SXSW 2014 will be my 4th year in Austin for the conference since 2010. The first two years were badgeless, just checking out the unofficial events around town and networking at the bars & restaurants near the Austin Convention Center. In 2012, I took the year off since my identical twin daughters were born on March 12, 2012. And last year, I officially attended with a badge, representing the ChaiOne team. Seeing each Elon Musk, Al Gore, Nate Silver, Rachel Maddow, & Dennis Crowley speak within 4 days was pretty remarkable.
Over the past 5 years I’ve learned that while serendipity is the key to an amazing SXSW, you don’t facilitate that without a fair amount of planning in the month before the conference. It helps to RSVP to parties, even if you know you can't attend all of them. It helps to pick several interesting talks at each time slot on the conference schedule so you have options when some are inevitably full or too far away. It helps to poll your network on Twitter & LinkedIn to gauge who will be in town, so you can note who to invite along to interesting events or meet for a drink. It also really helps to pack or buy the right gear to keep your gadgets and body charged for 5 days of abuse.
There are numerous well-written resources online about what to pack and how to maximize your experience while at SXSW. I suggest Googling “SXSW Survival Guide” or “SXSW Packing List” to get broad exposure to veterans’ opinions if you don’t know where to begin. Two I’ve found particularly valuable are Tantek Çelik’s list from 2011 & Aubrey Sabala’s guide from last year.
My list below isn’t intended to be a comprehensive checklist of what you should bring. If nothing else, I hope it may spark some ideas of things you might consider bringing if you’ll be in attendance, serve as a gauge of what an early adopter is using at a tech conference, or represent a humorous reminder of how quaint technology was when you read this 5 years from now.
I’ve broken the list into six sections. The first two are focused on the gadgets and the accessories that will power those gadgets. The next two are about powering the badge-wearing biomachine, and hacking that biomachine to endure 18 hour days of walking, learning, networking, and…drinking…heavily. The fifth is a quick rundown of the other non-battery-powered items I advocate keeping in your go bag each day. The last section is all about the mobile apps that will be getting their own respective workouts during the event.
- iPhone 5S: This will inevitably be my most-used device. Tablets, smart watches, glasses, & other wearable tech is important, but nothing matches the criticality of your phone at SXSW.
- iPad: I'm using a 3rd generation (the first with a Retina display) model, and intend to use this the most during conference talks for note taking, tweeting, and ad hoc Googling.
- Google Glass: I was able to get my prescription frames & lenses in just in time for SXSW this year, so I'll really be putting Glass through its paces for the first time at the event.
- Nike Fuelband: My second highest Nike Fuelpoints day of 2013 was the Saturday of SXSW. I'm hoping to top that while walking around downtown this year.
- Withings Pulse: I have a hunch that I'll get my target of 10,000 steps per day all 5 days of the event, but nowhere near the recommended 8 hours of sleep per night that this gadget will be monitoring.
- Pebble: Push Notifications from my iPhone on my wrist. I forgot my Pebble charger at SXSW last year, and missed its functionality dearly.
- Wii U Fit Meter: With all the hills in Austin, I'm hoping I make some measurable progress in Wii Fit U on ascending the equivalent height of Mt. Everest.
- Nintendo 3DS XL: While I don't think I'll get much playing time while in Austin, by tossing this in my bag, I'll easily be able to fill up my Nintendo ID with Play Coins from all the walking. Although, I'm always up for a game of Mario Kart!
- Mophie Juice Pack Helium: My first line of defense in an electricity hungry conference, this extended battery case served me well last year and will be flipped on once my phone's internal battery hits 20%...which will likely be before lunch each day.
- Anker Astro 6,000 mAh Portable Charger: My second line of defense, this battery should be enough to get me 2 or 3 more full charges on the iPhone each day. Depending on the day, this will last me until I get back to my rental house each evening (read: 2:00-3:00AM).
- Anker Astro3 12,000 mAh Portable Charger: Here's the catch-all battery for everything else I'll be wearing or using each day. Likely gadgets to drink from this oasis include the iPad, Google Glass, and possibly the Pebble. Those new watch faces that are possible in the 2.0 Pebble firmware are really power hungry. If I blow through the charges in the first two items on the list, this guy will also be available for the iPhone.
- Anker 40W 5V / 8A 5-Port Travel USB Charger: This won't go out and about with me in my bag, but instead will serve as the main charging hub once I'm back in my room each evening.
- Mediabridge Portable Surge Protector with USB Chargers: One in my backpack each day, and then one back in the room.
- Assorted Lightning/30-Pin/Micro USB Cables: As you can infer from the list of gadgets and external batteries above, I'm going to need more than just a few of these to ensure I'm starting each morning 100% juiced up.
First Thing In The Morning
- Bottled Water
- Coconut Water
- Red Bull
Carried In The Bag To Consume Throughout The Day
- Gatorade Chews
- Candy Bar
- Beef Jerky
Every Other Opportunity
Did I mention every day pushes about 18 hours, for many of those hours you're drinking with new & old friends alike, and you'll shake hands countless times with folks from all over the planet who may or may not be in tip top health? Yeah, it's more than just a tad taxing on your body.
The first two years I attended SXSW, I thought "Hey, I went to undergrad in New Orleans, this will be a cake walk!" and came home to Houston a shell of a man both times. Last year, I proclaimed "I will beat the system...with science!" and stocked up on tons of fluids to slurp down each day, along with an assortment of supplements to battle the inevitable dehydration, lack of sleep, and the always looming SXSW Flu.
The plan worked wonders. It's by no means a silver bullet to avoid a hangover completely or make it to the first panel every morning, but it definitely levels the playing field. It also helps ensure you won't need a full week to recover from SXSW once you make it back home (which is more common than you'd believe).
- Hammer Nutrition Endurolytes: Usually employed by marathoners to ensure they keep enough electrolytes in their body while racing. SXSW is a marathon.
- Berroca: Magic fizzy pills from Europe to bring you back to life each morning with a surge of Vitamins B & C.
- Advil Liqui Gels: Short of taking prescription pain relievers for your inevitable headache, this is the next best thing. Prudent to wait until the next morning to take these, though, as mixing with alcohol at the end of the night can be dangerous.
- Airborne Powder: One packet mixed with a glass of water in the morning, one before bed.
- Emergen-C Powder: One packet mixed with a glass of water at lunch.
- Prolab Caffeine Tablets: Easier on the bladder than coffee, but with an equivalent jolt of caffeine as two cups of joe. You do want to be alert and engaged during the panels, right?
- Advocare Slam: Kind of like a 5 Hour Energy, but I've found it to make me less jittery. I down one of these after dinner before the evening parties.
- Visine: You won't get enough sleep and your eyes will be dry as a result. This helps.
- Burt's Bees Lip Balm: My lips never get chapped at any other time of year, but with the combination of recycled air inside the convention center, wind in the Austin streets, and sustained abuse on the body, they get chapped at SXSW. This lip balm works wonders to bring them back to normal.
- Altoid Smalls: While I'm sure the combination of breakfast tacos, smoked brisket, and Jack Daniels makes for a delightful daily menu, it doesn't make your breath smell like a fresh autumn breeze.
- SXSW Badge
- Evernote Moleskine Notebook
- Moo Business Cards
- Warby Parker Sunglasses
- Rain Poncho
- Wet Ones
- Microfiber Cloth
- Square Reader
- Index Cards
Each year I create a new folder on my iPhone of the apps I expect to primarily use each day while in Austin. Here's this year's batch:
SXSW GO: No need to lug around the printed book of all events when the mobile app can be updated & referenced on the fly.
Secret: I'm hoping for a juicy rumor involving Johnny Football & Miley Cyrus in the RVIP Lounge party bus to show up in my feed. Or just some ridiculousness from the Silicon Valley set.
Find My Friends: Especially if you're traveling to Austin with a team, this is a frictionless way to see where your teammates are around downtown without having to message each one of them.
Foursquare: While I use it daily to keep a digital passport of my life, it takes on new importance at SXSW, especially when you can see which parties or panels are swarming with attendees. The discovery aspect of the app is very useful, too, particularly for those unfamiliar with Austin.
Tweetbot: Create a Twitter list of people you know who will be at SXSW. Also add Twitter accounts that post SXSW news, like @SXSWLineBuddies & @unofficialsxsw. Then browse this list in Tweetbot to get a curated feed of people who you know will be talking about the event or breaking news about that impromptu secret party you want to attend. This is infinitely more useful than trying to follow the #SXSW hash tag which will be filled with a torrent of useless tweets. I heavily use this multiple times every day while in Austin.
GroupMe: This has served as my team's backchannel the last two years at SXSW. Very effective for group chatting and posting funny photos.
Google Maps: Since a lot of party tips travel via word of mouth or tweets/texts, you'll find yourself searching for new venues frequently. This app is a godsend.
Vine: Shooting long video clips at SXSW is bad for your battery. Restrict yourself to 6-second clips, and embrace the creative possibilities!
Instagram: You will see remarkable things at SXSW. Mike Tyson. Buzz-generating Daft Punk banners. Grumpy Cat. Document those memories here.
Eventbrite: Nearly every unofficial SXSW party has an Eventbrite page on which you must RSVP. Just go to the app, search for SXSW, and RSVP to all that interest you. Then when you're boots on the ground in Austin, you can use this as a rough agenda. You can also export your tickets from the Eventbrite app to Passbook so your e-tickets can be scanned at those venues that check.
Sidecar: My brother & I used this service extensively last SXSW. Sidecar is a ride-sharing app, but for SXSW 2013, it was effectively a free, on-demand cab service. I haven't heard yet if they'll be doing a similar promotion this year, but between Sidecar, Lyft, or Uber, there will likely be some method of scoring cheap or free ground transportation while you're in Austin.
So that's my toolkit for SXSW this year. Overkill? Perhaps. But it's kind of like going on that European vacation you spend so much time planning. Part of the overall enjoyment is the anticipation of the event.
I recall a quote from Foursquare CEO, Dennis Crowley, last year that went something like, "SXSW is where you experience the future for a few days before you have to go home and live in the present." That's why I still get so excited about the event. Yes, it's expensive. Sure, there's lots of debauchery involved. But, man, if you don't come away from the event with your head swimming in new ideas, dozens of new contacts, and a handful of unbelievable stories, then you're just not doing it right.
If you'll be in Austin for the Interactive portion of SXSW, ping me on Twitter at @JustonWestern. Perhaps we can grab a drink, brisket plate, or that much needed bottle of water together.