How To Create The Best SXSW Interactive Schedule

by Leah Fisher Nyfeler on March 6, 2017 in Entertainment, Lifestyle, Living Texas, Austin, Travel,
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Every March finds me drooling over Austin’s South by Southwest Music, Film and Interactive Conferences and Festivals (SXSW). Oh, I love a good conference! Over the years, I’ve developed a few tricks to craft an amazing Interactive schedule, and I’m sharing these sorting tips—plus a few items on my dream schedule—to help you pick your SXSW pleasure.

cove page for the SXSW interactive conference web page.Cross Search those SXSW Interactive Sessions

Take some time. You’ll need to devote more than just a few minutes to planning an agenda. Once you’ve purchased a badge and signed in to the SXSW website, visit the SXSW Schedule. I skip the flashy boxes and go straight to “browse everything” (there’s a method to my madness).  Do this on a large screen—sure, your phone is handy but it’s much easier to navigate from a laptop or iPad. Note: You may have to revisit, as the site sometimes has a hard time handling heavy user load, and the closer we get, the heavier its load.

What ARE the 2017 SXSW Interactive Tracks?  

From March 10 through 16, there are nine (Brands & Marketing, Design, Development & Code, Government, Health, Intelligent Future, Style, Tech Industry, and Workplace) plus seven convergence tracks for Interactive badge holders: Experiential Storytelling, Food, Journalism, Social Impact, Sports, Startup Village, and VR/AR. “Convergence” means a variety of badges have access, but all tracks make that SXSW connection to technology.

“Keynote” sessions introduce big topics. Speaker Jessica Shortall (March 12) talks about her organization, Texas Competes, which brings together 1,200 businesses to showcase how inclusiveness benefits the Lone Star State, as part of the Social Impact track. Keynotes are typically where you find big-name celebrities, like filmmaker Lee Daniels (sadly, Interactive gets secondary access to his talk).

Choose An Interactive Track

SXSW 2016’s NBC Sports Lounge at Four Seasons was a great place to hang out between sessions. Photo by Leah Nyfeler
SXSW 2016’s NBC Sports Lounge at Four Seasons was a great place to hang out between sessions. Photo by Leah Nyfeler

Now, there are a bunch of Interactive menu tracks to choose from (including “convergence”), but I lead with my passion: SXSports. To do the same, choose “Sessions” and scroll through to find the first “Sports” item listed under “Track/Category/Type.” Click on “Sports” to populate all the events in that specific track. Ah, the fun begins! As a session catches my fancy, like “Biometric Social Storytelling on Mt. Everest,” I favorite it for quicker access later. I favorite everything that looks good, no matter when or where it’s happening — you never know when your plans may change.

Once I’ve developed that SXSports wish list, I turn to the next on my list, Social Impact, repeating the process with every Interactive track of interest. As you can imagine, this generates a giant list. Don’t worry if sessions overlap or exist simultaneously. Persevere!

Combine social impact with technology and you get “Taking Back the Internet: Countering Extremism” with heavy-hitting presenters from Facebook, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and EdVenture Partners.

Stalk a Presenter

Jessica Luther discusses sports media and social justice with Bomani Jones and Cyd Zeigler at SXSW 2016. Photo by Leah Nyfeler
Jessica Luther discusses sports media and social justice with Bomani Jones and Cyd Zeigler at SXSW 2016. Photo by Leah Nyfeler

Don’t actually stalk them — they’ll notice, but you get the gist. A lackluster moderator or panel can ruin any session, just as inspiring personalities elevate the most mundane subjects. Now I pull out my phone for social media back up. Two ways to go: scroll through the “Speakers” list in the left side-bar (time consuming, as they’re arranged alphabetically, but often yielding surprising finds) or choose “My Favorites” from the home schedule page and read about the presenters in each of your starred sessions. I look to see how presenters interact on social media, then drop or add sessions depending on what I find.

My virtual Twitter pal and author of Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape, Jessica Luther, is giving a reading and signing her book March 10, which I suspect will garner plenty of attention given the current circumstances of a certain Texas-based university.

So many notable speakers to catch at SXSW 2017! Here’s a short list: Cory Booker (Government track), John Cena (Sports), Mark Cuban (Tech Industry), Marc Jacobs (Style), Kesha (Social Impact), Marie Kondo (Design), Chris Sacca (Startup Village), and Cheryl Strayed (Journalism).

What Did I Miss?

Use hiking and bike trails around Lady Bird Lake and the pedestrian bridge at Congress Ave. to go between the Four Seasons and Hyatt hotels. Photo by Leah Nyfeler
Use hiking and bike trails around Lady Bird Lake and the pedestrian bridge at Congress Ave. to go between the Four Seasons and Hyatt hotels. Photo by Leah Nyfeler

I go back to the “Schedule” homepage yet again to check special events (is there a meet-up that looks fun?) or find a featured session that escaped my attention. Lastly, I click on “SXSW Recommends” to uncover what the good data miners think I’d like. Note: check which badges have access to these special items. I tend to skip those that grant my Interactive badge secondary access. “Cloaks, Daggers, and Dice: How the CIA Uses Games” hadn’t made my original list, but SXSW recommended it. They were right; this scifi fan thinks the panel looks fascinating.

Location, Location, Location

SouthBites is once again part of SXSW 2017 Interactive, in the Food convergence track. Photo by Alexa Gonzalez Wagner
SouthBites is once again part of SXSW 2017 Interactive, in the Food convergence track. Photo by Alexa Gonzalez Wagner

Different tracks “home” in different buildings all over downtown Austin. SXSports, for example, lives at the Four Seasons; Food, the Driskill Hotel; and featured sessions at the Austin Convention Center. Based on proximity, you may weed out any outliers to get seated on time. Book signings (found under “Special Event”) take place at the SX Book Store located on the Austin Convention Center Level 3 Atrium—a dangerous place for dropping some coin.

What’s Austin without a food trailer? Check out the SouthBites Trailer Park on Driskill St. for a taste of the town. Or how ‘bout sipping on this panel discussion (with samples), “The Perfect American Pairing: Bourbon and BBQ”?

Options Are Good

Review your favorites, but resist the temptation to whittle down. It’s beneficial to have backups. In 2016, the line for Google’s self-driving cars presentation was so horrendously long I decided to bail and scoot to my second choice at that time slot. And some days, my mood demands change, so having preselected alternatives is a timesaving SXSW win.

General SXSW Tips

Gary Vaynerchuk at SXSW Interactive 2016 photo by Sandra Dahdah/Getty Images for SXSW
Gary Vaynerchuk at SXSW Interactive 2016 photo by Sandra Dahdah/Getty Images for SXSW

Last but not least are some helpful tips to make the most of your festival experience.

  • Layer clothing and wear walkable shoes. It may be 90 degrees outside but subarctic in the Austin Convention Center, and you’ll need to cover city blocks fast when changing venues.
  • Make your digital life easier by bringing a portable charger.
  • ATX parking is a unicorn. Skip whenever possible by using public transportation, riding a B-cycle, or driving a Car2Go (they have their own reserved parking spaces!).  
  • ATX doesn’t have Uber; the official rideshare company of SXSW 2017 is FASTEN (get the app).  
  • The SXSW Go Mobile app is useful, especially for schedule changes and the Shuttle Tracker. Warning: it often freezes and drains your phone battery.
  • The surrounding social media is as entertaining as the sessions. I’ll be tweeting and tagging @lifestyletexas; connect with me at @leahruns100. See you at #SXSW!