MORE: The real SXSW
One Fortune reporter’s first time at SXSW Interactive yielded a number of discoveries and mishaps. Here’s what he discovered.
FORTUNE — South by Southwest Interactive isn’t just a convention. It’s a five-day endurance test.
Last year, more than 19,300 people came to Austin and conquered. This go-around, that number swelled to more than 24,500, and it showed. The streets teemed with out-of-towners. Picking up badges on the first day meant standing in line for more than an hour-and-a-half. Late at night, I found myself pounding the pavement, sticking my hand out in vain for a cab.
Despite the chaos, SXSWi proved worthwhile for a first-timer like me. Here’s what I learned.
It really is a great place to meet people. Trekking out to Austin isn’t cheap. Unless you’re a member of the media, you’ll likely have to pay your way in, with Interactive badges starting at $595 each. The access you get, however, is incredible, whether it’s a quick chat with a CEO after his onstage appearance or countless rounds of drinks with several startup founders at a local dive bar.
You have to pace yourself. One of the simplest rules proved tough to follow. Two weeks before it kicked off, my inbox filled up with invitations: parties that overlapped, all-night dance “ragers,” hangover brunches, and barbecues. That first night, I attended six parties — and woke up the next morning feeling like I’d been run over by a Chevy Blazer. You’ll laugh with, eat and drink with, and learn from some of the brightest in tech, and then, six hours later, you’ll do it all over again. If you’re not careful, you’ll succumb to what several attendees inappropriately called “South by SARS,” the SXSW equivalent of sickness-induced exhaustion. Given the long days and even longer nights, it’s not hard to see why.
There’s no such thing as “VIP.” It doesn’t matter if you’re on the VIP list. Because there are so many attendees crawling the city and even the “most intimate” of parties over invite, the end result is long VIP lines and line cutters harassing the bouncer with claims that they know this entrepreneur or that venture capitalist. Sometimes, you can cruise right by based on who you know, but just as often, you may be waiting out in the cold with everyone else.
A tech bubble? Sure. As innovative as technology is, it sometimes results in experiments gone horribly awry. For every FedEx marketing employee dressed as a mobile battery charger, there were hapless stunts like “Homeless Hotspots,” where homeless Austin residents wore Verizon MiFi 4G cards and acted as wireless Internet hubs. Tech-speak was plentiful, too. My personal favorite: “It’s like Airbnb — but for dogs.”
You’re going to gain weight. It doesn’t matter if you run barefoot and guzzle quinoa. At SXSW, you’re going to pack on the pounds. Some of it’s because so many of your social interactions happen around drinks and appetizers. But it’s also impossible to ignore the excellent local grub: the Tex-Mex, marinated BBQ, or my last stroke-inducing meal in Austin: chocolate-covered bacon. You’ll leave happy, if a little heavier.