13 hacks for SXSW 2016

SXSW veteran and Metalworks Director of Technology, Tom Kelshaw, shares tips for getting the most out of Austin's annual tech, film & music festival.

1) Research YOUR SCHEDULE

Prepare in advance by researching the people and companies behind all those talks, presentations, demos and parties. The SXSW Scheduler is your friend, and most agencies, publishers, bloggers & startups will offer curated recommendations. But be equally prepared for serendipity or simply following new friends or trends as they go.

2) Triple-book Yourself

Using the SXSW Schedule system (which includes a semi-decent app), double or triple-book sessions - but be aware of distances. Travel time between sessions can be 10 - 45 minutes depending on location. You never know where you'll end up, and being within 2 minutes walk versus 15 minutes walk of your next venue will make that decision easier.

3) Avoid Panels

Panels usually suck. Mostly they're a bunch of similar people agreeing with each other. Some are well co-ordinated but often they lack the central narrative of a 60 minute presentation, or the depth of a fireside chat or access of a product demo.

That said, come see my panel - Your Innovation Playbook - at 9.30AM Saturday at the Hilton.

4) Watch Keynotes later

Whilst Keynotes often drive conversation that day, they're actually also the most miss-able. You can catch videos of the Keynotes later online, giving you flexibility to see something elsewhere.

If you must see the Keynotes (and they're usually great) and want to avoid the hour-long lines, you can watch a live telecast from a room or venue closer to your previous or next session.

5) WHO TO SEE

This is the hard part: Go wide or go deep? To get a variety of topics or to specialise in one? Specific tracks delve into Health-Tech, Food, Sports and emerging markets. Also 2016 introduces a focus on gender diversity in tech/media and the related Online Harassment Summit. Which has already drawn controversy, and is now more important than ever.

You can't go wrong with sessions by DARPA, Singularity University or MIT Media LabThese people are making the future.

Closing remarks by Bruce Sterling. The Wired co-founder, cyberpunk author, design theorist and patron saint of SXSW is a must-see. Grab a Shiner Bock and listen to Sterling deliver his annual State Of The Union.

Also my panel on Saturday at 9.30AM - Here Are The Keys to Your New Innovation Playbook - is centrally located at the Hilton and promises to define what tools are required for brands, startups and agencies to work together. I am privileged to speak with serious innovation warriors such as:

Most importantly, SXSW is about expanding and extending your experience by attending sessions that are outside your regular area of attention. You can read a blog post about "hot new trends in social media" any day, but you don't often get to hear a Nigerian science advisor talk about water reclamation technologies. Or see a live demo of a robot baby that cries - in different languages.

6) DEDICATED CALENDARS

Create two dedicated calendars in your smartphone for a) SXSW Schedule & b) random Meetups & Parties (which aren't in SXSW schedule).  This allows you to eye-ball what's on that day, and switch between the two.

7) GET "ON THE LIST" with RSVPSTER

There are about 30 parties, meet-ups, or casual events on at any one time. Be on the list for all of them by signing up with RSVPster - run by Austin nightlife veterans and SXSW paerty vibe experts. Then: quickly create a Gmail filter to put the thousands of invite emails into a folder or you'll probably let your popularity go to your head.

8) Phone chargers

Your phone will die. Quickly. Power outlets are viciously contested territory, so a USB battery pack is a must-have. Apple's official iPhone battery pack is good. The slim Dark Energy Reservoir charger is our favourite - not too bulky to fit in your pocket and has two ports to charge your phone and a new friend's too. You'll need at least two of those ubiquitous lipstick-style chargers to get through the day… and night.

8) Taxis at Austin Airport

If you're getting in Thursday PM or Friday AM - book a Airport Super Shuttle or be prepared to wait 30 - 90 minutes in line. Austin has Uber now but the lines are still crazy.

9) Bikes

Rent a bike, with a lock. SXSW has recently shrunk in geographic scale (many sessions now at new centrally located JW Marriott), but it's still spread out over a 1.5 mile stretch above and below the river. A bike can mean the difference of getting to an interesting event across town on time or to a hot party before the line gets too long.

10) PICK UP YOUR PASS EARLY

Pick up your pass at the ACC the day before (Thursday). This allows you to avoid the registration lines on the first Friday of SXSW and get straight into it.

11) Get Hands-on at SXSW Create

For hands-on hardware geeking with startups, head south of the river to visit SXSWCreate, a kind of Maker Faire in the Palmer Arts Center: 

Tip: The best Lunch/Happy Hour close by is Chuys Barton Springs.

12) Hungry? Barbecue!

Barbecue. Austin is famous for it. Try at least three whilst you're here but remember - everyone has the same idea as you.

The best BBQ joints in Austin have incredible wait-times during SXSW:

  • La Barbecue: Line up for 30 minutes before it opens - after 12.30PM they're likely sold out. Because it's amazing.
  • Franklin: The most desired barbecue in Austin, prepare to wait in line for over two hours. Seriously. Bring a chatty friend, some beers (I'm not sure drinking on the street is legal in Austin so be discrete) or your laptop to write those "Day 3 SXSW wrap-up" blog posts you promised your boss.
  • Ironworks: It's next door to the ACC and has great food. Before 12PM and after 2.30PM are the best times to get here. If you need to eat somewhere close, the long line does move quickly.

Below is some BBQ I'll be lining up for so I'm not going to talk too much more about it. You should probably avoid it. Yeah. Nothing to see here:

  • Lucy's fried chicken
  • Mickelthwait Craft Meats
  • Freedman's
  • BBQ revolution Food Truck

13) I NEED A DRINK

It's hard not to find a great place to drink in Austin. But after 7+ years, these are some recommendations:

  • Jackelope - Dive-bar with tattooed waitresses and epic "porno-hot" wings on 6th street.
  • La Peche - Very good, well concocted concotions.
  • Side Bar - Escape the madness … before some VC douchebags crash the place and buy you all drinks.
  • St Rochs - Proper escape if you need to seem "with it" and meet with someone important.