I have distinct memories of kicking off the year in Chapel Hill each August by closing down South Road closed for Fall Fest. In preparation for UNC’s annual activities fair, an EMS station was set up right in the middle for students who inevitably passed out or got trampled in the thick North Carolina heat. The men’s rowing team would walk around with an oar sticking up so you couldn’t miss them in the sea of Carolina blue-clad students wandering the street. My teammates flipped their way across Fetzer Field to draw attention to our Club Gymnastics table. Free food and swag like Carolina sunglasses and drawstring bags floated around, with long queues signaling t-shirts being given out. Sports clubs, service organizations, musicians, and everybody in between came out at Fall Fest to tell you about what they were all about and bribe you to join their listserv.
Now, imagine this scenario scaled to the size of the entire city of Austin, with 1000000x the budget and the long lines signaling open bars and/or celebrity appearances. This is the best I can do to describe South by Southwest to people who have never been. You might know of SXSW as a film or music festival, but it’s actually a combination of film, music, interactive media, and quasi-tech conference spanning 25 tracks.
While the conference isn’t strictly tech focused, the overwhelming majority of attendees seem to be in the tech industry and nearly every panel touches on emerging technologies in some way – whether in the Social & Global Impact, Food, Sports, or “Cannabusiness” track (among others). Most panels that are selected (by public vote, SXSW Staff, and advisors) are typically future-focused, exploring what’s next in their respective industries.
My team at work had been researching and tracking stakeholders on our panel topic for months, so it made a lot of sense to pull together a proposal for SXSW. We had to clear it through various levels of marketing and risk, execute several voting campaigns, secure funding, and then coordinate and prepare the panelists for the presentation while arranging all the logistical details leading up to the event. All that to say, our ten months of hard work really paid off! I’ve loved Austin since my trip with Maleah last spring and was so looking forward to being back.
During the four-day Interactive Festival, badge-holders get access to not only any of the conference panels, but also all the parties and activations that are sponsored by companies like Capital One, Twitter, LG, Lululemon, Lonely Planet, etc. They buy out bars and restaurants, many rebranding their space such that you wouldn’t even recognize the original venue. Bumble, for example, took over Jo’s Coffee on 2nd St and covered the building with yellow vinyl tape to create the “Bumble Hive”, serving free breakfast tacos every morning and coffee all day. Most Rainey Street bars – Lustre Pearl, Banger’s, Icenhauers, Container Bar, etc. – were sponsored by various companies and organizations for activations, lounges, panels, shows, networking events, and the like.
While not running around between the Austin Convention Center and the other host hotels in downtown Austin to attend panels (or stand in line for big names like Malcolm Gladwell and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez…), the sponsored activations and trade show were a blast to wander around. That’s where I saw a prototype of a “keurig” for ice cream, danced to a holographic DJ, experienced virtual reality, got a DNA test (results are in: I’m genetically prone to a slow metabolism…), cuddled with a robot baby… and scouted for free food and drinks all day, every day. You can get a glimpse of many of these experiences in my SXSW Instagram story highlight!
Note: while I had a badge paid for my the firm because of our team’s panel, at the conference, there are plenty of free concerts and non-official parties with free food and drinks that non-badge holders can access. A lot of information is available online about how to enjoy SXSW without a badge.
Food & travel highlights:
- Uchi is somewhat legendary among Austin foodies, so as soon as our trip was confirmed I made a reservation for our team as a celebration dinner. It was hands down the best sushi I’ve ever had in my life ($$$$$ expensive but LIFE CHANGING. I don’t normally love sashimi, but literally everything they put in front of me was delicious, particularly the brown butter snow crab nigiri…
- Torchy’s Tacos were a major highlight from my trip to Austin last year, so I knew I couldn’t leave without having some. I saw that Torchy’s was collaborating with Door Dash to give out free tacos at a tiny house pop-up – so I waited for the pop-up instead of eating at Torchy’s itself. After waiting in line for probably 40 minutes – which sounds ridiculous now, but it was a beautiful day and I had nowhere to be on my last day – I ordered two tacos with chips and queso inside the house. The back door of the house led to a “backyard” with a bunch of red doors that were numbered according to the buzzer that let me know when my food was ready. There was an open bar, live music, and yard games for people to hang around enjoying the perfect weather.
I sat at a picnic table with an umbrella for shade, and ended up chatting with an entrepreneur who wanted to make an IKEA equivalent for customized camper vans. Talk about a niche market! I met some really random and cool people just waiting in line and sitting with strangers at various events throughout the week. Many were working at startups all over the world, one girl was a UX designer for Capital One who happens to teach yoga at a studio I go to near work, and I even met MBA Career Management professionals from UT’s McCombs School of Business!
- Contigo – Patio dining with string lights is ubiquitous in Austin, and Contigo is one of those places I would always see on Instagram. The main location is a little north of downtown, in a quieter area but there’s also a location in the Fareground food hall. We went to the main location, and every single dish (and cocktail) was well-crafted, with ingredients I could tell were fresh. I ordered the kale salad with seared trout, and every server/waiter commented that it was their favorite! My mouth is watering just thinking about it.
- Julio’s seasoned tortilla chips – Okay this one is a bit out of the left field, but I stayed with Eric for a few nights and he insisted on getting these chips at HEB when we were shopping for ingredients to make dinner. Friends, no other tortilla chip can compare – it tastes like a lighter version of a Dorito. The seasoning on these chips are enough to eat plain, but also awesome with queso or salsa. Next time I’m in Texas I’m bringing bags of these chips back home with me!
- Milk Bar: Innovation in Pursuit of the Unexpected – One morning I slipped out of a really boring session on UX design, and wandered into the Food track at the same hotel. I noticed on the panel outside that Christina Tosi (Milkbar founder and TV personality) was giving a presentation, so I walked in behind someone who was leaving and my jaw dropped when it was really her up there!
Christina was being interviewed by the design lead on the team who helped her rebrand Milkbar. She is such an inspiring #girlboss! At the end of the panel, there were reps from UberEats who partnered with Milkbar to give out a bunch of Compost Cookies and my personal favorite, the Cornflake chocolate marshmallow cookie.
- Refresh: Food & Tech at SXSW – Google put on a day of panels, exhibits, activations, and demonstrations all about AI and food. I got to take home (well, to Eric’s home) fresh produce from the Farmer’s Market, sample vegan nachos and tacos.
- Produce Marketer’s Association – I saw a bunch of people walking around all day with flower crowns and bouquets, and I just knew it had to be some SXSW activation! Flowers are the least practical/most useless decoration in the history of home decor that somehow still makes me cave and get them once in awhile, even in completely impractical situations (like in Seattle, when I HAD to have flowers from Pike Place Market).
- Lonely Planet: One of the free non-badge access events I went to was a cooking demonstration by Dutch sustainable chef Kamilla Seidler, who was also cooking for the House of Scandinavia’s pop-up restaurant. It got a copy of Lonely Planet’s 2019 Best in Travel as well as some Swedish chocolate and other goodies!
- Cafe Mozart: Eric and I caught up over coffee and a pastry at this two-story coffee shop on the water. I’d see it from many Austin bloggers – 10/10!
- Le Politique: My manager and I got brunch here but we were so exhausted from a late night that I feel like we didn’t appreciate it as much as we should have. I’ve heard they have a great wine list and the little pastry shop is adorable, so I definitely want to come back.
- CHVRCHES (and frito pie): Waiting in line is my least favorite activity on earth, but the line we waited in to see CHVRCHES for free at Antone’s Nightclu (sponsored by Capital One) was 100% worth it (and worth staying up way past my bedtime for!) During the concert, we discovered a Texan delicacy known as frito pie: a bag of fritos with chili on top, eaten straight out of the bag. We found it again being served at the Snapchat house and got WAY too excited.
- Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the New Left
- Capturing the Moment: A Conversation with Instagram Founders Kevin Systrom & Mike Krieger with Josh Constine
- Don’t @ Venice: Instagram is Killing Bucket Lists
- Workplace Diversity with Mindy Kaling
Being a part of SXSW as not only a participant but a panel organizer was an incredible opportunity, especially for someone junior at my firm. Going to Southby would not have crossed my mind on my own accord, so I’m incredibly thankful for all the stars that had to align to have made this happen! Until next time, ATX <3