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SXSW Interactive: preparing for five days of interactive Nirvana

With little more than 12 hours to go before the official opening of South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive 2012, I made a quick run tonight to the Austin Convention Center (ACC) to pick up my badge. Sure, there are many pre-SXSW parties, networking and hospitality events I could have attended. And I could have stayed home, too, because the weather is uncharacteristically cold and rainy tonight.

But no way am I waiting until Friday morning. Getting that badge now eliminates the risk of missing must-see sessions and panels on opening day.

Many first time attendees (and people observing from afar) don’t grasp the sheer magnitude of SXSW, which is actually a group of conferences and festivals that take place from March 9 through March 18 in Austin, Tex. During that entire timeframe, a total of about 250,000 people from around the world are expected to converge on Austin. (The city of Austin is home to about 790,000 people.) A surprisingly small team of paid staffers plans and manages SXSW, and that group is supported by an army of 3,400 local volunteers who range in age from 16 to 80 years old.

Of the quarter million SXSW attendees, more than 25,000 will participate in the five-day-long SXSW Interactive festival. Every single participant, plus members of the media covering the conference, must first pass through the registration area at ACC to retrieve a badge that grants entry to everything — from keynotes, panels, and sponsored lounges to off-site sponsored venues, parties and shuttle busses.

In all, SXSW Interactive offers attendees more than 5,000 educational sessions, keynotes, networking events and parties.

Programs take place at 15 campuses within ACC and at nearby venues located in downtown Austin. Each campus is organized around particular themes, including brand and marketing. Within each theme area are 11 types of sessions, such as panels, workshops, meet ups, and mentoring sessions, to name a few. Plus, a monster-sized trade show runs for two days of the conference.

With so much going on at once, planning and preparation are crucial elements to a satisfying experience at SXSW. My last minute tips for attendees:

  • Choose sessions and set schedule plans in advance, but stay flexible — all sessions are first come, first seated.
  • Stay alert for last minute announcements of new speakers and sessions.
  • Sessions fill up fast, so arrive 30 to 40 minutes before the session begins.
  • Explore downtown to find sponsored venues with great perks, like free food and nice swag.
  • Respond to all networking event invites. Good manners are rewarded.
  • Dress for comfort, not fashion. We’re casual here.
  • Wear the most comfortable shoes you own.
  • Bring an umbrella. Rain is predicted through Sunday.

Tonight, it took seven minutes flat to get through registration to retrieve my badge. If you’re hunkered down in your hotel room in Austin or are attending a pre-SXSW event now, get yourself over to ACC before 9 p.m. tonight and pick up your badge. You’ll thank me later.

Pamela Oldham is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. Follow her live tweets from SXSW @dmnews.

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