Every year, thousands of musicians, filmmakers, innovative multimedia producers – aspiring and established – and legions of fans of the same, descend upon Austin and turn the Texas city and host of the South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference and Festivals into the creative center of the country.

The first SXSW music festival in March 1987 was expected to attract 150 people. Instead, 700 showed up and SXSW has been growing exponentially each subsequent year. Today, SXSW includes SXSW Interactive (March 9-13), SXSW Film (March 9-17) and SXSW Music (March 13-18), and they attract tens of thousands of attendees, both professionals in the industries and enthusiasts.

Year after year, the event is a launching pad for new creative content. New media presentations, music showcases and film screenings provide buzz-generating exposure for creators and compelling entertainment for audiences. Conference panel discussions present a forum for learning, business activity thrives at the SXSW Trade Show: The Exhibition for Creative Industries and global networking opportunities abound.

But while many creative industry professionals do attend SXSW in an effort to educate themselves, network and show off their wares, performances are the name of the game for many visitors.

Navigating SXSW is not easy, and savvy visitors know they had best plan in advance for the massive slate of workshops, performances, symposiums, displays and social events. It dominates not just downtown Austin – where the bulk of events are held – but much of the entire city.

Still, though, those who can tear themselves away from SXSW events or whose schedule permits the opportunity, Austin is a young, vibrant city with plenty to enjoy, even if SXSW effectively restricts one to downtown. Fortunately there is plenty to do without having to go to the city outskirts. Head to Sixth Street for the venues that make Austin the “Live Music Capital of the World,” at such spots as The Cactus Café, Austin City Limits and Antone’s. Or have a drink and enjoy funky film at The Alamo Drafthouse.
Austin is also home to a vivid theater culture. Major performing arts venues include The State and Paramount theaters, The Off Center or The Hideout. For a scenic variation, check out the productions at the professional equity house at St. Edward’s University. It sits atop a hill with gorgeous views of downtown.

Dining in Austin reflects the city’s colorful, eclectic nature. Being a college town, it’s generally affordable and most world cuisines are represented, in addition to very good Tex-Mex and barbecue. Uchiko is respected for Asian cuisine. Franklin Barbecue near the University of Texas is a local classic. Fogo de Chao delightfully brings the tastes of Brazil to downtown.

Stay In Style

Numerous official SXSW hotels offer diverse accommodations, and here are some options worth considering.

Habitat Suites: Ninety-six all-suite accommodations feature plenty of room with full kitchens and high-speed internet connection. This property has been at the forefront of ecological initiatives since its inception. Highlights include all-natural cleaning practices, non-chlorinated pool and responsibly grown vegetation throughout the grounds. www.habitatsuites.com

Marriott – Austin South: Classic Marriott full service and 211 comfortable rooms makes this an enticing option. So too do an indoor pool, a sundeck and the convenience of the casual dining Limestone Kitchen. www.marriott.com

Barton Creek Resort & Spa Austin: For a luxurious Austin experience, Barton Creek is a resort on 4,000 acres in west Austin boasting some of the regions most breathtaking views, including the No. 1 and 2 ranked resort golf courses in Texas, one of Austin’s most luxurious spas and three exceptional restaurants. www.bartoncreek.com

At a Glance

Schedule: March 9-18, 2012

Location: Austin, Texas

Venue: Austin Convention Center with related events around Austin

Getting There: The centrally located Austin Convention Center is in the heart of downtown and easily accessible from any of the three dozen-plus official SXSW hotels via the R&R Hotel Shuttle. Other shuttles are available to off-convention center sites for those holding certain event badges. Most participating venues are a short distance from the convention center.

Lineup: One of the largest music festival performer lineups is only part of the appeal of this trio of inter-related festivals. The trade show/conference components in all three disciplines bring movers and shakers in music, film and interactive together for a multimedia extravaganza.

Information: www.sxsw.com

Hot Picks

Plan: SXSW is too massive to enjoy by the seat of your pants. Plan well in advance to maximize the experience.

Walk: Pack comfortable shoes for walking since traffic and street closings limit auto travel. Prepare for ample walking and use of shuttles and public transportation.

Bats: Austin’s Congress Avenue Bridge is home to about 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats, the largest urban bat colony in the world. Besides a paid boat tour, the best place to try to see them active at twilight is from near the Austin American Statesman’s parking lot.

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