SXSW FOMO: Seven tips on how to avoid it & how to deal with it

Back in Amsterdam, done and dusted, Anneli Rispens of DDB EMEA shares her top tips on how to avoid SXSW FOMO. 

South by Southwest (abbreviated as SXSW) is the annual get-together for film, interactive media, and music lovers and professionals alike. The conference quickly grew from a grassroots gathering to a takeover of the city of Austin by 70K people. The event can best be described in one word: overwhelming. As the saying goes, everything is bigger in Texas. There are more talks to see, more people to meet, and more food to eat than at any other conference or event. You need a plan to prevent yourself from caving under the constant pressure of SXSW FOMO.

Every day SXSW hosts approximately a hundred different sessions, off-program events, and parties. Creating and sticking to a schedule seems like mission impossible. You can easily distinguish the rookies from the veterans by the rushed pace they walk on the street, the tone of frustration they talk in the queue and the bags under their eyes after day three.

Rookie mistake #1: Full schedule

SXSW is a great way to immerse yourself into the latest trends and see some of the greatest speakers live on stage. But we all know that the human brain can only take in a certain amount of information before it shuts down. How do you make it to the end of the day with a fresh and open mind?

Veteran tip #1: Focus on themes and avoid panels 

Avoid information overload by forcefully limiting yourself to five talks and one panel a day. This will give your brain the room to process. And at the risk of spreading yourself too thin, it’s better to focus on some overarching themes like Storytelling, AR/VR and Brands & Marketing instead of grazing on every subject out there.

Rookie mistake #2: Multiple locations

My first SXSW I thought I was so well prepared. Armed with Google Maps and a rental bike I crossed downtown from one venue to another to arrive 15 minutes prior to a session and find the room packed and the door closed. It didn’t take me long to learn that Google Maps is useless and common sense overrules technology.

Veteran tip #2: One location per daypart

For the more popular sessions queues will start forming an hour in advance. I now plan my schedule by favoring all talks that I find remotely interesting in SXSW GO. Every day at breakfast I check which venue is most dominant per daypart and add my favorites from that venue to my Calendar. That way I bring focus but remain flexible.       

Rookie mistake #3: Play by the rules   

If you play strictly by the rules and adhere to every social norm at SXSW you’ll spend your festival queuing, waiting and regretting. You’re robbing yourself from an experience by sitting through an hour-long talk by a speaker that is unable to capture your attention, bores or annoys. Sometimes the rules are there to be broken, or at least bent.

Veteran tip #3: Fake it till you make it 

Call me a jerk, but at SXSW curtesy is overrated. Sometimes you need to play dirty and cut in front to ensure your seat. It’s ok, everybody does it, not everybody gets away with it. So, go ahead and ‘join your friends’ in the queue, claim to the staff scanning your badge you ‘just came from the bathroom’ and better practice your ‘fake accents,’ they just might provide you with VIP access to a party. But be ok with being called on your bluff and apologizing when necessary. Don’t overplay the role of the jerk.

Rookie mistake #4: VIP spotting 

Every generation has its own idols and all generations are represented at SXSW. It might be the city’s relaxed atmosphere, but generally they are quite approachable too. If you want you can spend your whole day idolizing Casey Neistat, Tim Ferriss, Gary V, Marie Kondo, Buzz Aldrin, Seth Rogen and many other featured speakers and enforcing your own filter bubble.

Veteran tip #4: Superstars mixed with surprise acts

A wise man once said: ‘We don’t make mistakes, we just have happy little accidents (yes, I have idols too).’ SXSW is one of the best places to get surprised by some amazing and unexpected speakers. You can let serendipity take its natural course by entering a random room when you end up not getting into your first choice or by camping out in the same room all day.

Rookie mistake #5: Plan your dinners

Austin is Valhalla for foodies. They have the most amazing food trucks, BBQ and even some great healthy options for when you’re done stuffing your face with donuts, tacos and brisket. But your mission to #eatallthefood in Austin can be a full-time job in itself. Most popular places will have huge queues during SXSW and if there’s one thing you don’t need it’s more queues.

Veteran tip #5: Prepare for war

Eating takes time and time is your scarcest resource at SXSW. Limit yourself to one foodie expedition per day and save yourself from spending more than the absolute necessary time on fueling up by grabbing every free granola bar, coffee and water bottle offered to you or survive on the free bites & drinks served in lounges, meet-ups and networking events.

Rookie mistake #6: Try to “plan” business meetings

SXSW might be one of the most condensed places to meet likeminded souls and to catch up with colleagues, clients, partners, and suppliers. But I found that planning doesn’t work 90% of the time. Because there’s so much going on it’s hard to predict how your day will look and you may want to prevent pinning yourself down. SXSW Social can be a great tool to connect but is mainly used by account & salespeople.

Veteran tip #6: Stack up on business cards & go with the flow

Although it’s a big town, chances of running into people you know are quite big in my experience. So instead of planning your get-togethers in advance, go with the flow and celebrate spontaneous meet-ups. Be ready to do business the American way: “Who are you & what do you do?” and stack up on business cards, they can either be used to connect when wanted or to disengage when needed.

Rookie mistake #7: Attend every “hottest party in town”

For 9 days Austin is the epicenter of music, dancing, drinking and partying. If you want you can spend your whole SXSW experience either a little too festive or paying the price, which will happen if you don’t pace yourself. Every night there are multiple organizers claiming to host the “hottest party of SXSW” and they all require you to RSVP.

Veteran tip #7: RSVP like a pro

By now you probably realize that SXSW is best enjoyed when you balance between having a plan and having an open mind. Eventually it’s the conversations you have at the party that make or break it. Nobody limits you to have ten RSVP’s per day. Create options. RSVP like a pro and go with the flow.

Guest Author DDB Blog