest swallowing your dignity and getting yourself a pair of orthopedic shoes. A lot of convention-goers recommended Converse as the official cool-looking yet comfortable and supportive shoe of SXSW. Lots of people wore these. I bought a pair of the Jack Purcell Converse and was mildly satisfied with them, but there wasn’t a day that went by that they didn’t start rubbing my feet the wrong way halfway through the day.
What did work for me (and always has) was a solid pair of Merrell clogs. I’m particularly a fan of the “Slide” versions of their shoes that resemble slip-on clogs. They’re lightweight and reinforced with all kinds of nifty foot-cushioning insole technology that won’t wear your feet out while you’re skipping about Austin. I own a stylish pair that they don’t make anymore; they’re super-comfy and under the cover jeans look pretty rad. Trust me. Grab yourself a pair of Jungle Moc Nubucks or something similar. You’ll thank me.
Comfortable Yet Cool Clothing
There is no way to look bad at SXSW because of the hispter influx the town gets during this festival. There are more bearded geeks bounding around than you’ll be able to deal with, so don’t worry about looking fancy all the time. Normally, you’ll be bounding between panels and free booze parties anyway, so plan your attire accordingly.
I highly recommend a pair of comfortable jeans or khakis and a solid selection of Quicksilver shirts. Quicksilver makes ultra-comfortable surfer shirts that are often found in beach shops. While they make a variety of styles, the most comfortable (and stylishly designed) ones I’ve found are the button-down short-sleeve shirts. They’re made for activity so they won’t bunch up or look crappy once you’ve been darting around in the Austin sun all day. I actually would wear Quicksilvers all day, every day if I could get away with it. My buddy Tyson introduced me to them on the island getaway of St. John’s, and I still own every one I’ve ever bought.
Boots and Texas-wear
The urge will strike you at some point to buy a pair of authentic Texas cowboy boots or a hat while you’re in Austin. If it doesn’t, ignore this section. If you’re cool, follow the subsequent steps to deal with your newfound desire to become a card carrying citizen of the Republic.
- Allen’s Boots. On South Congress, in the “SoCo” neighborhood, is a strip of vintage clothing stores, taco joints, and the site of Austin’s classic western wear store. Allen’s is a must-visit in Austin. They have an AWESOME selection of boots, hats, jeans, and shirts for men and women. If you’re a boot newbie, don’t puss out and go Justin just because someone tells you it’s affordable. Try on a couple pairs of Lucchese ropers. They are the finest boots made in Texas and receive the Must. Be. AWESOME!!! seal of approval.
- Straw hat versus felt hat. If you are just now shopping for hats during your first SXSW trip, do not buy a felt Stetson. You are not cowboy enough for that shit yet. Straw is the way to go. Expect to pay about $70-$90 for a solid straw hat that doesn’t look like it was made in China for mass sales to Targets and Wal-Marts. I bought the hat below for $86.
The Platinum Badge Gets You Into EVERYTHING
I bought a platinum badge for SXSW 2011 and had no problems getting in to see anything. Every place that has an RSVP signup will let in badge holders, so don’t waste your time RSVPing for parties you want to get into. It’s expensive, but if you want the full SXSW experience, it’s totally worth it. Plus, you’ll be getting into day parties all over town with free booze and free eats, so you may even be saving money that way. A couple days during my trip, my buddy Andy and I knocked into two separate day parties, got loaded on free Lone Star, chowed on free tacos, and exited that towards the evening shows already shored up and not a dollar spent.
Panels Are For Shit
Generally, you will be disappointed by SXSW panels. Panelists usually appeal to the lowest common denominator so there is very little originality to what you’ll see, particularly if you are already a Web-maven who hungrily sucks down content from places like TED.com. I was pleasantly surprised by a panel on futurism, but that may have been an anomaly. Plus, panels are spread out between hotels and the convention center so much so that you’ll spend your entire day shuttling between them if you’re not careful.
Instead, focus on the people. Curate and/or follow a Twitter list or two of the people you want to meet and talk to, and then stalk them around town. Everyone checks into everything at SXSW and shares it via Twitter. Gather yourself a solid group of people you like to hang out with then hang out with them. The Bloggers’ Lounge is usually a good stop to make where you can make some connections and build your street team. You will learn more and have better takeaways from building a strong core group of relationships than consuming panel content.
The Radio Day Stage Is AWESOME
When the music festival kicks off, the convention center sort of dies down. However, you’d be mistaken to avoid it completely. The keynoter halls are converted into massive day stages where local radio stations feature performances from pretty AWESOME bands. It’s a chill atmosphere with plenty of bean bag chairs in which to lounge around, and you’ll get closer to some of your favorite acts than you will at any other stage in Austin. This is where I discovered my latest music obsession Fitz and the Tantrums and bumped into Emmylou Harris.
Above All, Have Fun!
To me, the best SXSW experience is one of DOING. Get involved. Get moving. Join a scavenger hunt. Test out some new apps. Make a comic with the deviantART crew. Most importantly, get out of the SXSW scene for at least a day and see Austin. It’s a great city. There’s so much to do here, you’ll be doing yourself a disservice by just panel picking all day.