IT WAS HAPPY HOUR in Austin, Tex. The sun was sinking, and music was rising on East Sixth Street, a strip of bars and clubs with names the kid in you wants to shout out loud: Chuggin' Monkey, Dizzy Rooster, Jackalope. Closed to cars, the street was a thoroughfare for musicians, party promoters and people looking for beer and a good time. Little by little they found it, disappearing into bars and re-emerging on balconies, drinking from plastic cups and pulling on light jackets as a March wind blew, a reminder that spring was still just out of reach.
Most of these merrymakers (myself included) were not on vacation, despite the beer in their hands and the parties they would soon be off to until the wee hours. They were in town to attend South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive, the technology conference where entrepreneurs and executives soak up new ideas and unblushingly plug their own. But while conferences and festivals like SXSW, Aspen Ideas Festival, WebVisions, TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) and dozens of others have been career enhancers for years, they are also a terrific and overlooked leisure travel option -- particularly if you're vacationing alone.
Think about it: the locations (like Austin, Aspen and New York) are tourist destinations in their own right; there's built-in entertainment (food crawls, walking tours, cocktail hours); and -- most important -- they draw people attracted to a common theme. Even if you're shy, all those meet-ups and lectures (not to mention the time you spend waiting in line to get into them) make it a breeze to strike up a conversation.
That 600-mile European bike tour you were contemplating? It's hardly the only way to meet like-minded travelers.
New Cities, New Connections
The stranger you meet at a conference might become your pal for an hour, an afternoon, a few days. He or she might become the Facebook friend you thumbs-up from 1,000 miles away, or the new friend that you'll visit each year for the rest of your life. Why, that stranger might even become your spouse.
Just how will you find these kindred spirits? Top conferences don't just offer lectures and workshops: there are also morning jogs, field trips and dinners. "It's like the Club Med of the intellectual," said Rachel Shechtman, the founder of Story, a Manhattan boutique. Ms. Shechtman has attended conferences like TED, PopTech and Gel (Good Experience Live) for business and in the process has also met some of her closest friends. "There's so much low-hanging fruit," she said recently while on her way to speak about the future of retailing at TEDxHollywood, "that even if you are an introvert both the circumstance and the content of the conference allow for easy dialogue."
Where that might lead, one never knows: Chelsea Clinton and her husband, Marc Mezvinsky, met as teenagers at a Renaissance Weekend, the multigenerational ideas festival. And though they are one of the more high-profile conference love connections, they are part of a larger club. It's no secret that conferences are informal places for romance.
Dan Gould, 35, who has attended Renaissance Weekends, TED, EG (Entertainment Gathering) and a number of other conferences said they are self-selecting for people who have big ideas and want to change the world.
"You're not going to easily find someone like that on OkCupid or in a bar," he said. "You have people who have similar values and who care about the same sorts of things."
Mr. Gould, a founder of the video sharing site Chill.com, had heard of couples who met at one conference or another, but he never gave it much thought -- until he met a woman at TED. They happened to be seated near each other during a talk and, as is common at TED, they continued to bump into each other throughout the four-day conference.
He invited the woman, Marina Kim, 29, to dinner with his friends at a Brazilian restaurant. Turns out, she'd lived in Brazil for a while and taught him a thing or two about caipirinhas. At the end of the conference, he drove her to the airport. He didn't think a relationship was in the cards: he lives in Los Angeles; she lives in Washington, D.C. Yet they kept in touch, meeting up in cities like San Francisco, Washington and Malibu and, eventually, dating. Today, Ms. Kim splits her time between Los Angeles and Washington and -- this just in -- Mr. Gould said, "Once I get a ring custom designed, I'm planning to ask her to marry me." (Ms. Kim, consider the question popped.)
Not everyone falls in love. But many delight in trying. At SXSW Interactive you might spend the morning chatting with someone about coding or crowd funding and, hours later, be re-enacting the "Oh, Lover Boy" scene from "Dirty Dancing."
As Kathryn Irwin, who first attended SXSW in 1994 and hasn't missed a year since 2000, put it: "There's been some babies, there's been a lot of dating, and a lot of hooking up." Not necessarily in that order. After splitting with her husband in 2009, she too jumped into the SXSW dating pool. "I was like 'Oh my gosh, there's so many beautiful men,' " she said.
The best conferences for meeting people have a lot of attendees and a lot going on, both within and beyond the walls of a convention center. In fact, experienced conferencegoers often contend that the best connections are made not during lectures and workshops, but rather in hallways, on shuttle buses and in clubs around town. At SXSW last month there were group runs and yoga classes. There were bikes you could borrow free of charge to explore the city. There were cocktail hours in bars and tents and meet-ups for enthusiasts of typography, photography and space exploration. A food-truck park ensured that favorite local meals were within walking distance of the convention center.
Great conferences also have compelling lectures, making it impossible for strangers not to turn to one another and compare notes, say, on TED talks like Dan Pink (on the science of motivation) and the musician Amanda Palmer (on how artists can be funded by fans) or SXSW sessions like "Al Gore on the Future," "The New Golden Age of Human Spaceflight," "The Future of Porn" (an obvious conversation starter).
Of the three branches of SXSW (Music, Film, Interactive), in Austin, Ms. Irwin and other veterans I spoke with think Interactive, which lasts five days, is best for meeting people. Music is a clique, Ms. Irwin cautioned, and Film can be, too. Interactive, on the other hand -- where most people are in their 20s and 30s according to a survey of attendees -- is lovingly referred to as nerd spring break. And it has become more popular with each passing year: 30,621 people attended this year, up from 10,741 in 2009. More than 44 percent of this year's attendees defined themselves as single in the survey. "Interactive is definitely a more solo group," said Ms. Irwin, who worked in accounting before becoming a programmer for SXSW Interactive. "And they're most likely to network."
Sometimes that happens before the conference even begins. For instance, in January, SXSW has organized mixers in San Francisco and New York for people who plan to attend: New Yorkers can meet fellow New Yorkers long before they arrive in Austin (and perhaps even save on costs by making plans to share cabs or rooms).
The networking continues at the airport. On any nonstop flight to a conference city a fellow passenger is bound to ask you (as one asked me) if you're attending. Your seatmate is probably going, too (mine was). And when at last you arrive and sit down in a ballroom or exhibition hall, the stranger beside you is likely to ask what you do or where you're from or why you've chosen to listen to a lecture about digital teleportation. SXSW goes a step further, offering meet-ups for "newbies" to facilitate friendships and teach conference first-timers how to survive the overwhelming number of panels and parties.
One new mixer, SXsingle, is an attempt by Ms. Irwin to formalize the dating scene there. Promoted with the maxim "#SXsingle it's not just a hashtag, it's a lifestyle," the event took place in what felt like a cozy bar but was really the storefront of an advertising agency on East Sixth Street. Minutes after it began, the space was at capacity and a few latecomers had to wait outside. Beneath white Christmas lights, men and women from their 20s to 40s were chatting and sipping free beer and wine. Among them was Charlie Nox, the master of ceremonies and a San Francisco dating coach with a mop of dark hair. Asked how to make the most of traveling solo, particularly if travelers are not quite comfortable in their own skin, she replied: "Rock your awkward."
Translation: radical self-acceptance. Or, as Ms. Irwin explained, at a conference with self-declared geeks, you need not worry about being one. Rather, you might just find the perfect geek for you. Ms. Irwin, who is tall, blond and has a calling card with a photograph of her legs in mid-calf boots and the words, "We met at SXSW," also describes herself as awkward -- until she has a drink. Indeed, she recalled the previous evening in which after a cocktail she ended up walking the streets of Austin rapping the Beastie Boys song "Paul Revere." (Incidentally that sort of thing doesn't raise eyebrows at SXSW, where over 10 minutes I saw someone dressed as a mouse, a shirtless man in a cape, and former Vice President Al Gore.)
Ms. Irwin's plans for SXsingle go beyond her own Saturday night ambitions, however. "I hope that it will start to create its own movement," she said. Her goal? To allow SXSW attendees to meet and flirt online through the festival's social networking site even before they arrive in Austin.
A Conference for Every Taste (and Budget)
If SXSW Interactive doesn't inspire you to book a flight, there are plenty of other options that might. Whatever your passion -- politics, the environment, wine, design, anime -- chances are there's a conference and a city that will intrigue you. Some, though, are more costly and difficult to attend than others, two reasons they have been called elitist.
The most exclusive and high profile conferences, like Aspen Ideas Festival where past speakers have included Barbra Streisand; Ehud Barak, a former Israeli prime minister; and Amy Chua, the author of "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," tend to cost about the same as a cruise: $1,500 to $3,000. (Early registration for SXSW Interactive this year was $695 -- much less than other major conferences.) Tickets sell out fast. And don't even think about reserving a hotel room at the last minute.
At the top of the conference spectrum, otherwise known as the You're-Never-Ever-Going category, is the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. To attend, you must be a member of the forum and even then the base price of admission (membership plus the entrance fee) is upward of $70,000, as Andrew Ross Sorkin reported in an article a couple of years ago.
TED, which is $7,500 a person, might seem affordable by comparison, though you cannot simply buy your way in. Would-be attendees must be invited or submit an application with answers to questions like "If a friend were to describe your accomplishments in up to three sentences, what would he or she say?" and "Can you share a memorable anecdote from your life that will give us a further sense of what makes you tick?" Applicants must also provide references.
There are ways, though, to visit cities around the world and to get the flavor of pricier conferences without emptying your bank account. TED, for instance, has spawned TEDx, conferences organized by local communities in Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas that are free or have a nominal charge (a map and list of events is at Ted.com/tedx/events). And some invitation-only conferences -- like the DLD (Digital-Life-Design) conference about digitization, science and culture in Munich -- allow people to apply for a spot.
Many conferences don't require invitations, though. And while they may not be as slick as those that do, they're intimate, diverse and are often held in the same cities as mainstream forums.
Take BIL -- the everyman's TED. It's been referred to as an "unconference" (it's more like a gathering of interesting people than a program of speakers), and as its organizers explain on the Web site, it's a "play off of the formal and elite approach that TED employed to share ideas." BIL, which like TED took place in Long Beach, Calif., this year, doesn't technically stand for anything, though it's a wink at "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure." Tickets were $20 for those registered early.
Niche conferences are another option. One of the largest, New York Comic Con, is in a major tourist destination: Manhattan. The city can be intimidating for first-timers, but if you want to come, and come solo, a conference can be a good anchor. Why rub elbows with venture capitalists when you can hang out with the illustrators of Wonder Woman and Batman (Oct. 10 through 13; $85 for a four-days)? Last year, more than 116,000 people attended.
If comics, games, science fiction and fantasy are your bailiwick but you prefer sand and sun to bagels and Broadway, you might want to visit the West Coast for Comic-Con International: San Diego and Comikaze Expo in Los Angeles, the official convention of Stan Lee, comic book writer and a former Marvel Comics executive.
Longing for Paris or London? Consider LeWeb, one of the largest Internet and innovation conferences in Europe, taking place in London on June 5 and 6 (£990 until April 17; £1,590 thereafter, about $1,470 and $2,360 at $1.48 to the pound) and in Paris Dec. 10 through 12 (2,390 euros, about $2,998 at $1.24 to the euro). Past speakers have included Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook and a founder of Napster and Plaxo; Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google; and Kevin Systrom, the chief executive of Instagram. Last year, there were some 5,000 people from more than 80 countries at the London and Paris sessions combined. (For an idea of what LeWeb is like, you can check out video footage from last year's conferences at Paris12.leweb.co.)
Anywhere you attend a conference as a solo traveler you're bound to discover a city in ways you might not have expected, and to meet some wild, interesting people while you're at it. That is, if you follow this advice: look up from your cellphone.
"Nobody's fooled," said Ms. Nox, the dating coach. "We all know you're not getting an important work e-mail. It looks more confident to stand there and be open to an interaction. It's amazing how receptive people are to meeting someone new."
There's no shortage of compelling cities and conferences, but how to find the best ones for you? Word of mouth is invaluable. And if you register for one conference, your fellow attendees will be able to recommend others in the same vein. On the Web, you can browse Lanyrd.com, which is essentially a social networking site that enables users to discover conferences (by topic or date) and to see which ones their friends plan to attend. Another site, Eventbrite.com, is typically used to register for or to sell tickets to events, but it can also be used to search for conferences (just click on the "find events" link and then search for "conference").
It's impossible to provide a complete list here, but to help you get started, here's a sampling of conferences large and small, near and far, not discussed in depth in the article.
Do Lectures Have a great idea that you want to turn into a business? This conference in Fforest, West Wales, aims to help participants do just that with talks from entrepreneurs during the day and camping under the stars at night. Information: dolectures.com/the-event.
EG (Entertainment Gathering) This media, technology, entertainment and education confab in Monterey, Calif. is limited to 300 people and this year will include speakers with job titles like cyber illusionist, wood carver, geneticist and wildlife photographer. Information: the-eg.com.
Gel (Good Experience Live) Organized by Creative Good, a consulting firm specializing in customer experience, this New York gathering is for those striving to create good experiences in "tech, business, and the world." Information: gelconference.com.
National Conference on LGBT Equality: Creating Change An annual meeting of activists and leaders that includes workshops, film screenings and caucuses (next year's conference will be in Houston). Information: creatingchange.org.
99U Conference Like the popular Web site with which it's associated (99U.com), this New York conference focuses on how to go from an idea to the execution of an idea with classes and talks by authors and entrepreneurs like Seth Godin, and designers like Stefan Sagmeister, who has worked with clients as varied as Rolling Stones and the Guggenheim Museum. Information: 99u.com/conference.
The Story A one-day conference in London about (what else?) the art of storytelling. Information: thestory.org.uk.
WebVisions Taking place a few times a year in different cities -- Portland, New York, Barcelona, Chicago -- explores the future of Web and mobile design and content creation. Information: webvisionsevent.com.
Wisdom 2.0 San Francisco is a fitting place for this conference about learning how to be connected through technology yet in ways that make us healthy, effective at work and useful to the wider world. Information: wisdom2summit.com.
Follow Stephanie Rosenbloom on Twitter @stephronyt.travel
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.