Genealogy Conferences – Setting the Space

conference

[This is the first in a week-long series of posts on genealogy conferences entitled Genealogy Conferences - The Magic Recipe]

Unless you’ve had the task of planning a genealogy event – whether it was a one-day set of workshops, a national conference or just securing a speaker for a regular genealogy society meeting – it is difficult to appreciate the process used to plan these events. It is much like setting a table: there are many pieces involved, you have to account for different types of people, you want to create a pleasing space but one that is also functional, etc. And with most events, you want to do so and turn a profit (or at least not lose your shirt) while everyone has a good time and wants to return to the next event.

Planning

Being an event planner is not a glamorous job.  I know first-hand what it takes.  This is why at every genealogy event I make it a point to single out the “planner” and say thank you and tell them that they did a great job – even if the event had its problems.  Realize that for some national events, the process starts up to three years in advance in terms of securing a venue and scheduling a date. Planners basically give up any semblance of a balanced life for weeks, months or even years.  Some planners are back year after year while some will plan the event one year and then pass on the task to another person. Very often these are full-time jobs for which they are not compensated.

Venues

One of the biggest complaints I hear from conference attendees is, “These events are never in my area!” Realize that venues are not cheap and at least here in the United States, they are much more expensive in certain areas than others.

The reality is that it is more expensive to produce an event on the East Coast and in some West Coast areas than in the Midwest or the South. Also, while large metropolitan areas are convenient for travelers, using a location in a smaller city and in the suburbs is more affordable and can keep the cost down.

One model that I prefer is where the venue is located near the airport or a short trip from the airport – this is something that Family History Expos does well. In fact, they use Holiday Inn Express quite a bit and I have been known to stop in the lobby of the hotel and question whether I am in Kansas City or Atlanta, etc. since they all look alike.

Timing

While genealogy events might be easier to attend during the summer months, I think the industry is getting to the point where there are events all year round, even during the holidays – look at the very successful Salt Lake Christmas Tour in December, for example.

Most events take place on the weekend or a Thursday through Sunday configuration. I have noticed that Ancestry.com has been successfully holding one day events called Ancestry Days – see the one coming up in July in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. A one day event eliminates the need for accommodations/housing and actually looks like a good model in my opinion.

As for time of day, a new format – again, from Family History Expos – that I am happy to see is a weekday evening format! Look at their upcoming event on June 16, 2011 in North Platte, Nebraska: 4:15pm to 9:30pm.  In my work with the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS), we’ve discussed the fact that there is a need for more events at a time that is convenient for a broad spectrum of possible attendees.  How can we reach more people if we just have events during the day on a weekday?

Staff

It is not easy to build a solid group of people to assist with running a genealogy conference whether it be volunteers or paid staff.  These folks work their heart out and if you do attend an event, I ask you to just take a moment to say “Thank you.”  You have no idea what those two words mean to someone who has given up their day to assist at the event or someone who has practically upended their home and work life to plan a national conference.

Labor is probably the biggest expense at an event and I don’t necessarily mean it is paid for – much of it is volunteer.  Even at the national conferences, such as RootsTech, you will see volunteers from churches, youth groups, civic groups and more recruited to help out.

Resources

I use this term to include “all the little things” from tables to chairs to pens to registration.  Registration is a big expense for the major genealogy events – I’m not sure if folks realize what it costs to have a reliable and efficient online registration system as well as a registration table at the event that can get you signed in and on your way. And, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, we are in a “transition time” where due to our demographic, we still need to accept registrations either via mail or over the phone which can add to the costs.

Attendees should know that all those little perks that make you comfortable and make it easy to find sessions, etc. are not free. There is a cost, whether it is charged by the venue (and they do tend to nickel and dime you – like one place that charged an hourly fee to “rearrange chairs” in a session room) or it is provided by volunteers.

Technology

Many say that RootsTech in February 2011 in Salt Lake City really set the standard for genealogy conference technology.  I can see some – but not all – of the ideas such as unconferencing being picked up by more conferences in the future.  One caution: there needs to be balance when it comes to technology.  We need to keep our demographic in mind and walk that balance beam.  An event with too much technology shuts out our long time supporters and attendees. An event without enough technology will cause newcomers to dismiss us entirely and move to some other event.

Accommodations

For multi-day events, hotel accommodations are a key element. Attendees want reasonable prices, safe areas, clean rooms and convenience.  One aspect involved that attendees may not realize is this: when you stay at the “host” hotel, you help keep the costs down for the event.  Why? Very often for events held in a hotel, the meeting space is free or discounted when a minimum number of room nights is met. So when you decide to stay at a location 20 miles away to save $5 (which you’ll spend in gas anyway), it really does not help the event, especially if it is a genealogy society event.

In addition, for some conferences there is a food and beverage (F&B) minimum.  This is why you are encouraged to purchase a ticket for the luncheon or dinner or some other event.  In order to secure a reasonable price for the venue, the hotel will mandate that the event must spend _____ amount on F&B.

New Models?

Given the current state of genealogy conferences and events, what can we expect to see in the coming years? What would you as either a planner, an exhibitor, a speaker or an attendee like to see? Here’s my list:

  • A one-day, exhibit hall only event with free admission. The exhibitors would pay the expense for their booths and the education could be delivered by the exhibitors on the exhibit hall floor.  Some vendors like RootsMagic do a great job of this right now.  A free event would attract new people interested in family history to the event.
  • A virtual conference. With the recent embracing of webinars in the genealogy community, there is no reason why we can’t have a one day virtual conference complete with speakers and exhibit hall.  There are platforms that can successfully host such an event. The community would be able to reach a whole new set of attendees especially those with mobility issues.
  • More pre-conferences.   This means, like the FGS conference, a day before the actual conference targeting a specific subset of the demographic, such as librarians.  RootsTech might have a bloggers workshop the day before the start of the event.

Conclusion

As I said at the beginning, I have a great appreciation for any one who plans a genealogy event whether it is a one day event or larger.  As the genealogy industry grows, there will be a need for more of these events and there will probably be changes in the way planners, sponsors, venues and others operate.  Genealogy conferences just don’t happen on their own.  They are vital to not only providing educational content to members of the genealogy community, but also to attracting new people to the community.

Disclosure:  Please see Disclosure Statements for more information on my material connection with genealogy societies and vendors.

©2011, copyright Thomas MacEntee

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