Plangasm: Last-minute tips for SXSW pilgrims

The time has finally come for South by Southwest (SXSW) 2011 Hordes of technorati, cinephiles, and music fans are descending on Austin like a pilgrimage to Mecca, only instead of the Kaaba Stone, SXSW attendees will have the AT&T Convention Center as the center of their universe.

I went for the first time last year, and had an overwhelming and inspiring blast. The sheer scope of the festival is mind-numbing. In this year’s interactive festival alone, there are over 1800 speakers across thousands of sessions, with 1500+ press credentials alone. Way too much great content for any one human being to consume, and often riddled with time conflicts between things you have to see. This deluge spells one thing for newbies and veterans alike: a planning nightmare, usually faced at the last minute, since we all lead busy lives.

Here are my last-minute tips to help plan your own version of the Hajj:

Attack of the planning tools

There’s no shortage of tools to help attendees plan. I spent time with the following, with varying degrees of success depending on what I wanted to do:

  • (official site, with complete schedule)
  • SXSW Go (official mobile application)
  • Plancast SXSW (web and mobile application)
  • SCHED* (web-based with mobile-friendly site)
  • Lanyrd SXSW (web-based with mobile-friendly site)

While all of these services provide the ability to select sessions and events you’re interested in, some are better suited to certain planning challenges than others.

Lanyrd: Location, location, location

If you’re at all like me, SXSW will offer the tyranny of choice: too many sessions to see, many of which are at the same time. You often have to make a choice between multiple equally brain-teasing options. All things being equal, I think location becomes the tie breaker.

Just in case it’s not obvious, SXSW is big. Really big. A consequence of the number of people and sessions is that things are spread out, with some venues being a 10-15 minute walk from the central hub (the convention center). If you’re interested in two (or more) sessions at the same time, odds are they might be spread out (which means you can’t session hop). Alternatively, if you want to see three things in a row, but they’re spread out, you might find yourself running back and forth, barely making sessions, and often not getting a seat.

The problem with most of the planning tools is that they don’t help you manage this problem. You can’t indicate interest in sessions and have a clear visual indication of how location will play into things. Enter the “grid” view in Lanyrd.

Lanyrd allows you to sign in with your Twitter credentials, see what sessions your friends are attending, and express interest in your own. You can either “attend” or just “track” an event, which is great if you can’t decide. Just express interest in all the stuff you want, choose “attend” for the sure things, and track everything else. Now here’s the good part: when you toggle into the view of the stuff you’ve flagged, you can switch to a grid-view mode. In grid view, Lanryd builds a big table of your events, with time running vertically, and venue location (e.g, ACC, Hyatt, Radisson) running horizontally (see below).

What this means is with one view, you can immediately see where you’ve got location conflicts. If two sessions overlap, and you were thinking you might hop between them, grid view will give you a reality check. Back to back sessions in the Hyatt and Sheraton? No way, Jose.

Three small caveats:

  • ACC is so big that sessions on different floors and opposite sides of the building can often spell frustration, since it can take 10 minutes to walk through the crowds inside the building; Lanyrd bundles all ACC sessions in one column
  • Lanyrd has a mobile-friendly site, but grid view is hidden at the absolute bottom of the screen, and isn’t clearly labeled
  • Session selection is a painful scroll through multiple screens of sessions; there’s no way to condense and see all sessions for a single day on one screen

SCHED*: Quick planning and the best condensed view

SCHED* makes it really easy to select sessions you’re interested in. It groups them all onto a single screen by day, and color codes by event type. In thiry minutes, yu could blast through all of SXSW interactive, ticking off cool stuff to see. The problem is there’s no analog to Lanyrd’s awesome grid view, so you’re left with one massive list. The great feature SCHED* offers is an ultra-condensed “Print” view (shown below), which puts every session onto a single line in a tight format. I was able to print out all of my “must attend” sessions on a single page (where a printed version of Lanyrd’s grid view ran seven pages).

SXSW Go for definitive content and maps

The official mobile application for SXSW is great if you need to make sure you’ve got ALL of the conference information in one place. It’s up-to-date, and it’s got built-in maps to make life a little bit easier. Unfortunately, for planning, I felt like it suffered a bit relative to the other applications and sites.

Plancast for parties

Plancast SXSW offers some basic scheduling functionality, but it’s not the easiest to navigate through sessions, in my opinion. It also doesn’t offer great condensed or printable ,views to help manage those massive lists of stuff you want to see. What it IS great for is all of the parties and extracurricular events your friends might be attending. It’s also good as a way to see more clearly how popular a given event or session is. You might also check the usual suspects for events, which have lists of parties (e.g., Eventbrite SXSW page).

Odds and ends

A few other things I did in my last-minute planning efforts that might help you out:

  • Save individual venue maps from Lanyrd to your Desktop or Dropbox or whatever tool you use to see this stuff
  • Add the relevant web pages and apps to your mobile phone (e.g., iPhone) home screen (e.g., the grid view of your schedule in Lanyrd)
  • Check out the overview map (below, grabbed from Lanyrd) of ALL venues just so you know your Radisson from your ACC from your Driskill

With all of that said, and with a few more tools in your SXSW planning tool belt, remember to let go. Don’t worry if you don’t plan everything out. Serendipity is one of the amazing things about SXSW. With such an amazing collection of people and events in one place, you’re bound to find something interesting. Just stay open to extreme possibilities.