I'll be headed to my seventh and perhaps last SXSW Interactive this year. I've spoken twice, judged at the startup accelerator, been around for the first Garyvee SXSW flashmob wine party, tipped a certain investor off to Twitter, been the investor behind the app that "won" the conference, attended a bike rally, tattooed a 4SQ douchebag badge on my head, played actual foursquare, and funded a guy I met for the first time there (Rob May from Backupify) --three years later.
Call me a veteran.
But each year, my expectations of the conference, which keeps getting bigger and bigger, keep getting smaller and smaller. There's been a lot of panel quality dilution--more panelists, of course, means lower quality. You're that much less likely to run into someone amazing in the hallways that you couldn't meet anywhere else--because a lot of those people aren't coming anymore and now the always are swamped with junior agency folks coming for the first time.
So is SXSW over, or can you still have a great time? You def can and here's how:
1) You're going to miss lots of stuff, so don't worry about it. Peruse the panels and try to pick out 3-5 panels that you really want to see, and more importantly, panelists you want to meet. If you could have 3 in person conversations with amazing panelists that you wouldn't otherwise have a connection to, consider that the bar for getting the most out of panels.
2) GroupMe is great for organizing your friends at SXSW, and Foursquare is still a good way to figure out where everyone is. Between the two of them, including commenting on Foursquare if stuff is worth going to, and whether you're likely to stay long, you'll be fine for keeping track of everyone.
3) Be a food leader--there will always be a critical mass of hungry people at any given time, so if you can actually make set plans to get food at a certain place at a certain time, and do the heavy lifting of waiting on lines, getting tables, etc., you'll be a hero.
4) Go deep--find a handful of people to really get to know at the conference. If all you do is get a bunch of business cards and you can't remember who anyone is, you missed the point. If you're going to be down there over a weekend, you should be social with people and get to know who they are, not just what they do. Some of my closest friends in tech come from relationships I solidified while I was down at SXSW.
5) Sign up for SX Social, and tag yourself--what you do, where you're from, fun stuff. Connect your networks so you become findable. Figure out who you want to meet ahead of time and make it like a scavenger hunt of awesome folks.
Bonus: Getting drunk and hungover is a complete waste of time. You can drink all you want when you're home, but if you can't remember who you hung out with, and you miss half or whole days because you're sick, you're just wasting your money. Have some meat and some brews, but don't overdue it--because if you actually take care of yourself, actually sleep, actually eat, you're going to be able to win the marathon instead of getting burned out on the first day.