Travel hack gone awry: the conference that got canceled

AUSTIN–South By Southwest starts today, but I’ve been here since Wednesday. That seemed like a smart way to arrange my travel until last Thursday–when the PR Summit conference here vanished from my schedule.

You can’t tell this from the generic “under construction” page at that address, but I was going to participate in a discussion about communications strategies “in the age of Trump and Twitter.” That’s a fascinating topic I hope to address someday. But last Thursday’s e-mail announcing the conference’s postponement after a sponsor’s withdrawal ensures that time won’t be this week.

I have spoken at a lot of conferences over the past 10 years, and this is the first time one has gotten scrubbed like this. My great experience speaking at 2013’s PR Summit in San Francisco led me to expect this one to go just as smoothly–and since I was heading to Austin anyway, moving up my departure by two days and getting a better deal on airfare in the bargain made sense.

Thing is–not that I’d know this first-hand–putting on a conference requires difficult and prolonged work and demands the support of many third parties with their own interests. I should probably be surprised I haven’t had one implode on me before.

The immediate downsides of having the event cancel were realizing I’d spend two more days away from my family without any business rationale, and that I’d need to find someplace else to stay now that the conference-paid hotel room was gone as well.

But the local PR shop TrendKite put together its own small event Wednesday afternoon, at which it was comforting to realize anew that PR pros can find social media just as much of a game of chance as journalists. I stayed the last two nights with a friend from high school and his wife (cooking dinner for them Wednesday allowed an overdue introduction to the kitchen-newbie-friendly UX of a Blue Apron kit). And having last night free let me catch up over dinner with a college-newspaper friend whom I’d last seen in 2003. I can’t complain about those outcomes.

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SXSW FYI

South By Southwest has somehow been on my calendar every March since 2012, which should mean I know what I’m doing in Austin. I don’t really–but with friends coming to SXSW for their first time, I’m due to share what I’ve learned over these five years of practice at hanging out with the unelected hipster elite.

sxsw-microphonePacking: SXSW is properly understood as CES in a more walkable city. Bring your most comfortable shoes and socks, take a jacket you can stuff in a bag (it gets warm during March days in central Texas), and ensure your bag/backpack/purse/satchel always includes a power adapter and external battery for your phone.

If you have a travel power strip and extra USB cables, bring them. Helping other people charge their devices is a recognized good deed at SXSW.

I hear that packing a sufficiently ironic t-shirt can’t hurt, but every year I forget to bring anything from my dwindling collection of ’80s concert attire.

Getting around: With Lyft and Uber having fled Austin after it enacted rules that require fingerprinting drivers, getting around CES may be more complicated as you deal with various smaller-scale ride-hailing services. I haven’t tried those alternatives, but I usually stick to walking back and forth–downtown is compact enough.

For travel from and back to the airport, the 100 bus is an underrated option, especially compared to cab lines on SXSW’s opening day of March 10. The Red Line light rail can be helpful for getting to spots on the east side of town, and if you have a car2go membership, that works in Austin too. The city also has a bike share network, but I’ve yet to try that. If only my Capital Bikeshare membership got me a discount on a day pass…

sxsw-6th-streetPanels and venues: At the risk of sounding like a dweeb, SXSW panels deserve your time. They gather smart people who have learned insightful things about the intersection of technology and culture, and you will learn from them if you pay attention. In the bargain, they provide a valuable opportunity to recharge your devices.

Unfortunately, they are also scattered around Austin. The core venues–the Convention Center, he JW Marriott, the Westin, even the Hilton across the street from the convention center–are placed just far enough apart that running into one random acquaintance will lead you to miss the panel you’d put on your schedule in a fit of optimism. If you’d set out to hit a more distant SXSW location like the Hyatt Regency across the river: good luck!

Get used to tearing up those plans in favor of going to whatever you can make in the next 10 minutes. Besides, randomly running into people is one of the best things about SXSW.

Don’t overlook the compact trade-show floor in the convention center. Last year, that led me to headphones 3D-printed to fit only my ear canals (unable to sell that review hardware to anybody else, I donated its sale value to the nonprofit news organization Pro Publica) and a nonprofit campaign collecting USB flash drives on which to smuggle non-totalitarian information into North Korea.

Eating and drinking: The amount of corporate-subsidized food and beverages available during SXSW is ridiculous. I’ve spent the last five years waiting for all of these marketing managers and brand ambassadors to be held accountable for the expenses they run up, but no such thing has happened. So it’s quite possible to spend all five days of SXSW’s Interactive festival without paying for lunch, dinner or drinks.

Breakfast is another thing. So is the late-night snack that may become necessary after attending a SXSW event with more booze than chow. Either way, you’re in one of America’s food-truck capitals: Fire up your eats-finding app of choice, be prepared to walk a few blocks, and you should be fine.

Weekly output: SXSW (x2), Google Reader, bookmarks, Galaxy S 4

Another travel week ends as it should: me at home, photos from the trip posted, expenses duly categorized in Mint and a flurry of LinkedIn invitations sent.

Discovery News SXSW 2013 post

3/13/2013: SXSW Sights: Silly Robots and Serious Wi-Fi, Discovery News

This year’s SXSW didn’t feature any breakout apps, or even a particular category of app that had people excited. Here, I wrote about the panels, talks and demos that caught my interest instead–and noted the conference’s most pleasant surprise, reliable, fast and free WiFi almost everywhere I went.

3/15/2013: Digging Into A Few Of SXSW 2013′s Disruptive Dreams, Disruptive Competition Project

In this SXSW recap, I focused more closely on a few topics that interested me at the festival: 3-D printing, HTML5 apps, mobile finance and our not-fully-rational responses to transformational technology. I wrote about three-quarters of this on the plane home; the remaining one-fourth took the last three-quarters of the time.

3/15/2013: What’s the big deal about Google Reader’s demise?, USA Today

Google’s surprising (and, to many, infuriating) announcement of the July 1 shutdown of its Google Reader RSS service sparked this column, posted a couple of days early. I thought about linking to the “Hitler finds out Google Reader is shutting down” Downfall parody video, but I wasn’t sure all of the potential audience would be hip to the joke.

3/15/2013: Can the new Samsung Galaxy S4 take on the iPhone?, WTOP

D.C.’s news station had me on the air for a couple of minutes to discuss Samsung’s latest flagship smartphone. (Samsung invited me to what turned out to be a hot mess of a launch event at Radio City Music Hall; I opted not to run up to NYC the day after getting home from Austin, but part of me regrets not going.)

Sulia worked well for sharing my notes from SXSW in something close to real-time: for instance, highlights from Oatmeal cartoonist Matthew Inman’s keynote, details about one startup’s dubious patent filing, and a glitchy demo of Siri’s Eyes Free Mode in a Chevy hatchback on the show floor. I also noted Google’s backpedaling after a stupidly terse  post had people thinking the company was ending support for the open CalDAV schedule-syncing standard.

SXSW 2013 by the numbers

Modern science provides an extraordinary number of ways to quantify one’s participation in the South By Southwest Interactive festival that wrapped up Tuesday (its sleep debt is still with me, to judge from the hour-long nap I just woke up from). Here are a few:

  • SXSW 2013 badgeSteps taken, as recorded by a Jawbone Up: 98,610 steps, adding up to 51.64 miles. This includes mileage at home Friday morning but leaves out my walk to the bus that took me to the airport Wednesday morning.
  • Tweets sent while in Austin: 178, excluding retweets of other people’s thoughts but including tweets about non-SXSW news.
  • Data usage on my phone from March 8 through March 13: 739 MB, 192 MB of which came from tethering my laptop to my phone.
  • Food truck check-ins on Foursquare: seven
  • Bar check-ins on Foursquare: 14. (Some of those stops were mainly for food. Don’t judge me!)
  • SXSW sessions attended, or in one case watched from an overflow room: 11. Sadly enough, this is considered a pretty good showing in some circles. There are least as many that I seriously regret missing.
  • Business cards collected: 33. Yup, still waiting to see some app make this printed product obsolete.
  • Business cards handed out: not enough to exhaust my supply, fortunately.

After the jump, a Flickr slideshow from the festivities…

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SXSW suckup, 2012 edition

It seems wrong to be thinking about next year’s SXSW conference when I’ve only just started digesting the inevitability of CES 2013. But the annual routine of picking panels for next March’s gathering in Austin is already upon us, with voting opening on Monday for SXSW Interactive and running through Aug. 31.

Last year, I had the luxury of being asked to join panels other people had organized, one of which made the cut and yielded a great discussion about the SOPA and PIPA debate. My pitch for this year, “How Traditional Media Got/Get Tech Policy Wrong,” started with a great insight from that conversation: Bad tech-policy coverage in traditional media sources yields poor Congressional understanding of these issues.

So in this follow-up, I want to get into the history of this subpar coverage and the reasons for it, based on what I’ve seen in the reporting of others and my own faults. If you think that’s an interesting topic, please vote for my panel. (That requires a free registration, but I can attest that the SXSW organizers aren’t spammy.) Internet votes count for “about 30% of the decision-making process,” with SXSW’s board and staff making up the rest.

But don’t just vote for my panel: The SXSW PanelPicker site features 3,117 proposals in all for just the Interactive segment of the conference.

I spent several hours earlier this week browsing through all those entries, employing such scientific methods as looking at their titles (how I made many of my last-minute attendance decisions in March) and searching for friends. After the jump, you can read about the ones I know I’ll be voting for, grouped under categories I made up for this post. I can’t promise that I’ll actually attend all of these between March 8 and 12, but I will at least feel slightly wistful about missing some of them.

Updated 8/21 to add another handful of picks and re-arrange the panels listed under each category to suggest where each ranks on my must-attend list.

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The SXSW suckup

If certain tech-savvy friends have been sounding annoyingly needy about a four-letter tech gathering, it’s just the time of year. The annual South by Southwest campaign season has arrived, bringing a flood of hopeful attendees groveling for votes in favor of the panel discussions they’ve proposed for next March’s conference in Austin.

And this year, for the first time, I’ve become part of this circus. I have an entry on SXSW’s PanelPicker site on tech policies that promote or hinder innovation, while my Discovery News colleagues have listed me as a panel member for a proposed discussion about orchestrating a news organization when few of its personnel are in the same room.

I’ve tried not to be too much of a nag with “please vote for my panel” requests on Twitter or Facebook–by the way, please vote for my panel!–but with 3,284 proposals for SXSW Interactive alone, I can’t neglect that angle. As the PanelPicker FAQ explains, Internet voting (anybody online is eligible once they create a free account) “accounts for about 30% of the decision-making process,” with the conference’s advisory board and staff providing the balance of the input.

My understanding is that getting your panel picked provides a nice ego boost and can deliver terrific exposure. It also gets you free admission to SXSW’s Interactive and Film events (a badge for just SXSW Interactive runs $595). And SXSW, while a logistical nightmare, has also served as a launch pad for such startups as Twitter and Foursquare. Further, Austin is an excellent place to eat, drink and hear live music.

(So why haven’t I attended SXSW already? I wish I had a better story, but first I showed a pathetic lack of initiative by not even putting in on my calendar for several years running, and then the Post turned down my travel requests. I should have gone on my own dime this spring–but by the time I realized I might need some SXSW-fueled job networking, I couldn’t find a hotel room much closer than San Antonio and had a schedule conflict anyway.)

I feel reasonably good about my chances. I can’t tell how many people have voted for the two panels involving me, but I’ve been flattered to see the tech-policy proposal get a shout-out from Techdirt blogger Mike Masnick (movie-ad quote from his post: “Rob Pegoraro is always interesting”), while Mediabistro blogger Maurice Cherry judged Discovery’s panel proposal one of the 15 most relevant journalism proposals. And I’m continuing to plug these two panels in places like Facebook’s DC Tech group and, of course, right here.

Voting and comments run through 11:59 p.m. Central Sept. 2–please vote for my panel!–and hopefully things will work out. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of room on my own SXSW ballot beyond the votes I’ve already cast (Kim, Cecilia, Paul, Nate: you’re welcome). And I should start drafting a proposal for SXSW 2013, one I’ve had in my head for a while: a panel in which we’d discuss the finer points of running panels.