Expert Advice Before Your First Time Attending SXSW

Welcome to the #365Firsts Podcast and the Expert Advice Before Your First Time Series. The show aims to encourage, prepare, and inspire you to do things you’ve never done before and complete your #365FirstsChallenge list. 

In each episode of this series, we give you tips and advice to set you up for success, for specific firsts and new experiences. The guests and topics are as varied as the options and possibilities of new experiences. 

Whether you’re trying to learn a new skill, improve your health and happiness, work on your self-development, add excitement and adventure to your life, or simply have first times, you’re going to love our podcast.

In This Episode

Today, we’re going to be taking a deep dive into the event that brings together the convergence of the interactive, film, and music industries. We are, of course, talking about South By Southwest, otherwise much better known just by SXSW.

The purpose of SXSW is to create an opportunity for “creative people to develop their careers by bringing together people from around the globe to meet, learn and share ideas.”

This incredible event takes place in Austin, Texas, every year and attracts an immense numbers of creatives from all around the world. We’re lucky to be joined by Hugh Forrest, the SXSW Chief Programming Officer, who has 31 years of experience putting the event together, and has all the expert advice you need to prepare yourself for your first SXSW experience!

The Guest Expert

Hugh started off his career by majoring in English, at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. Before he got involved with the SXSW team, he founded a local publication in Austin called the Austin Challenger. He also wrote for a number of other media publications.

Nowadays, Hugh serves as the Chief Programming Officer for the annual SXSW Conference. This year, it’s scheduled to take place from March the 13th to March 22nd, and is set to be a fantastic event. Each year, it brings together more than 30,000 digital creatives from all across the United States and the world as a whole.

This event helps to inspire the mass of digital creatives with 9 days of unique panels and presentations, brainstorming sessions and social events. There are countless opportunities for making deals, creating things, learning about innovation and having a good time too.

In 2012, the Austin Chamber of Commerce named Hugh as the ‘Austine of the Year’, which was great. This was alongside fellow SXSW Directors Roland Swenson, Louis Black and Nick Barbaro. In 2014, this group of innovators were named the Austin Entrepreneurs of the Year by Ernst and Young.

In addition to the work he has done at SXSW, he is also part of the National Advisory Board for the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida. He is a member of the Board of Directors for the Austin Habitat for Humanity, and a Trustee for the Austin Awesome Foundation.

To put it plainly, Hugh has an incredible amount of experience, and his work with the SXSW team makes him the perfect person to speak to about this event.

What You Need To Know About Attending SXSW For The First Time

What is SXSW?!?

Hugh started off the episode by describing the history of SXSW. It’s been around for 31 years and started as a music-only event in the image of a New York event called the New Music Seminar – which boasted names like Madonna. In 1994, SXSW expanded from just music to include technology and films as well. 

Since then, SXSW has gone through a number of other changes. It now covers music, film, technology, startups, politics, sports, fashion and a whole lot more. If it appeals to the digital creative community, you’re bound to find it at SXSW. 

In terms of describing the event as a whole, Hugh highlighted it as a 9 day event with thousands of panels, discussions, keynotes, and sources of entertainment. There are countless bands and vendors, film screenings and so much more.

The projected attendance for the entire 9 days of this event is anywhere from 50,000 to 60,000 badge holders, which is large number of people. However, it’s good to note, they’re not all there at one time, and they are spread across the 9 days.

Why You Should Attend SXSW – Broaden Your Horizon

Hugh provided the excellent advice for people attending SXSW to leverage being in such a creatively diverse and rich environment to broaden their horizons and to attend panels that may be outside of their usual areas of expertise, interests, and comfort zones. Of course, find your tribe and enjoy your favorite topical panels – but don’t be afraid to meet new people, and to attend more unfamiliar areas of the event. 

How to Make SXSW a Successful Conference For You

When preparing for SXSW, Hugh advised spending a couple of hours planning in advance to browse the schedules, find what panels and presentations you’re interested in, and check out where you should be on each day. Set some goals and understand what you would like to get out of attending before heading to SXSW. Do you want to meet new people, find a job, get inspired or meet with investors? Plan your schedule to meet your objectives.

With that being said, also try to stay open minded with your planning, as Hugh referenced how a lot of the appeal at SXSW has to do with the chance happenings and surprises that you can stumble on. Try to meet people where possible, and experience the unique attractions you come across.

Hugh then went on to describe the South By Social app and how it can be used for connecting with people who are involved with the event, other attendees, and presenters/panelists. It can be used to reach out to others at the conference, and to set up professional meetings with people who are looking at SXSW as an opportunity for their business. 

SXSW Logistics

In terms of the layout, SXSW is set out mainly in the Austin Convention Center. There are other hotels adjacent to this location which have events related to SXSW, and Hugh noted it’s easy enough to get from one spot to another. There is a lot of walking at this event, and Hugh suggested people should bring comfy shoes. 

The way to get around, besides walking, is to use Uber/Lyft or to try out the Austin Pedicabs.

Additionally, make sure to plan for Austin weather. Austin tends to have an early spring, with warm days and cold nights – but cold fronts aren’t uncommon. Make sure to bring a wide range of clothing to help yourself stay comfortable throughout the event. 

Hugh described how SXSW has keynotes and featured speakers, who are hosted in the biggest rooms and broadcast to a wider audience. If you do want to see one of the bigger speakers, make sure to get there on time to ensure you don’t miss out. 

What to Checkout in Austin

On a different note, Hugh gave some suggestions for things to do around Austin. There is a lot of great food in the city, including breakfast tacos, Texas barbecue (famously, Franklin’s Barbecue) and Tex-Mex food. It’s an incredibly varied place, with many wonderful things to do, see, eat and experience. 

Walking along the hike and bike trail can also be a fantastic way to see more of Austin and to wind down after the event. There are some great Texas-themed shopping haunts nearby as well, and plenty of other great places to check out.

Get In Touch With Hugh

We had a great time filming this episode, and we’re sure that Hugh would be happy to answer any further questions about SXSW if you have any. 

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How To Reach Us

If you’ve got anything that you would like to tell us about the show and how you’ve found it so far, please feel free to get in touch. The main reason why we do what we do is that we love helping out our community, so we would be more than happy to speak with you.

Are there particular topics that you’d like to see, or something you want advice on? Is there something that you think we could be doing better? Feel free to get in touch with a member of our team at today.

What’s Coming Up Next Time?

New episodes of Expert Advice Before Your First Time are released each week and we’ve got a great roster of guests lined up to give you more expert advice. 

In the next episode on the 27th, we’ll be discussing what first time safari adventurers need to know with Mike Herscott. After that on the 3rd of March, we’ll be speaking with Kyrin Dunston about starting menopause. You can listen and subscribe on Apple, Google, or Spotify. While you’re there – please leave a review if you can. It really does help us with our work, and each review is deeply appreciated.

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