Tens of thousands of people will descend upon Austin, Texas, from March 10 to 19 for what has become one of the most diverse, well-attended, well-known conferences in the United States: South by Southwest Interactive (SXSW)—or South By, as it is commonly known. And tens of thousands more will flood the Texan capital solely to check out the music and party scene at a bevy of unofficial festival events, hoping also to get a glimpse of a celebrity or two.
Just running down the list of South By’s keynote speakers, you can see how this conference has mass appeal: There’s everyone from Sen. Cory Booker and comedian/actor Seth Rogen to former astronaut Buzz Aldrin and singer/rapper Kesha.
For those who thrive on lots of stimuli, you’re going to have the time of your life. For those heading strictly for the business networking and educational opportunities, well, try to relax and go with the flow. In a city whose population will swell by about a third during SXSW, things will not go as planned.
But with that said, here are some tips to help you plan and get the most out of SXSW for what is, rightly so, one of the most hyped conferences of the year.
Where to lay your head at night
Austin is a 272-square-mile city, but most of the action—from the workshops to schmoozing opportunities—will take place in and around the Neal Kocurek Memorial Austin Convention Center in the heart of the city’s downtown.
The Hyatt, Marriott, Hilton, and other reputable hotels are just a hop, skip, and a jump away from the convention center. But let’s face it: If you didn’t book a room at any of these places months ago, scoring a reservation now will take some string-pulling.
Before going into panic mode, SXSW’s website has a comprehensive housing and travel section that shows which hotels are still available and include alternative housing recommendations as well.
There’s also Airbnb™, but rates are as high as local hotels, and most, if not all of the (nearby) rentals are booked up, too.
Another idea is to hit up LinkedIn™ and Facebook™ to see which friends or colleagues are going to SXSW. They likely will be more than happy to take you in and go halves on a room, especially if their company is not footing the extremely high bill. South By also has its own social tool so attendees can connect with one another (which is also great for seeing which events they’ll be dropping in on).
If you landed a room at a hotel downtown, you either can walk or use the hotel’s shuttle service. Mazda™ also is offering complimentary rides; we suggest registering ahead of time.
If the only accommodation you could score is miles away, you may even want to rent a car. (Just be sure to leave early enough to nab a space at one of the two parking garages near the convention center.)
Austin does have public transportation options, including buses and trains, but expect a tight squeeze.
Actually, if the weather is nice, consider two-wheeling it using South By’s pay-as-you-go, bike-sharing program, SXcycles.
Eat like the locals do
A trip to the Lone Star State isn’t complete until you have had yourself a proper barbecue meal. Hands down, the place to go in town is Franklin Barbecue, about a mile away from the convention center.
Give yourself a full morning to sneak away from the crowds of the convention center to join another crowd at this lunch-only joint operated by a husband-and-wife team. As Texas’ best barbecue spot for its tender, perfectly seasoned brisket and pork ribs, it usually has a two-hour wait—much more during SXSW.
If you do not have that kind of time, Lamberts™ and Iron Works BBQ™ are perfectly situated near the convention center. Or grab a bite to eat from one of the food trucks, which also has delicious Tex-Mex eats.
If you’ve got a few hours to kill…
Sleep. No, seriously. If you’re not attending a workshop, checking out live music, or rubbing elbows at some networking event, it’s time to give that gray matter a rest.
But, if you’ve really got six hours to kill because you’ve scheduled extra time in Austin or just need a break from the crowds, there’s plenty to do.
Some of our picks: Go admire the beautiful architecture of the State Capitol, or unwind taking a leisurely stroll along the picturesque Lady Bird Lake.
During dusk hours, take a walk on the Congress Avenue Bridge. It may be too early in the season to see the 1.5 million bats that reside under the bridge and come out in the evening, but at least you can say you’ve been to the home of the largest urban bat colony in the world. (Hey, Austin isn’t called “Bat City” for nothing!)
From center city, it’s just a quick six-mile ride to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport—355 days a year. During the 10 days of SXSW, it won’t be such a fast cruise. Be sure to hail a cab ahead of time. If you’re going with a pack, SuperShuttle it there—which is basically an Uber for larger parties.
You will want to leave the hotel at least three hours before your flight home—a bit more if you get super-stressed over traveling.
Mind you, the airport will be a crowded zoo with SXSW attendees leaving the city on the same, overbooked flights. They’ll all be very cranky—running on little sleep, nursing their hangovers. So after check-in, make a beeline to the private airport lounges across from Gate 13.