Why SXSWi is like visiting Disney World

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A scene from the Clone Wars: SXSWi goodie bags awaiting pickup (Scarborough photo)I’m a parent and a travel writer, so of course I’ve gritted my teeth through “It’s a Small World After All,” stood patiently in long lines to ride Pirates of the Caribbean and scribbled advice for anyone else who wants to tackle the Walt Disney World behemoth.

The similarities are striking between planning an assault on WDW and sorting out the myriad possibilities during next week’s jam-packed South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) tech conference in Austin, Texas.

I’ve always advised prospective Disney visitors that unless they want to spend a lot of money to be really frustrated, they need to do their homework to enjoy the parks. You can’t just give it all over to serendipity; there’s too much going on and too many people all trying to do the same things.

It’s the same with SXSWi, but the lure of connection, learning and good times at conferences is like the search for magical Disney moments, right? Aww, put on your Mouse ears and go with me on this one….

Here’s some Disney advice applied to “South By:”

1. Research. Lay out a game plan. At Disney, know the park layouts (yes, WDW is more than one park) and the rides/shows that you really want to see. At SXSWi, know the event layout for each day of the conference — major keynotes, the panels that you don’t want to miss and evening parties that sound promising. I’m sorry about the gobs of awesome events going on simultaneously, but cloning is not an option.

2. Use FASTPASS. Well, maybe there’s no real SXSWi equivalent to Disney’s scheduling system for the most popular rides, since everyone has the same conference badge, but I’ll call it FASTCHAIR. To state the obvious, unless you like standing at the back of crowded rooms for popular speakers/panels, get there early for a seat where you can see and hear. You did pay a lot of money to do all this, so be in a comfortable position to enjoy it.

3. Block out open time so your head can breathe. At Disney you can crash at your hotel so the kids can play in the hotel pool, but somehow that option isn’t as much fun at SXSWi. Instead, you may want to talk to exhibitors like Creative Commons or Utterz while wandering/schwag-collecting in the Interactive/Film Trade Show + Exhibition, see exhibitor special events or watch the Frag Dolls all-woman gamers team kick some overly-confident behinds during the ScreenBurn gaming fest.

4. Don’t forget to eat. At WDW you can call ahead to (407) WDW-DINE to make lunch and dinner reservations at park restaurants, but many don’t do that and end up standing (with itchy kids) in long, hot lines for food. At SXSWi, there are some small food kiosks and cafes in the Convention Center, great BBQ nearby and plenty of Austin eateries, but I always carry a couple of energy bars and water in case my hunger intersects with a speaker that I don’t want to miss. Be your own food Sherpa.

5. Go to the back of the park first. When the parks open at Disney, many visitors start with rides and attractions at the front of the complex. Instead, go straight back and work your way to the front, to help avoid mobs and find lesser-known gems. At SXSWi, you’ll probably have to “throw some sharp elbows in the paint” at popular panels/keynotes, but speakers are much more accessible at Book Readings, the Adobe Day Stage Cafe (where then-unknown Tim Ferriss of The 4-Hour Workweek spoke last year) or at the live interviews at Studio SX in the Exhibition Hall. Two examples of great stuff at SX Studio 2008: Techsploitation’s Annalee Newitz chats with Lifehacker’s Gina Trapani, and keynoter Henry Jenkins talks to author Daniel Pink about the first business guide done in Japanese manga.

6. Prepare to walk. I’ve seen some really dumb footwear at both WDW and conferences, and I get to sound like your Mom now because I am one. Wear shoes that you can get around in. The Convention Center does have some rooms off in the boonies, and while downtown Austin is fairly compact you will do some walking unless you have unlimited funds for pedicabs or taxis. March weather in Austin can range from 30-80 degrees F. Really.

7. Reserve lodging early. Doh. The most desirable, most convenient lodging at the best prices needs to be reserved early, both at WDW and at SXSWi. It’s a little late for 2008, but if you are pretty sure you’ll be back to South By in 2009, lock down a room now. Even better, amongst all the great people you’ll get to know, nail down an Austinite who will have a spare room/floor space for you next year.

Any big, sprawling venue like Walt Disney World or South by Southwest Interactive holds the promise of amazing experiences or overloaded misery, but a little forethought and planning can help anyone navigate towards the better of the two possibilities.

Final hint: do not miss Bruce Sterling‘s yearly end-of-SXSWi rant, even if you’re hung over (or especially if you’re hung over.)

See you in Austin!

More resources:

  • Social media tools like Twitter, Seesmic, live-blogging etc. change how we absorb information at conferences
  • Connie Reece, Robert Scoble, Jeremiah Owyang and others light up the night at An Evening of Conversation Starters on March 10
  • Chow down on where to eat during SXSW 2008, from the helpful SXSW Baby!
  • Need help figuring out where all the parties are? Step right here for the Shiner beer-assisted map
  • SXSWi 2008 coverage in the local indie Austin Chronicle
  • SXSWi events on, even including a rodeo visit
  • Hey, there’s not enough going on — let’s do BarCampAustin III!
  • SXSW ’08 Insider’s Guide on ning

Networking and meeting great people:

  • Online networks expand your in-person networks and 5 mindsets to reshape your networking
  • SXSW: How to fit in at a geek conference, from a Texan who knows
  • Austin-based Thom Singer’s 66 tips for better networking
  • Chris Brogan’s ideas for improving your conference meet-ups
  • Join the Twitter village and see all the tweeps coming to Austin on the SXSW Twitter wiki
  • The ultimate guide to networking with bloggers, on ProBlogger

Update  -  The Every Dot Connects post for SXSWi 2009: Tips for South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) from a local.

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This post was written by:

Sheila Scarborough - who has written 31 posts on Every Dot Connects.

I'm a writer and speaker specializing in tourism,travel and social media. Co-founder of Tourism Currents.

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3 Comments For This Post

  1. Phil Campbell Says:

    I’ll have a url to share with you next week for sxsw! :) - i’ll let ya know via twitter when i launch it.

  2. kathryn Says:

    Thanks for the linkage!

    As an FYI, Bruce Sterling won’t be at SXSWi this year, but he’s going to have a “state of the world” essay in the SXSWi printed schedule.

  3. Sheila Scarborough Says:

    ** Hi Phil, thanks for stopping by!

    ** Hi Kathryn, thanks very much, I did not know that — somehow Bruce Sterling in written form can’t possibly be as entertaining as Bruce Sterling in the flesh, but guess we’ll have to live with it….:)

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