Alright, I’m gonna have some extremely blunt things in this article, with the loaded context that I’ve done extensive studies, analysis, and related research into urban spaces, planning, roadway design, cycling as a mode of transportation, transit, etc. Some of you probably know me well enough to know that, so these comments won’t come as a surprise. It’s all mixed in the tech topics however, and suggestions on how to get more out of a conference like OSCON.
This blog entry should and could be used for informing decisions when traveling for tech events besides just OSCON, but it’s the conference I’m using as a reference point. Some of the suggestions might be a no-brainer, others might add to your notions of what to do and how to travel to these events. Toward the end of this blog entry I’ve broken down these suggestions into: Speaker Adventures, Attendee Adventures, and Staffing Adventures. Before that I’ll cover the low down on things in Austin.
Visiting Austin, Learning About, and Exploring
Austin is one of the gems of the south. It’s up there with the few walkable places of Atlanta, the core of Charlotte or Wilmington, North Carolina, along with a few other places. I’ll add the caveat that all of these cities have heat, sun, and humidity that will make any non-residents of the south buckle at the knees. It’ll feel as though you’ve been solid punched in the chest. I do not say this lightly, if you’ve not been punched in the chest you may be very unprepared to deal with the climate difference versus the west coast, northwestern US, or other places.
But I digress, moving beyond the climate, which could kick your ass Texas style. Let’s talk about the negatives real quick for people that might travel and like to enjoy things at a personal and human level, not locked behind the wheel of a cage (i.e. car) requiring endless wandering aimlessly through city streets while missing the vast majority of life as it exists. These are the rough parts I’m forewarning you about before you land at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (or if you’re brave, arriving by Amtrak’s Texas Eagle).
Austin is distinctively subservient like in its auto-dependency. People generally can’t give you directions except based purely on driving. They’re friendly about it, that’s for sure, it comes with the territory, but they likely can’t tell you how to travel unless you’re in a car. They’ll look at you funny if you suggest you might ride the bus or something else. Some people realize that everybody can ride mass transit and enjoy that freedom, but there’s still a lot of the culturally discriminatory notions behind transit use that has existed in the south. That is, if anybody is riding transit they’re assumed to be poor and from the lower classes of American society (in a society supposedly classless, LOLz whoops).
Why do I harp on auto-dependency in this way? It’s simple. The more auto-dependent an area the more plain, mediocre, ticky tacky, cerebrally regressive, and generally boring that place will be. One can draw a chart and basically draw the correlation that’s tightly coupled to this down to the street levels. Just look at Europe, there’s a reason those of historical and intellectual curiosity flood to the old world to explore. But I digress, this issue is a topic that is vast in study and intense in debate, I’ll leave this for future topics.
Bike Friendly What
If you’re staying downtown or in the immediate neighborhoods it’s actually, shockingly, extremely easy to bike around. It’s even somewhat bike friendly. The streets, even without bike lanes downtown, are huge. They’re so wide they’re often able to fit a regular southern mansion (that’s big for those that don’t know southern mansions) right smack in the center of the street and still have space to walk around.
This is where things get interesting however. Even with the vast auto-dependency working against the livability and liveliness of the city, it counters this by having many walkable spaces. These spaces easily start with downtown and expand out different directions from that point. At the center is the capital building, which is magnificent as capital buildings generally are. Immediately near that is the university and surrounding all of this in downtown, is the river to one side, the interstates on others, and then the immediate neighborhoods.
These immediate neighborhoods and surrounding area actually provide Austin with an amazing amount of foot traffic. Somehow, that combined with regular auto-dependent users traveling into the city, parking just outside of key spots, are then encouraged by design to walk around.
The crosswalks and their respective intersections are auto-focused, with people being a secondary priority, but are timed to move quickly. The other clear focus on moving cars instead of moving people is the street signs are only pointed in the direction that auto traffic would be flowing and not anywhere that is easy for foot traffic to see, unless you’re walking in the direction cars happen to be flowing. This is most annoying when on one way streets. The crosswalk timing is quick, even though this is auto-focused too, makes downtown very walkable in spite of vast streets to cross. However heaven forbid you’ve got an issue walking fast then you may have some issues.
Downtown there are also several primary streets that have a host of amenities focused around pedestrian activity. The connected nature (it’s a grid primarily) of the streets makes it easy to bike or walk, or if you can find a bus take the bus, to get into or out of downtown. The airport bus is absurdly quick and easy to use too. It’s approximately 25-35 minutes (depending on traffic) to get from the airport to downtown. The airport is after all somewhat close to the city itself.
Before even diving into the speaker, attendee, and staffing adventures suggestions, here’s a few that are basic cross-cutting suggestions for everybody.
Take the bus from the airport. It’s absurdly cheap and absurdly easy. If you’ve just missed it the frequency isn’t all that great, but it runs eery 30 minutes, is quick, and is cheap, easy, and clean. It’ll drop you off right downtown at a number of convenient locations.
Don’t bring food (not that many people do), instead eat out at as many places as possible. Austin has some excellent food options, check out as many of them as you can.
Walk everywhere in the downtown core, and bike, walk, or just jump on the bus for the quick hops over to 1st, Congress, or any of the streets that head out into the interesting neighborhoods and other retail areas.
Visit a few of the parks in town, especially the river front and around the capital. The parks are beautiful and on a day with a cool breeze, extremely relaxing.
If you’re a speaker and speaking at a conference like OSCON you’ll most likely have your room and travel covered to the conference. If this is the case, just stay at whatever hotel they put you up in and save the cash you’d otherwise spend.
In the case of OSCON, the Hilton Garden and Hilton seemed to be the primary hotels. They’re close to things, but you’ll still need to walk 2-4 blocks to get to most things. You’re also extremely close to the interstate, so if you have fickle breathing or are bothered by heavy particulate air, you’ll probably have a hard time of things. If that’s the case, take a gander of the attendee suggestion for some other options.
As a speaker you’ll also likely be invited to a few other parties (maybe), be sure to get into those. You’ll have a bit more face time with key people in the industry that can help you make things happen for your career or help you make things happen for your company. These are good events, that sometimes happen and sometimes don’t, depending on a number of various things.
If you’re just attending, you’re going to be shelling out the bucks. Depending on what you’re company will or won’t cover is usually what will dictate what you do or don’t want to do. In my case, I’d strongly suggest staying at an Airbnb close to, but not directly in downtown. Stay somewhere in one of the close in neighborhoods and bike or walk into the conference every morning.
You might need to get up just a few minutes early but it’ll give you a nice start, and a quieter sleep. The other reason I’d suggest staying in a neighborhood is because it provides more of a feel for the city’s culture, lifestyle, and general amenities. This might include everything from actual local shops and food versus the tourist oriented stuff that tends to be located around the convention center.
Now the other side effect of Airbnb or other services like this, is they’re often a bit cheaper than actually staying at a hotel. Between the often cheaper prices you also don’t get stuck lumped in as a tourist immediately either. That is, if you’ve got a tendency to be able to blend easily in with the locals. They are after all rather friendly in Austin.
If you’re looking for more hands off, non-human interaction you might want to just stay at a hotel. But I’ve been able to control may human interaction variables without the myopic view that a hotel generally provides, thus I strongly suggest the non-hotel option.
If you’re coming as part of the conference staff, you’re obviously going to have business expenses covered. Likely more than even the speakers, thus, in every conceivable way live it up as much as possible. Combine the speaker and attendee suggestions as desired and mix for maximum win!
In the end, conferences are a great way to expand business opportunities. However don’t let them be just a myopic business focused event, make them an adventure and get out there and actually be part of the community for that short time. Enjoy some of the local food and meet people outside of the tech community that are actually out there buying the real end user services and products! See ya next conference, cheers!