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SXSWi - Conference Overload

sxsw-2012-logo.pngThis year was the first time I have had the opportunity to attend South by South-West Interactive, the digital part of the infamous music festival in Austin, Texas that quickly grew to include movies and multimedia. With the tech-boom of the recent decade nearly letting the Interactive section overshadow the other parts it has been dubbed "spring break for geeks" and it is one of the largest and craziest events around for all things digital. So naturally it is the place to be to catch up on the latest trends and hypes in everything from online social media to cutting edge gadgets and private space ventures. SXSW can only be described as conference overload. There is simply too much of everything so it is an entirely overwhelming experience to be there.

So how was it then? Absolutely incredible of course! Despite the downpour of rain throughout that gave me a pneumonia, and the unknowable number of sessions, lounges and parties that I missed out on, I still had five fully packed days with stimulating chats, interesting sessions, amazing food and fun nights out. In addition we took a Texas roadtrip after the conference where we got to see a whole lot of a place most Europeans would never even think to visit.

Crowds at the Austin convention centreDescribing the size of SXSW is nearly impossible, one must have been there to really appreciate the scale of everything with tens of thousands of participants all over the city. Just getting a hotel can be a challenge as all of the thirty something downtown hotels sold out in just three days after bookings opened! Even the schedule is a beast of its own, so before flying out I spent from 8pm till midnight every evening for a week just going through the sessions for this years conference trying to plan my stay, and that was just for Interactive and not including Film and Music mind you. Still after all that effort I was left with four to six sessions that I was really interested in attending for every timeslot throughout the entire five days of the Interactive conference! Add to this that the sessions are held at more than two dozen different locations around downtown Austin along with the travel times caused by huge crowds literally everywhere you go. This makes it impossible to catch every session despite the 30 minute breaks between each, especially if you want to stop and chat a bit with people you bump into, or pick up something to eat or drink on the way, which naturally you will since there is so much free stuff being handed out everywhere.

Ninjas in front of the Interactive shuttleAfter trying to move around for the first couple of talks and spending much of the first day on shuttles I ended up deciding to stay mostly around the Austin Convention Centre and the neighbouring Hilton Hotel where the largest amount of interesting talks were being held. Still this was no guarantee to catch every session, because the most popular ones often filled up before the end of the previous ones finished, making long lines and closed doors a common occurrence. This was especially true for the keynotes, where the main room seating 3600 people could fill up maybe an hour in advance, and the A/V overflow rooms totalling 2300 more seats also had people standing along the walls. That is there could be in excess of 6000 people following a a single talk! So what can you do? Well, I found that the best was generally to just move around and pick sessions as you went from the extremely handy pocket-guide, this way you could at least catch interesting things based on where and when you find yourself at any given time. Doing this I even stumbled across what turned out to be the most rewarding session I saw at all of SXSW, and that was one I hadn't even spotted when planning my schedule from home!

NI met up with Peter Diamandis of X-price fameot even having mentioned the sponsored lounges, trade show and parties yet, there was just so much going all around the city  that there was even a whole separate trade show hall for gaming related things that I didn't even find time to visit, nor did I get to go to the Google Village setup which was just too far out of my way at any given time. Luckily the things I did get to see and do more than made up for these shortfalls, but since there is so much of it I'll just give a brief recap of the highlights:  Dinner at Perrys steakhouseAnd even this is just some of the official stuff that made my SXSW experience! In addition I met up with a wide range of cool people and got to have some amazing Texas dinners from places such as Perry's Steakhouse, as well as Brazilian ones from Fogo de Chao. On a side note our road trip after leaving Austin also took us on a memorable trip to the hill-country wineries around historic Fredericksburg, by The Alamo and along the river walk of San Antonio, through the shopping meccas of San Marcos Outlets and Galleria malls, stopping by Four Seasons in Houston and visiting the NASA Johnson Space Center before strolling along the fashionable streets of Dallas with the 6th Floor Museum and Fort Worth's Stockyards. In short Texas was an fascinating country all to itself and worth the time if you are in the area. To be frank however the sights and cities aren't really that unique, which is probably why Texas is not on the top of most European itineraries.

The Interactive Registrants LoungeIn the end we spent our last couple of days in the dead streets of Austin after the hordes of SXSW had left, and the city was barely recognizable from our stay just a week previous. The lively 6th street bars now just looked drab and worn down, while the previously invisible undesirables along Congress Ave suddenly made walking around slightly unpleasant. Austin is quite clearly a city with two faces, and the one it shows during the weeks of SXSW has little impact the rest of the year, but when that is all said and done I would return to SXSWi at the drop of a coin if given the opportunity, it's just that incredible!

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