Our team recently met to start planning for SXSW 2020. In a conversation later that day with a colleague from another team, I encouraged them to look into joining us. Their immediate response involved an eye roll, immediately followed by, “Yeah, I don’t think SXSW could pass for a business trip in my case.”
The poor guy had no idea what he’d just gotten himself into.
I consumed every second of the next 20 minutes of his life scrolling through the SXSW 2019 app pointing out one program after another on the subject matter, ideas, and experiences that drew thousands of people just like him to Austin in March.
For any of you, who like our friend here, think of SXSW as a week of live music and movie premieres… that’s just not the case. Sure, the event pulls plenty of big-name stars and late-night crowd surfing. But there’s so much more to it. It’s also the largest learning environment of its kind for marketers, technologists, designers, writers, and even HR professionals… to name a few. The audience is so vast and so influential in fact, that in recent years SXSW has become a campaign stop for 2020 presidential candidates.
This was the first year we attended as a team. When we weren’t supporting the 14 West Talent team at the SXSW Job Market, we were darting from one session to another… sometimes until the wee hours of the morning.
For newbies (like a few of us) it can all be a bit overwhelming to grasp as it spans 10 days and brings in upwards of 400,000 guests. The Conference consists of 24 tracks and 2,147 sessions spread across the Austin Convention Center, nine additional venues plus nine satellite venues; and there are 727 official parties and special events – not to mention the pop-up events that aren’t announced until moments before they happen. Needless to say, you need to do your research and keep your head on a swivel once you get there.
And in the end, you can stay running at a full sprint for 16 hours a day and still leave feeling as though you barely scratched the surface. So, now that you’ve decided to join us in 2020, we’re sharing a list of things we wished someone told us before 2019, and what we plan to do differently in 2020. Hope this is helpful. See you in Austin.
OUR BIGGEST TAKEAWAYS FROM SXSW 2019
1.) Just because someone is famous doesn’t mean they have the most to teach you.
(Gwyneth, if you’re reading this, just know that we love you.)
You’re inevitably going to be drawn to sessions with A-list celebrities and industry disruptors. But think long and hard before you commit. Take the talk with Gwyneth Paltrow and CNN anchor, Poppy Harlow for example. They sat down to share her experience building Goop. She talked a lot about courage, culture, and the importance of your network. She looked beautiful and told her story well. We walked away for a moment feeling like we knew Gwyneth Paltrow, and then that wore off. And we were left without any real ah-ha moments.
Then there was A$AP Rocky, who was interviewed about using design differently to make a difference. We’d done it again. Aside from a few iPhone photos and anecdotes, we left empty handed.
Our advice… don’t let celebrity stand in the way of a session that can offer you real, applicable, actionable advice and insight. If you have 2 ½ or 3 hours to burn (the lines can be brutal for the Gwyneth’s and A$AP’s) without missing another valuable learning experience, by all means, go for it. I’m just saying…we had most of our breakthroughs in sessions with lesser-known speakers.
2.) Stay focused.
This one goes hand in hand with our first tip. Do your best not to get distracted by all the shiny things. OK, OK, yes… a few of us made time for a free HydraFacial at RealSelf’s House of Modern Beauty. But as lovely as it felt in the moment, the inevitable remorse of missing an incredible session set in shortly after when we regrouped with some teammates. Two of them had just come from a session with Ben Sheppard from McKinsey & Company on The Business Value of Design: a New Global Study. While they were learning how to quantify the value of great design, I was waiting in another massive line. The next day, I passed up the Bumble Hive to see Kai Wright from KD Wright who spoke about how your brand is the feeling you give your customers. And how creating an aggregated community for your brand and your product will be so, so important for the future of branding and marketing.
3.) The branding opportunities are… absurd, and really cool.
Branded pop-ups are EVERYWHERE. From the “pedal pub” bikes that you could sponsor, to the larger take-overs like Snapchat on Rainey Street which painted an entire bar “Snapchat yellow,” the branding opportunities are endless and extremely creative. A few of our favorites were…
- Bumble’s conversion of a café downtown into the “Bumble Hive,” where visitors were greeted with free breakfast tacos, coffee, and the chance to talk one-on-one with a Bumble profile expert.
- Casa Mexico, which was small but packed with culture and inspiration. The super condensed stimulation was reminiscent of the markets of Mexico City. Art, food, music, fashion, history, drink, literature… all wrapped up in a very vibrant, warm and enveloping 500 sq. feet of space.
- And our favorite… Culture Trip’s take over at the Austin Motel: Culture Trip Brings SoHo Vibes to SoCo. It may have something to do with the fact that I’m a major introvert, but it really was the perfect retreat… expertly curated, not too big, effortless, authentic, and just enough connection to their business. Plus, there was a pool and some unusually delicious Piña Coladas.
4.) The value isn’t just in the classroom.
SXSW may be the world’s single largest networking opportunity. You have 100,000+ creatives from all over the world who are passionate enough about learning to be there at your fingertips… take advantage of that. If you play your business cards right, you’ll get just as much value out of connecting with people.
5.) This event is a beast. Plan ahead.
I know we already said this up there ^^ but it’s worth repeating. Firstly, let us say that there has never been a better event app… ever. You need to do your research before showing up. You should have your top “must see” list picked out ahead of time… and you need to plan on waiting in line for at least 30 minutes to see them. Be sure to book your hotel or housing wisely… and well in advance. Hotel options are limited to… well, none once you get within 3 months of the event. And proximity matters. Your days are jam-packed, roadblocks are aplenty, and being within a reasonable distance by foot or by Lime makes a huge difference.
Paramount Marquee – Photo by Shelley Hiam