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Genealogy Conferences – Setting the Space


[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.


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.


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.


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 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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

21 thoughts on “Genealogy Conferences – Setting the Space

  1. Perhaps a more directed effort could be made to market the conferences to those from outside of the genealogy industry.

    You know, a little less academic and a little more “sexy”.

    Perhaps drawing in more local traffic to the conference and/or exhibit halls. This is exactly what Ancestry is doing. Of course, they’ve advertised nicely between the commercials and “Who Do You Think You Are”. However, the general public is being exposed to the concept of genealogy by Ancestry, and perhaps others in the industry can capitalize on that.

    I like the idea of a 1-day conference, but the “free” part I’m not excited about. The general public is already “trained” to pay for exhibits and conferences. It is worth something. Let’s not train them that genealogy is free.

    Take, for example, my local Home and Garden Show that is offered in August here in The Woodlands, Texas:

    [Yes. I know. It’s not the same thing, but bear with me. You’ve already this far.]

    It is totally marketing towards the local market. However, with genealogy, “local” would need to be defined much more broadly in my opinion, but why ignore the locals? Maybe they’d like to learn more about genealogy, and they just don’t know it yet.

    But what can be learned from their site that can be applied to genealogy conferences/exhibits/shows? If you look at their exhibitor page, they have completely broken down the demographics of the area for would-be exhibitors. [And it looks like a nice demographic for targeting the “new” genealogists. Hint. Hint.]

    In addition, their site is very informative, incorporates photos and videos, and so much more. It looks “alive”. Funny, but I think to attract more people to conferences concerning those who are dead, they have to be “alive”.

    Just my 2 cents worth. Which doesn’t buy much these days. Unfortunately.


  2. I never knew that staying at the conference hotel was important. I do it anyway (because I hate renting cars), but it’s nice to know that I’m also helping pay for the conference by doing so.

    You know where conference-planners should look? Milwaukee. We have a nice, affordable conference center. We have cheap(er) hotels. We have a nice airport that’s easy to navigate, and we’re close enough to Chicago that people can get cheap airfares there and drive or take the train up if they need to. We’re in the middle of the country. We have cheese. We have beer. Come to Milwaukee, everybody!

  3. Wow. That was a great behind the scenes look at seminars for those of us who haven’t helped with one. I’m embarrassed to say that I never realized how much volunteer work people put in and how expensive it can be. At my next conference, I will make more of an attempt to stay at the hotel and eat the meals to help with the cost.. and I will definitely be saying thank you a lot more!! 🙂

  4. Right on about the organization and the volunteers. While I have never worked at a genealogy conference, I spent several years working behind the scenes at Science Fiction conventions. The subject may be different, but the behind the scenes work is very much the same. (And MOST science fiction events are entirely volunteer; they have NO sponsors and must bear the cost of the events through the money the memberships bring in.)
    At any conference be nice to the workers, paid or volunteer they work hard; but the volunteers do it for love.

  5. Boy, ain’t that the truth. Conference planning is exhausting, and when you’re finished, you just hope that the majority of people had a good time (since you can’t possibly please ALL the people all the time).

    Regarding the food & beverage minimum, if your attendees don’t meet the minimum, the hotel will charge you anyway, so you’ll end up getting less food for the same amount of money (they typically charge it to your accommodations minimum). Conference planners can usually decide how many rooms they think will sell, but the F&B minimum is determined by the hotel based on number of attendees who will eat. Oh, and don’t forget to add tax and the required 20% gratuity on top of everything.

    Now split that total by number of attendees, and try to determine a reasonable amount to charge folks for attending. Depending on your attendee’s demographics, it’s sometimes better to undercharge and try to make up the lost $ somewhere else.

    But like I said, if people enjoy themselves, that’s what counts. Especially if they want to come back next year!

  6. I like the idea of the expos and would have gone to Atlanta if the timing had been better. I would like to see more regional events along the lines of the WordCamps done by the WordPress community. Like the genealogy community, there are enough experts in the area for presenters but I’m not sure how they manage exhibitors. There’s sort of a standard format and anyone can basically organize a WordCamp event.

    A central directory of speakers (LinkedIn?) showing what topics they can present and areas they would visit would help small organizers tremendously. Even virtual presentations could be included.

    While presentations are important, the opportunity to connect with others is the main reason I would attend a conference. I agree w/Caroline that a more informal atmosphere would help – and plenty of networking opportunities.

  7. I’m going to comment in order of your post, so that I touch on everything.

    Planning: you can never do enough and there is never enough help. Everyone that attends a conference should volunteer for a planning committee otherwise the scope of what it takes can never fully be understood! If something isn’t to your liking, stop a minute and think of all the hard work someone ELSE put into trying to make the conference a success. It’s to easy to be critical of people who are trying their best.

    Venue: Folks…what is smack dab in the middle of the good ole US of A??? Kansas City, Missouri!! Cheap flights into the easiest airport you will ever visit. Reasonable hotel and dining costs and we are full of history and undeniable Midwestern hospitality!! Now personally, I want to get the heck outta Dodge so a conference someplace else is really a-ok with me. I do prefer near an airport IF there are amenities near by. One thing I haven’t seen at genealogy conferences is a shuttle bus sponsorship from the airport to the conference hotel at no cost to the attendees. Talk about having a captive audience, tell the shuttle driver to take the long route and sell, sell, sell your product to the riders! 🙂

    Timing: let’s face it, no time is better than any others once you get away from the major holidays. Every one’s lives are so busy, there is no way to pick a good month. People will either make it work or they won’t. I would like to see the genealogy conferences, local, state, regional and national list their events here:, which is outside the “genealogy” world and may help to expand the horizons of the typical genealogy exhibit hall vendors.

    Staff: give them all an atta-boy and give them training. Trade shows truly are a discipline unto themselves. There are several resources available to provide training at little cost. Skyline offers a good variety of educational tools for exhibit staffing that can be applied to conference staff as well.

    Resources: conference management is charged for EVERYTHING! Everything!! Anything that is used at the venue has a cost associated, there are no freebies! Draping, green plants (oh I can tell you stories about the costs of green plants) signage, pens in the conference rooms, note pads, ice, water, mints…every little thing has a cost associated. The fact that genealogy conferences still charge what they charge simply amazes me. I don’t know how they cover their costs.

    Technology: I like it, I love it, I want some more of it. (thank you Tim McGraw!!) I believe every conference should offer some technology courses, even if it’s just one. I attended a State conference last year and not one single session touched on technology. Huge misstep and huge disservice to their attendees. Even if your core base won’t use the technology, exposing them to the possibility is a good thing.

    Accommodations: use it or lose it, but you are still going to pay for it. Yes, the conference will pay for empty rooms that don’t get sold in their room block. I always stay at the conference hotel. Who wants to bother with a rental car? Who wants to miss all the hub-bub at the conference hotel??? Not me, I want to be in the middle of all the action!

    New Models: Thomas has great suggestions in this area, I like them all. My suggestion: peer-to-peer round tables. Hold these after the last session of the day, each table seats 10 and has a specific topic with a facilitator to keep the table on-topic. Example: one table’s topic could be Twitter and Facebook for genealogy, another could be Dropbox and Evernote and another could be citing sources or the genealogical proof standard. Attendees sign up for their peer-to-peer topic and get to have an hour long in depth discussion on the topic with others who have a similar interest. Limit official “banquets” to one night only. There are so many people to meet and greet that two nights of banqueting just gets in the way.

    Conclusion: I love everything about face-to-face marketing, conferences and trade shows of any type. The educational and networking value can not be matched in any other forum, if done right.

  8. I haven’t taken time to read this thread until now. As you might have heard, we have a little party coming up in June. And in a way, that’s just how we think of it. As I’ve said before, it’s like planning a wedding for 60-some brides, 1800 guests and a band.

    We intentionally try to make Jamboree an educational event with a fun twist. We do silly things like Hawaiian Shirt Day because it’s an easy way to involve our attendees and, well heck, it’s fun!

    We hold beginning genealogy classes on Friday morning because we feel that finances should never prevent someone from learning good genealogical techniques. It’s part of the SCGS Mission Statement.

    One of the free activities is “Genealogy World” which involves informal round-table discussions on ethnic or geography-specific records, research techniques, and computer skills. We hold it Friday morning because (A) it’s free, (B) we want to provide an activity for genealogists who are beyond the beginner stage, and (C) it’s a great way for attendees to meet new people and establish relationships.

    Other JamboFREE activities include the Librarians’ Genealogy Boot Camp, Kids’ Family History Camp, and for the first time, thanks to FGS and the California State Genealogical Alliance, we’ll offer a Society Management Conference. In other words, there’s a free event for everyone.

    That said, SCGS is a good example of an organization that had to change peoples’ attitudes about charging for genealogy. The “old” Jamboree (mostly exhibitors, a few classes that are repeated) used to cost $3 for entry. Volunteers were let in for free.

    Imagine how difficult it is to get people, including volunteers, to understand that the three-day conference is worth the $120 that we charge nonmembers. We are still one of the best conference bargains around.

    We have several types of partners. Our exhibitors, speakers, volunteers, and our attendees have similar but sometimes conflicting expectations. It’s our job, as conference planners, to maintain balance, always keeping the overall needs of the conference at the forefront.

    Oh, and by the way, Jamboree is the major fundraiser for SCGS. So in addition to keeping everyone happy and impressed and coming back year after year, the Board expects that we will do it at the least possible cost.

    When you attend any conference, thank every volunteer every time you see one. The conference would not be held without volunteers. If you would like to volunteer, even for one hour to monitor a room so you can be certain of seeing a particular presentation, let us know at We can use the help.

    As a planner, I talk about being an Ed Sullivan plate spinner. Nothing is closer to the truth. Youngsters, see

    By the time conference doors open, conference leaders will have put in 60 to 80-hour weeks. Some time I’ll tell you what it’s like to live in my brain in May and June. But that will have to wait until July.

    See you at Jamboree!

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