Hi. My name is Elizabeth Friedland. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely my own. They do not represent the views of my employer, clients, cat or your mom. Well, maybe they express the views of my cat... but he won't confirm.
More at Elizabethfriedland.com
Nay: Too Many People, Too Many Panels, Too Many Campuses
By some estimates, SXSW 2012 attendance ballooned by 25% this year. It showed. There were massive lines to do just about anything (except to pee if you’re a girl; see below). With a record 7 campuses around Austin, some spent more time waiting and riding shuttles than they did in panels .
Do we really need 7 campuses with specialized tracks for everything from health care to fashion? One of my favorite things about the SXSW of yore was the serendipity of it. While some panels certainly spoke to a specific topic, most were applicable to anyone in the industry (and by “industry” I’m casting a wide net to include individuals who are in and around an agency/web/advertising setting). I can’t tell you how many time I went to something that looked far too technical for my needs, yet came away with a brand new understanding about something I would have otherwise never learned about. The niche-ness of some topics led people to mock the insanity of it all – “Oh, I can’t wait to attend the session on UX in ambient social networks to stop the bullying of transgendered Mormon Leprechauns in Sub-Saharan Africa.”
Even with the crazy amount of sessions to choose from, it wasn’t uncommon to show up to a panel half an hour early only to find it was already full. If I’m paying thousands of dollars to attend these sessions, I want a guarantee I can get in – especially if I show up 30 minutes early.
Fix it: Cap attendance at something reasonable, cut your session selections in half, and go back to no more than 3 campus.
Nay: Austin Bergstrom Airport
Hey airport – every March you’re going to get a shit ton of people in you. Please prepare. I hand to wait almost 45 minutes in a cab line that curved around the front of the airport, and the security line took the better part of an hour. Even my cabbie complained that the airport taxi dispatcher never told the drivers them how long the line was: “If we knew how many people were waiting on taxis, we’d be here in a second to make a fortune!”
Fix it: Have the city’s taxis out en force. Ask some TSA employees to pick up an extra shift.
Nay: Oh, the Dreadful Q&A
“Hi, my name is Sean Doe, and I’m the CEO/Executive Director/Founder of SeanDoe.com – by the way, we’re seeking our first round of investments, so please visit SeanDoe.com/angels if you’re interested. Anyway, I once met you in December of 2002 at a book signing in Palo Alto, and I think you probably remember me because you said you liked my Star Trek shirt…. So, I have a nine-part question and some feedback on your last project I’d like to give you…”
That’s how 80% of the Q&As sound. If you want to ask a question, stand up, ask your question (yes, only ONE question), and sit down. No one cares who you are or what you do or what you’re considered an expert in. Sit. Down.
Fix it: I think it would be wise to have a SXSW volunteer moderate the Q&A for every session via Twitter – if you want to ask a question, submit it online with the session’s hashtag and if it’s relevant, the moderator will ask it. And panelists – please leave adequate time for questions, or don’t do it at all. If you start taking questions five minutes before the end of the session, I will rudely get up and walk out – I’ve got other panels to try and shove my way into.
Yay: Free everything
With just a little bit of preplanning, it wouldn’t be difficult to eat and drink in Austin for free the entire week. Everyone from the Today Show to Google gave away free food – and not just shitty granola bars either. Everything from the ubiquitous breakfast taco (I’m sorry, but that turns my stomach even when I’m not hungover) to a hot dog buffet with a topping bar could be scored for absolutely nothing. For better or worse, free booze was easy to come by too, and if you were in the market for complimentary t-shirts and sunglasses, all you had to do was step outside your hotel room (and be willing to be a walking billboard).
To be fair, this could be a nay for some. I, however, love the ratio. While I certainly noticed a stronger female presence than ever before, men by and large make up the conference attendees. This has its perks, like feeling like a supermodel wherever I go (sort of), and never ever having to stand in line to pee (that’s the truth – although the men’s bathroom line was frequently out the door). I welcome this sausage fest.
Even for a crowd that considers Denis Crowley an uber celeb, SXSW was more star-studded than ever. Just a few speakers: Al Gore, Sean Parker, Kevin Smith, Jill Abramson, Tom Colicchio, Andy Cohen, Seth MacFarlane, Rainn Wilson, Billy Corgan… and I know I’m missing dozens more.
Nay: Check-in Process
At one point, the line to check in and receive badges wrapped around the Convention Center a few times. I have no idea how long those poor souls had to wait, but it must have been hours.
Fix it: Mail materials to us ahead of time. I’d be willing to pay a convenience charge to have the option to have my materials shipped to me. (Note: I can’t truly complain because there was literally no line at all when I went to check in – but that’s because I have a super-secret check-in time strategy… which I won’t share, because I hope to always walk right on up to get my badge.)
You used to get a bunch more fun stuff in your check in bag – hangover kits, stickers, pens, business card holders. This year, nada. I want my toys, please!
Fix it: Nah, you don’t have to. Now I’m just complaining to complain.
The best part about SXSW is feeling like you’ve found your tribe. Where else can you have a panic attack about forgetting to check into Foursquare without feeling like a freak? It’s awesome to meet and hang out with people who are just as passionate about the weird things you are.
Nay: Bowing to the iPhone Gods
While the conference is all about being connected, everyone’s heads are bowed to their phones all of the time. One columnist pointed out that SXSW may be the only place where you see people at an awesome party with free drinks, free food and amazing bands still hunting and pecking away online, too afraid too miss a digital second of anything.
Fix it: His suggestion was to create parties next year where you had to check your phone. I know – the idea is terrifying to me too. How am I supposed to share my fun with the world if I can’t take a filtered Sierra picture of me drinking a beer next to Pete Cashmore? Yet it’s also kind of genius. Without the crutch of ours phones, we’d be forced to just, you know, talk to the random person next to us. I’m all for this. Please, someone – make your big sponsored party a device-free zone.
Nay: Go, Go, Go
If you do SXSW right, you’re up for breakfast, off to panels, heading to Happy Hours,hitting up parties and stumbling back to the hotel for maybe four hours of sleep before doing it all again – for a solid week. It’s no wonder I always come back home with bronchitis.
Fix itL Wouldn’t it be great to have a sponsored Zen lounge? Take a big tent, make it a silenced-device zone, play ambient music, dim the lights, and let attendees spend 20 minutes or so in private booths where they can lay down, nap, meditate or just escape from the noise and crowds for a moment. Aaaah.