South by Southwest: sessions & events do not a boondoggle make.

A couple of days ago, I got back from my inaugural trip to Austin, TX where I attended the interactive portion of South by Southwest. Like a bunch of my industry colleagues and many others I’ve spoken to that are unable to attend, I was worried about the expensive cost for attending so I tried to minimize the total cost associated with me being in Austin for a six day stay. After all that I’ve experienced and the amazing amount of new contacts and opportunities, it has really convinced me that I made the right decision.

There’s been a lot of talk about how South by Southwest is basically an adult version of spring break, but don’t let that fool you. If you’re interested in what’s going on in the tech sphere and how the web is shaping itself to be more relevant to our daily lives, then I would suggest you get yourself over to Austin. Yes, there are a lot of parties and events, but there are even more sessions and panels that you can attend – so much more that you’ll have a hard time trying to figure out which sessions to attend. But let’s keep in mind that there’s a lot that’s going on during SXSW so you might need to plan ahead and figure out what your objectives are.

For many people, attending SXSW is just to attend some panels and sessions and learn all that they can. Don’t try and take a lot of notes if you can. Yes, I know that sounds rather idiotic but let’s remember that you’re in an interactive conference, so there’s going to be hundreds of other people in the session and in the conference with a laptop or cell phone live-tweeting, streaming, recording, blogging, or simply taking notes for repurposing later on. The talks will probably be posted online as well so you can catch up to them. Listen and engage in what the panel/session is all about. Other panelists are getting into the use of technology by having questions sent to them via Twitter so make sure that you’re up to date on the latest technology trend so you can interact with the presenters as well.

But some others (like yours truly), it was a trip where I would be working on networking and getting noticed – and I believe I did just that. From walking through the trade show multiple times and meeting people in line and opening up conversations, I’ve met quite a few people. Not only did I pace myself through the halls, but also at events and parties. Just who did I meet? Well I took advantage of every opportunity – from attending Social Media Club – Austin, Suds for Gadget Lovers, Network Solutions Small Biz Brunch, hanging out at the Blogger’s Lounge (hosted by Techset & Microsoft), going to several great tweetups like the AllHat one organized by the world-famous Richard Binhammer (better known as @RichardatDell) and Brian Solis, along with a tweetup with fellow Hawaii expatriates and current residents, set up by one of the state’s brightest social media professionals, Ryan Ozawa.

Now you might be thinking that I just went to these places and had a good time drinking and partying it up. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, there was partying, but at the same time, I planned on being there with a mission. No one is expected to be “on” 24 hours a day but you need to have some time and engage in a more leisure environment in order to form the right rapport with people. With myself, I took it upon myself to try and engage more like an experienced traveler to SXSW – although you’d have to ask others if I passed myself off correctly. Nevertheless, I strategized that in order for me to maximize my visibility, I need to be where a lot of people were – that included being at most of the parties and interacting with everyone. That includes trying to talk to “A-list” celebrities within the interactive realm, but also spending more time talking to the average people – startup businesses, designers, developers, and everyone else. I made some really great connections there.

Overall, the experience at SXSW has been excellent and I believe I accomplished the mission I set out for. Unforunately there are some lessons learned and I irresponsibly ran out of business cards. However, thanks to the people I follow on Twitter, Contxt.com came through in a clutch and saved me on multiple occasions. Would I go back and change anything from my time in Austin? Probably. I would see if I could go to any other networking events and attend a few more sessions. But that’s all for next year.

So strap on your boots and make some connections. Only 365 more days to go until SXSW 2010!