Mention South by Southwest (SXSW) and people get giddy. Mention that you get to go for work and they get downright jealous, wanting to know your secret. And for good reason! For starters, it put Twitter on the map, launched Foursquare, and jump-started the career of Tim Ferriss, just to name a few. That’s the Interactive side alone—Music and Film make up the trifecta of SXSW, or “South-By” as the locals call it. Simply attending is an experience; I can only imagine what it’s like to exhibit or give a talk.
To say that there is a lot going at SXSW is an understatement. This year, it ran from March 13-22, with March 13-17 dedicated to the Interactive portion, March 13-21 for Film, and March 17-22 showcasing Music. The overlapping days are called Convergence days, so your badge gets you into sessions otherwise exclusive to their category. Convergence days are popular, and provide a strong argument for human cloning. I’d wager SXSW provides a good argument for cloning in general, as during the day and-a-half I was there, I found myself session-hopping quite a bit. Following the Twitter stream was certainly helpful, and seeing who was saying what inside the SXSW app. I also saw a number of people sitting in sessions, or talking with other people at picnic tables or in the hallways, with one ear bud in and the other dangling. I asked what they were listening to, and they said they were listening to the live stream. Having passed a number of wrap-around lines for sessions (Wolfram-Alpha was the longest I saw), the live stream is a brilliant idea, with the added bonus of being able to reach all the people not at SXSW.
A cool thing was a display setup by ImageThink of large poster boards depicting visuals of key points made by speakers. They continually created these boards, then somehow glued them together into triangles that were stacked in a hallway for all to see.
Here’s a wider shot, to give you a better sense of what it looked like:
Throughout each day of the conference, more of them went up, and I wondered how high they were allowed to stack them.
You may recall something similar was done at ABA TECHSHOW last year, providing a visual walk-through of some of the more popular sessions.
Truth be told, I started thinking about SXSW shortly after I joined the American Bar Association and took over this blog. While Law Technology Today primarily focuses on the technology lawyers use currently, I also believe it is important to keep an eye on what’s ahead. Cloud computing was a thing before it reached law firms (remember the early iterations of iCloud?), as was social media before it became a defacto aspect of divorce cases, insurance, and other legal matters. What happens in the consumer space makes its way to law, in one way or another. What better place to see what’s coming our way than SXSW?
The one hurdle was getting credentialed for SXSW Interactive. They do grant press credentials, but unlike other conferences, there is a thorough and lengthy application process. Most other conferences I have attended on a press pass only required an email inquiry that listed the name of the publication and reason for attendance. More often than not, someone references or acknowledges my Twitter handle in their response approving my credentials. For SXSW, the application process is more complicated, requiring forms, statistics, and a Letter of Assignment. I considered it a long shot, especially when the likes of TechCrunch, Mashable, ArsTechnica, and other established entities were also applying for credentials. I suspected the application process was a weeding out process, but I still found it intimidating. I was torn between sessions on content, sessions on technology, sessions on startups… almost all of them were of interest to me, and my brain was working overtime making connections to lawyers. Since cloning isn’t allowed, I had to make some choices. Those choices became the crux of my Letter of Assignment, which you will read about in coming posts.
Touchdown in Austin
The two times I had been to Texas previously, I had been to Dallas. It was my reference point, but everyone told me that Austin is nothing like Dallas, or Texas at all. I was going to learn if that was true.
I arrived in Austin late Sunday morning, leaving behind a cold Chicago forecast for the warm embrace of 70 degrees and sun. I was surprised at how small Austin-Bergstrom Airport is, and at the lack of line for a cab. My driver quickly informed me that all of downtown Austin was blocked off to vehicle traffic, but he could probably try and get me close. I opted to have him drop me off at my hotel instead, and immediately learned that my plan of walking from the hotel to the venue was not an option. It was within my definition of “walking distance,” but the lack of sidewalks on Frontage Road, and the amount of traffic speeding past to avoid the snarl on the expressway, dispelled any thoughts of hiking the two miles to the venue.
Lesson: Apply and book your hotel early, and the closer to the venue the better. Pay attention to the shuttle route provided by SXSW and its “alternative” accommodation options. Granted, it may not have mattered. I heard from every Lyft driver that hotels for SXSW are booked at least a year in advance, and learned from other people that knowing someone who lives in Austin is best. I’ll work on that.
A couple of people with SXSW Interactive badges also stayed at my hotel. I asked the best way to get to the venue, and they said to just “Uber it.” I installed the Uber app and was soon riding in a pickup truck with a nice guy who is also a police officer. The area around my hotel was his patrol area, and he warned me against cutting through the neighborhood after dark. Warning noted.
Lyft had a better deal than Uber at SXSW, offering $5 off your first 10 rides if you’re a new subscriber. I took advantage, and heard what I had only read: drivers drive for both Uber and Lyft, but like Lyft better as a company. They praised Lyft’s training and mentor programs. Uber may have the advantage of name recognition, but it seems like Lyft has the advantage of long-term vision and execution.
The Sprawl of SXSW
Check-in was a snap. Arriving late had the silver lining of missing the long registration line, and having followed the instructions beforehand (by the way, SXSW is an example of how to do event newsletters right), my picture and information were already uploaded to the app, making printing my Press Pass quick.
I had plenty of time to wander the Convention Center and get lost, which I did, even outside of the Convention Center.
Remember how I said SXSW has a lot going on? Just as it is not physically possible to attend all of the sessions, it is not physically possible to keep them all in one space. To make it work, SXSW is spread out between the Convention Center and surrounding hotels, including a Hilton, JW Marriot, Four Seasons, and a Hyatt Regency that is across the bridge. The Convention Center itself is a multi-tiered building, with session rooms on every floor, larger presentation rooms on the ground floor, as well as an Exhibit Hall. The other hotels house more sessions rooms, and the Hilton also had the Health and MedTech Exhibit Hall. It’s organized in such a way that people who were really interested in, say, all things social media-related, could hang out at the Hyatt Regency. But for people like me, interested in many different things, getting lost between all the different places was part of the fun.
It wasn’t just hotels that hosted sessions or events, either. Yahoo! took over Brazos Hall, which always had a line. Capitol One turned its office space into a music venue and hosted acoustic sets almost every night. At MAX’s Wine Dive, Startup Debut hosted a small gathering for media and analysts, showcasing some startups, including Zolt, which made a splash at CES in January.
Now that you have a sense of its size, scale and, awesomeness, check back later to read the nitty-gritty session details that I will tackle in my next post.