Thursday, March 17, 2011

Random thoughts about genealogy conferences

Having two roaming national genealogy conferences is highly desirable in the eyes of many researchers who dislike the thought of consolidating NGS and FGS annual conferences, and I can understand why.

Both NGS and FGS meet in different cities each year, bringing genealogy experts to folks in various parts of the US year over year. There are regional experts brought on board for some sessions at both conferences. My friend Roger explained such a merger would translate to a five year rotation, where the conference would be held in the east, west, north, south, and middle US, restricting access to a national conference for residents in any single region to once in five years.

This desire for local access to national conference venues speaks to the high cost of travel expenses on top of what genealogists consider hefty conference admission fees. Actually, the conference registration fees for NGS or FGS are a steal compared to what realtors spend at annual conferences for continuing education. I'm sure the comparisons would run similarly in other genres. 

Hearing from nationally-ranked speakers is also facilitated by large regional conferences like SoCal's Jamboree, New England Regional Genealogical Conference and the Ohio Genealogical Society
annual conference. Additionally, most state genealogical societies feature a "name brand" speaker to pull in the numbers at annual conferences.

Today's difficult global economy means minding every dollar is a real factor for potential conference attendees. It also cuts the profit margin for genealogy vendors who invest a great deal for booths in the hopes of increasing product awareness. They pray they will recoup their booth & travel expenses.

WikiPedia describes the rise and fall of Comdex, a well-regarded computer industry conference held “in person” as we do with our NGS and FGS conferences. The Wikipedia entry explains Comdex had some severe cutbacks. “In 2000, major companies such as IBM, Apple, and Compaq (now merged with Hewlett-Packard) decided to discontinue their involvement with COMDEX to allocate the resources more efficiently. To reduce costs, many would-be exhibitors stopped renting out or scaled back official COMDEX booths on the convention center floors, and set up invitation-only suites in various Las Vegas hotels. This also allowed exhibitors to concentrate their efforts on industry attendees rather than the general public.” 

Hmmm... allocating resources more effectively. Is this what has begun to do by reducing its footprint at NGS and FGS, and by pulling out of the vendor area at Family History Expos all together?

The impact of “virtual” presentations changed the face of Comdex. Though the  2004 "in person" Comdex was canceled, now there is . The November 2010 event drew 5,000 attendees with 100+ speakers at 50 sessions. The “on-demand” sessions are available through mid-May 2011, and the next ComdexVirtual will be held in mid-November 2011.

There has been much talk about how RootsTech 2011 virtual presentations are influencing genealogy conferencing. Because they are easy to set up, we’ve seen a proliferation of genealogy webinars including those hosted by individual presenters, larger regional societies and genealogy vendors.

But NGS and FGS "in person" conferences are planned years in advance. Venues have been selected, contracts have been signed. Will NGS and FGS incorporate virtual technology into their annual conferences? Will this “bring the conference” to the masses?

Ancestry Insider, in his post South Davis Fair in the Aftermath of RootsTech, describes NGS and FGS Conference attendees as "professionals." In my non-scientific observations, the majority of attendees go to both NGS and FGS conferences, except during the past two years. (After all my years of teaching, it is nice to be retired and able to attend these conferences I've only heard about in the past.)

Smaller, less expensive regional conferences such as those provided by local family history centers (usually free) or Family History Expos (very low admission fees) are more readily within the reach of the average genealogist, at least from the traveling expense point of view.

Ancestry Insider noted a 600 person year-over-year drop in attendance at the recent South Davis, Utah annual conference, sponsored by local Family History Centers. The numbers for the 2011 St. George Family History Expo were hard for me to judge, but I know attendance wasn't as high as in the past. Ancestry Insider cites "back-to-back national conferences in nearby Salt Lake City, Utah: the 2010 National Genealogical Society Conference and the 2011 RootsTech Conference" as the reason for declining attendance at these Utah venues.  

Me thinks Ol' Myrt here has talked herself in circles. I can see arguments for and against combing NGS and FGS conferences in light of RootsTech's success as not only a techie but a "how-to" conference. Ol' Myrt here understands why NGS and FGS probably won't combine their conferences. It will be interesting to observe the changing face of genealogy conferencing over the next few years.

FOR FURTHER READING (in no particular order)
I couldn't agree more. Thanks, Amy.

Happy family tree climbing!
Myrt     :)
Your friend in genealogy.


  1. But the NGS and FGS conferences don't come to the West Coast but once in a blue moon.

    Last time for NGS was 7 years ago in 2004 when they came to Sacramento

    Last time for FGS was 9 years ago in 2002 when they were in Ontario.

    Salt Lake City is not the West Coast.

    I'm just saying . . .

  2. I enjoyed attending Comdex in Atlanta, although I thought a more accurate name would have been Windex.

  3. Myrt,

    This is a very thought provoking post. I want to hear more from other conferences goers as to their thoughts on the state of conferences.

    This is a really good writing prompt.

  4. Genealogy is not unique in the fact that it has national, regional and local conferences competing for exhibitors and attendees. What IS unique is the cost of admission, they really are reasonably priced. I will be attending a professional conference (for work) next week and my admission is $1,300 for four days. No, this is not out of my pocket, but I am a responsible employee that values my job, therefore, I don't request to attend every $1,300 conference I find in some cool place. I attend those conferences that I believe will benefit me professionally. In this same manner, we as individual genealogists, must pick and choose which conference best meets our needs and budget. The conference/trade show industry as a whole has taken a hit the past few years, but we have been seeing a rebound in the last 12 months. To check the pulse on this industry I suggest visiting and for all things trade show related, from in-person to virtual conferences.

    I, personally, would hate to see the merging of any two conferences, unless it was the only way to keep a conference functioning. I greatly enjoy the national conferences (I met you Myrt in KC at NGS) but I also believe the regional and state conferences fill a gap for many people who can not afford to attend a national conference. I mentioned in a blog post last year about the need for conference management to work closely when choosing event dates. These individual conferences CAN collaborate and benefit the industry as a whole rather than viewing each other as competition.

    I would like to also state that I have never paid to attend a conference virtually, professionally or personally. Webinars yes, conferences no. Do I believe they can add value, yes. Do I know that they may be some attendees only option, yes. However, I don't think conference management should be fearful of losing attendees to this medium. Those who want and can attend the conference are going to be there because they want to be part of the conference experience that you can only get in person.

    Now that, I too, have talked myself in circles, I will give full disclosure here, I am the exhibit manager for my company and take conferences and trade shows very seriously. I have concrete ideas on what should and should not be done from the conference view as well as from an attendee view.

    p.s. Kansas City is a great conference city, cheap flights from everywhere...we can all meet in the middle!! :)