SXSW 2022 Review: T&T in Austin
Written by: Melissa Jimenez
South by Southwest (SXSW) also referred to as ‘South By’ (SX) is one of the largest creative conferences and festivals in North America boasting an average of 400,000 attendees. It takes place in Austin, Texas every year during the month of March and focuses on three key areas: Music, Film and Interactive (tech, gaming, art, politics, sports, and media). This year’s festival was eagerly anticipated by many faithful and new attendees alike as the festival had not been an in-person event for 2020 and 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This being my first time at SXSW however, I understand that the attendance was definitely not what the people of Austin were used to – they averaged it at just about a third of the usual audience.
Austin is like two different places pre-SXSW and during SXSW. It was amazing to see the transformation. Before SXSW and after SXSW it was very quiet. I could literally count how many cars or people I saw on the street on one hand at any given time. Most of the storefronts were abandoned/shut down (I’ve been told, due to COVID). The only activity buzz was the restaurants and music/comedy night scene and not on the scale of LA, NY, Chicago or Miami either, but rather laid back. Then, the music festival started, and the thousands descended like ants everywhere! All of a sudden there was loads of traffic, streets closed off, Uber prices were surging – It’s safe to say that the hills of Austin were alive with the sound of music (see what I did there? Haha).
Planning for SXSW
“You got a hotel when you said?!” This was the exclamation I got when relaying planning activities to one avid SXSW festival goer of 20 years. Before leaving Trinidad and Tobago, we were talking about the festival and he was asking me what I was able to organize thus far to gauge my level of readiness. I mentioned to him that the hotel was only booked late December and exclaiming how much of a task that was because most of the rooms were sold out and attendees were being placed on a waiting list at some establishments. He was in total shock and then went on to say that hotels and Air B&B’s are usually sold out by mid-August. Now his shock was passed on to me! I was like, well amen thank you Jesus and in a whisper in my mind, ‘thank you Covid?’. So, needless to say, planning is essential when attending a festival of this magnitude and he went on to give me tips of how to navigate the SXSW scene without going completely cray cray. Without getting into too much of a timeline on the pre-attendance planning part of things (which by his account, was miraculous on my part that I even got a flight and accommodation), I’ll attempt to pass those details on to you. Now this may be an overload of information so feel free to save this blog post and come back to it when you’re ready to start planning; you can thank me later!
This blog will cover the following areas:
- Pre-departure Checklist
- Conference Preparation
- Festival Navigation
- Networking Advice
- Random Tips
- Ensure you have a valid VISA and Passport
In preparing for this trip, I’ve encountered artists and other music professionals who paid for tickets, organized accommodation, the full works…to then realize their VISA or Passport was expired. Travel tip 101 – ALWAYS check your travel documents first! What if your application gets denied? What if you can’t get the passport expedited before the day of travel? As the old adage goes, ‘if you fail to plan then plan to fail’.
- Determine travel dates and purchase airline tickets
Since these tickets are ordered way in advance of the event, I would recommend purchasing directly from the airline rather than through apps like Expedia. The airline will contact you in real-time with any changes or errors with your flight. Expedia, though they’re supposed to, may not.
- Use SXSW Housing portal if booking hotels
It is significantly cheaper to use the SXSW housing portal than to book using a travel agent, app, or even booking direct with a hotel. I also won’t recommend taking meal plans with your accommodation – trust me, you won’t be there enough to use it. Maybe breakfast only if you’re an early riser, outside of that, it will be a complete waste.
- Purchase your pass as early as possible for maximum savings.
The closer you get to the event, the more expensive the pass becomes. Procrastination is not your friend. Be sure to check the sxsw.com website portal for announcements and sign-up for their newsletter to be alerted when badges become available for purchase. Be forewarned, they send a lot of emails so it may be worth your while to setup an account just for the event or use the everything else email, you know, the one you setup for newsletter subscriptions and website logins.
- USD currency, plan for it.
Access to USD currency in Trinidad and Tobago has been quite the Olympic sporting event over the past few years and even more so when COVID descended upon us, so it is important to plan out your expenses for this trip. Maybe buy your ticket one month, badge the next, down-pay on accommodation the next, start collecting USD cash in hand. Unless you have a US based bank account or a very high USD credit limit on your credit card, you NEED to plan.
- Austin is Expensive
I am not joking when I say this; Austin is expensive! According to the locals, it wasn’t always this way. For persons who bought their homes in 2018 and prior, a large 4 bedroom home with ample yard and deck cost just about 200k USD. However, with tech conglomerates like Google, Amazon, Meta, Canva and others setting up headquarters in Austin, property values have since doubled in 2-3 years; even more so when Tesla moved to Austin in December 2021. Though the locals say that most jobs across the board are very well paid with an average of 20-25 USD per hour when the minimum wage is 7.25 per hour it does have a trickle effect to everyday living. As a SXSW attendee, though there is no shortage of FREE alcohol everywhere you go with all the brand activations taking place, food can easily be one of your greatest expenses especially if you decide to participate all 10 days. If you’re being frugal, I’d recommend averaging 15-20 USD per meal along with taking advantage of all the freebie food samples and help your pocket survive.
- YES! Austin is Cold
So, storytime… Yours truly did not check the weather in Austin before I left our sweet, sunny and rainy shores of Trinidad and Tobago. (insert facepalm here) I was greeted by –1 to 9 degrees Celsius weather for the next few days. But alas! Amazon Prime to the rescue. I was able to quickly purchase a lightweight Columbia brand winter jacket which arrived a few days later. In the meantime, I was gifted a thick fleece sweater to rock with an added 2 layers underneath and thermal leggings to keep warm. Most days I was fair to fine, having lived in Chicago for 2 years, this cold was nothing. But some days, when that wind chill kicked in – woo child, brisk walking and lots of hot tea was it! So yes, walk with cold weather clothing is the moral of the story. On the flip side, there was one day when the sun was really out in full force, people in shorts prancing around, a light cold breeze in the air and I got sunburn. So, be prepared.
- Walk with Sneakers
Don’t try to be cute when it comes to shoes. Your legs and back will thank you for considering their needs above all else. You will be walking, standing, and in many cases sprinting or running quite a lot to get where you need to go in order to get there on time; and Austin is hilly. For all you seasoned travelers out there, think of it like this – every day is like trying to get to a connecting flight in Miami airport (you have to sprint if you want to catch that next one and not be left behind). Now, there are loads of pedicabs, scooters and bikes around if you want an assist at any time but for the most part, it’s from block to block and who wants to pay a $15 USD pedicab to drop you around a block? The scooters are more economically viable but you have to have the app on your phone ready to use them.
The conference portion of the SXSW event takes place every day Monday – Friday 10am to 6pm, Saturday & Sunday 10am – 3pm except for the last Sunday where it’s only brand activations, showcases and other activities. Depending on your badge type, you become either a primary or secondary attendee. For example: As a Music badge holder, I was able to get preferential entry into any Music conference track or showcase. If I wanted to attend a session on politics which is primary for Interactive badge holders, I would then be considered as a secondary attendee, meaning, they will only let me in if there is space available after the session starts.
- Download the array of SXSW apps
The ‘SXSW Go’ app will be the main one for IRL events.
- Plan your itinerary
Do this in advance of your arrival or at the end of each day daily; whichever works for you. If you are arriving the day before the festival or the first day, it means that you have to go through registration to collect your passes and swag bag. I would not recommend planning to attend any sessions that day as there will be snake lines at the registration hall. Depending on when you finish you may opt to go to the last afternoon session.
- Plan your footpath
When planning your itinerary, also consider the venues where each session will be held. For Music, most of the sessions took place in the Austin Convention Centre which is the main hub, and surrounding hotels. However, there were a few non-music sessions I attended that took me as long as a 25 min walk to get there.
- Keep a Journal
Whether it be a physical journal, your tablet, phone or laptop, keep a journal of the things learned at each of the sessions so that you can review it later. A lot of information will be coming at you, new terms, new developments, unveilings, contacts etc…
There are SXSW official events and SXSW unofficial events. The official events will be on the SXSW calendar of activities and can be found in the app and in their website attendee portal. The unofficial events, are usually put on by promoters and artists, do not require a pass for primary access and cannot be found in the SXSW app. The Music festival takes place at venues in and around the downtown area in bars, clubs, converted parking lots – basically anywhere where a stage is or can be erected.
- Searching for Acts
There are many stages and thousands of artists performing. You can tackle this from many angles. You can use the app or site to browse the artists by name (it’s listed in alphabetical order) which will then show you what stages they are on; browse by genre which produces a variety of events on the specified date for that genre; follow some of the venues on IG and check out their lineups or just wing it and do a crawl every night popping in and out of venues or a planned crawl.
- Planning should be flexible
SXSW runs a tight ship for their stages. The posters will show all the time slots for the acts allowing you to plan a crawl. If you’re an avid planner like me then this strategy works best as it allows my brain to strategically plan amidst the overwhelming sea of performances. I planned out the most important stages to attend which was the Reggae (because Patrice Roberts was performing), EU in Austin stages and the Island Wave which was sponsored by MusicTT. In between those, I crawled a few other spots close by, took in some street performances and had my casual music fill in that manner. Know what works for you, and do that. Simple, dimple.
Networking at SXSW is not done in an organized way…well, let me not say that, there were 4 strategic music meetups total as part of the Music conference agenda which was basically me going into a crowded room, working the room talking to people and exiting the room. What I quickly learned at the 2 meetups I attended is that since SXSW is dominated with artists and their managers because of the festival, those were the same persons that dominated the Meetups. So, in my case where I was interested in meeting persons in music export, music business, music tech, recording industry, that wasn’t the case. At least, not in this setting. Now at the panels, ah ha, that’s where the real networking happened and at the Creative Expo as well.
- Don’t run away
Stay a bit after the panel sessions or workshops. Sometimes the speakers hang around and speak with attendees. Aside from the speakers, most of the people you need to connect with are audience members just like you. Strike up a conversation. You’d be surprised who you may be sitting next to.
- Registration Lines
Remember I mentioned those long snake lines? Yeah, best networking hub ever! Everyone is in the line waiting for hours to reach to the front of the line, just like you. They’re either on their phone trying to pass the time, sleep walking, or chatting with a buddy. Striking up a conversation is as easy as “hello, I’m Melissa, first time here, any tips for me?” Or “Woo these lines are so long…”. You’d be surprised how easily the conversation flows after that with other persons in the line chiming in and then BAM! You’ve got a networking session going on.
- Call Cards or QR Codes
Call cards are not archaic. There were no shortage of them. Having a contact card to give your newfound connect is very important. For the tech savvy persons, the badges distributed by SXSW had a QR code on it. Once you uploaded your contact information to the site, all the connect had to do was scan the QR code with their phone and voila! They had access to your social handles, company name, your name, email address etc… When I get call cards, I immediately write notes on the back to help me remember the interaction and the person.
Wait till after the festival has ended to follow-up with your contacts. They will most likely be busy if you try to reach out before.
Who doesn’t love random information right? Not you? Ok well, wrong blog…just kidding… or am I? Ok ok, so here are some random things I thought you should know:
- Download rideshare apps like Uber and Lyft. Traditional taxis are expensive.
- iPhone users and certain android users can visit Visible.com and download the app to access 14 days trial of their E-Sim, no credit card required. You’ll get a Texas number to use with calls and data. My colleague was so jealous! But then, that automatically made me the Wayfinder as the only person who had access to data 24/7.
- Reservations at restaurants are highly recommended for lunch and dinner if you want to get a seat. Otherwise, you can be greeted by long lines outside the building waiting and hoping to get in.
- If the restaurant is popular, chances are you need to make an appointment 1 month or 2 in advance to get in. Red Ash Italia is one of those restaurants.
- Some places do not accept cash, only card.
- Try the food trucks – they are awesome!!!
- You MUST try Texan BBQ. From what we know BBQ to be in T&T to what I’ve experienced in Austin – two very different things. Try it and tell me what you think.
- Again, walk with sneakers or very comfortable shoes.
- Carry an umbrella, rain tends to fall sporadically. If it’s a really bad day, you’ll know.
- Always check the weather app before leaving your place of abode. It can be cold now and hot a few hours later and vice versa
- Do visit the brand houses and expos. They are insane! (in a good way)
- If you have to get stuck anywhere when a tornado is close by coupled with hail and thunderstorms (all at once) I hope you get stuck at the Museum of Ice Cream at the Domain outdoor mall.
They asked me for 1000 words. I think I may have overdone it because at this point I’m at 2,769. But it’s only because I care and want you to be prepared – sue me why don’t you!
Hope you had a great read. Remember to save this post, come back to it as often as you need to.