First Time SXSW Tips from a SXSW Panel Nerd

It’s that SXSW time of year! This will be the ninth year in a row that I’m attending and every year there’s something special that keeps me coming back. In 2016, I met astronauts that may be the first humans to set foot on Mars in addition to hearing then President Obama speak, to name a few highlights.

I really enjoy the panels at SXSW and often listen to speakers who challenge my thinking and share insights I reference for years after hearing them! With that said, it can be an overwhelming experience for first time attendees. Where to stay? What to wear? Fear not, as I’ve put together a list of my pro-tips for surviving and enjoying SXSW, and most importantly, getting the most out of the panels!

 Deciding Which SXSW Panels to Attend

  • SXSW is spread out all across Austin. Unless there is a killer presentation, I tend to stick to the convention center, Hilton, and JW Marriot – they’re all close together and easy to get to.
  • Prioritize panels that you really want to see and get there early. They’re all first come, first serve. The more popular a presentation will be, the earlier you should get there. For your diehard must-sees, I recommend getting there an hour early.
  • Find panels that are of interest and relevant to your industry. Use keywords as a way to filter through all of the panels. I always like to search by the names of companies I pay attention to, like “Facebook” – you’ll see which Facebookers are speaking.
  • Go to a panel outside of your industry for added inspiration. NASA has had a presence at SXSW, and it’s the coolest thing to get to talk to an astronaut! Buzz Aldrin will be there this year.
  • Support panelists who you’ve met, and try to attend their sessions!
  • Look for panels by following the hashtag #SXSWpanel.
  • Pro-Tip: If there’s a session you really want to see, get to the room for an earlier session and camp out there for a few sessions until the one you want arrives. It’s not like a movie theater where after each session the room clears, so you can stay in one room for multiple sessions!

Getting the Most Out of Panels

  • Be present at the panel! You’re getting access to industry movers and shakers that are at the bleeding edge of tech – take advantage of this and be present!
  • Live-tweet if that’s your thing! Use the panel hashtag and #SXSW plus tag the panelists’ handles.
  • Take photos of slides – it’s often quicker than typing. They make for good visuals to tweet out, too!
  • Look up who the speakers are beforehand or while you’re waiting for them to arrive, as well as the companies or organizations that they work for.
  • Follow the speakers on Twitter.
  • Take notes and keep them organized!
    • Take hand-written or typed notes. If a panel is of particular interest, write down the title of the presentation so you can find blog posts or recordings later and if possible, copy and paste the link into your notes. Not all panels are recorded, so don’t assume that you’ll get the info you wanted later. That’s why keeping a clear line item in your notes makes it easier to research after SXSW.
    • Take what you’ve learned and share it with your team, company, and/or blog after you’ve returned home. It’s a great exercise to re-visit the most important take-aways you learned and practice knowledge-sharing with your community.
  • After the panel is over, rate it in the app. It really helps SXSW improve future festivals.

Navigating SXSW

  • Ask the volunteers where rooms are. The convention center is a maze! There are a ton of volunteers stationed everywhere – outside of every door, at info booths, and at the elevators. They are there to point you in the right direction.
  • SXXpress is a feature pass for the SXSW Music and Film Festivals. They don’t guarantee admission, but allow eligible badge holders to gain admission to film screenings 30 minutes before show time. SXXpress badge owners also have the privilege of going to the head of the Primary Access line for music events. SXXpress passes are distributed in the Palazzo at the Austin Convention Center near Exhibit Hall 1 on the Cesar Chavez side of the building.
  • Download the app. Add panels that you want to see to your “favorites” online or on the app after logging in, and they’ll sync to the app to display your day-of itinerary top picks.
  • Write out your itinerary. In addition to the app, I always keep a separate daily agenda for meetings, must-see panels, events, and networking either on Notes on my phone or…gasp…on physical paper.
  • Allow flexibility in your schedule, and just assume at some point last minute opportunities will pop up.
  • It can be hard to schedule a meeting time for people who are in town with everything going on. One great tactic is to just pick a spot, and let people know where you’re going to be. Going to eat breakfast the same time every day at the hotel, book an appointment then! Pick one evening where you’ll be at a bar and just let people know to swing by!


  • Talk to people in line.
  • Talk to people that you sit beside at panels; it’s a great way to meet other SXSW attendees. The best part – you already have a lot to talk about: why you’re attending the panel!
  • Talk to speakers after panels. While they may not remember you given there’s usually a small swarm, do follow-up with an email afterwards.
  • Bring business cards!
    • Make time to add notes and/or follow-up with people after SXSW. You’ll have a stack!
    • Guy Kawaski keeps business cards in his pockets – one pocket is for storing cards; one pocket is for cards to follow-up with.
  • Email people right away as part of the exchange – this is efficient and connects you and your inbox right away.
  • Pro tip: When connecting with people right away via email, use your own unique keyword to make searching your emails even easier (e.g. #sxsw17hi).


  • You’re not going to get much actual work done, because there’s so much going on at SXSW that takes up time and energy.
  • If you do need to get work outside of SXSW done, block out time in your schedule. Hotel rooms are the quietest spaces around, but there is a ton of seating throughout the conference. People are always working away on the floors, and many brands have sponsored lounges.
  • If you need uninterrupted, quiet time, the best place to get this is your hotel room.


  • Stay downtown if you can. While more taxis pour into Austin to help with the overload of people in town every year, it can be hard to get a taxi at times. I ended up 45 minutes outside of the city one year, and this resulted in:
    • Staying out ALL day because taking a break at the hotel was a huge and costly time-suck. This was exhausting.
    • Having to rely on taxis, especially late night, was not ideal and it often took a lot of time to flag one down.
  • If you stay downtown, remember that most of SXSW is accessible by walking. This means you don’t have to rely on taxis AND it makes it easier to pop into your hotel for a breather, change of clothes, or a nap. Also, if you need a quiet place to work, your own hotel room is the best spot as mentioned above.
  • My favorite hotels based on location are the Hilton and JW Marriot, and also because some SXSW events take place in them. There are also a few others nearby that are also great to snag.
  • SXSW has a dedicated page on its website for housing and travel questions. Check it out!


  • First, visit SXSW’s “Getting Around” page to see all of your options in Austin.
  • There will be a taxi line at the airport that looks long and scary. It’s not too bad, so consider it part of your induction to SXSW.
  • Some hotels provide airport transportation which is a good alternative to the taxi line. Look at your hotel’s website or call them for info.
  • As noted above, there’s never enough taxis to handle SXSW’s attendees. I always like to make friends with taxi drivers, and collect their cards to call individual drivers. Depending on their shifts and availability, they can be your best transportation friends. Be nice to them and tip them well!
  • Uber and Lyft are currently not available in Austin. FASTEN is the Official Rideshare Company of SXSW 2017. You can download the app here.
  • The SXSW Festival Shuttle is a free circulating shuttle that runs between the Austin Convention Center and most festival venues. Shuttles leave the Convention Center during conference hours every 10 minutes. The shuttle runs until 3 AM, making it a nice late-night option!
  • CapMetro is Austin’s regional public transportation provider. You can check out bus routes and fares by visiting their website.
  • Pedicabs also operate throughout Austin day and night, and mostly in the Central Business District, Rainey St., and East 6th St., areas. Negotiate prices with them ahead of time – don’t get trapped into overpaying. Some brands will pay for your ride, so be cautious if you owe anything at all! In general, I recommend avoiding these.
  • Mazda will offer free rides around SXSW from March 10 – March 19 between 10 AM – 6 PM. Register for your wristband here.
  • There is a city biking program called B-Cycle, Austin’s bike-share system. Find out more information here.
  • Pro-tip: Plan on walking as much as possible and build out your schedule with this in mind!

What to Pack/Wear

  •  Clothes
    • Comfortable shoes – you’ll be doing a lot of walking.
    • Business casual – keep in mind that it gets warm in Texas.
    • Layers – it can be chilly inside the conference center, so layers are always great.
    • Convertible clothes – conference day attire that easily switches to evening bar/networking attire.
    • Exercise clothes – there are gyms at hotels and a running club that meets up if you’re into that.
  • Electronics
    • Chargers
    • Back-up battery packs
    • There are plugs everywhere, but some pros like to bring an extension outlet with multiple outlets to share plugs.
    • Laptop – I live off my phone, but still like live-tweeting from my computer.
    • Wifi hotspot – Wi-Fi is readily available throughout SXSW; however, it can’t hurt to have a hotspot in case you’re in a pinch.
  • Business
    • Even though it’s a tech conference, you’ll want to bring business cards. Don’t forget to throw yours into your suitcase, briefcase, or purse before leaving home.
  • Day bag
    • Backpacks are common at SXSW. You’ll be lugging your stuff around a lot so the lighter you can keep your load, the happier your back and shoulders will be!
  • Suitcase space
    • Leave room in your suitcase for the swag you’ll get at SXSW too!


  • Food is readily available for free and throughout the conference center at conference rates. I always like to pack some Clif Bars and have a water bottle on me at all times.
  • Eat breakfast in the morning as it could be hard to fit in a proper meal between panel-jumping, but make sure to stay well fed and hydrated throughout the conference.
  • Austin is a foodie city. This city’s food is excellent. You don’t have to walk far to find some local faves.
  • Hydrate – between the alcohol, networking, and panels, you’ll want to drink plenty of water.

Other Pro Tips:

  • SXSW is a looong conference. When I stay for a longer period of time, I typically allow Wednesday as my break/rest day, so I don’t kill myself by non-stop panels, networking, and partying for a week solid to prevent from being ruined by the time I get back to NYC. Allow yourself some recovery time from SXSW when you’re back home too.
  • Catch a film! You don’t need a film or platinum badge to take advantage of the films at SXSW, but they are at a cost (not too bad though). Note that on opening nights, the film’s director and/or cast are usually present!
  • Avoid long lines by picking up your badge at an off time.

What I’m Most Excited About This Year:

  • My panel “How Do You Keep Your Brand Human in 2030” – #ShamelessPlug
  • James Comey talk – should be interesting and controversial!
  • The future of journalism will be discussed throughout SXSW. Future of Automated News: 2016 Election and Beyond features speakers from The New York Times and The Washington Post.
  • There are plenty of panels and sessions that will look at Donald Trump and his effect on technology. You can find them here.
  • Anything algorithm-based.
  • If you’re in social media, “influencers” is a hot topic. One panel that looks noteworthy is Snapchat for Business: Working with Influencers.

In Summary:

  • Pick out your must-see panels and be dedicated to them – get there early.
  • Hydrate and wear comfortable shoes.
  • Get accommodations as close to the convention center as possible.
  • Give yourself time to follow-up with people you’ve met, absorb the information, and process what you’ve learned. Bring back what you’ve learned to your company too!

That was a lot of information to digest, but I hope you find these tips useful! I’m looking forward to SXSW, and hope to see you there! Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter at @helenstravels.

Do you have any tips for SXSW first timers? Share them in the comments!

Written By:

Helen Todd

Helen Todd is the co-founder and CEO of Sociality Squared, a full service social media agency based in New York City since 2010 who understands the magic of people coming together around what they value and love. Helen is an award-winning marketer, international speaker, and also an advisor and speaker for SXSW Interactive. Helen holds a Master's degree in Integrated Marketing Communications from Emerson College.