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Can We Get Real About Genealogy Conference Attendance Numbers?

open thread

[Disclaimer: While reading the post below remember that I am NOT wearing any hat related to genealogy conferences or genealogy societies . . . these are merely my observations in the genealogy industry as the owner of As many readers know, I want to make sure the genealogy community is having honest and valuable conversations about the issues that impact us as genealogists.]

This week’s topic for Open Thread Thursday is:

Have you ever attended a genealogy event such as a week-long conference or an all-day workshop and somehow the publicized attendance numbers just don’t jive with what you can see with your own eyes at the event? Have you been in an exhibit hall where there are supposedly X number of attendees and your impression is that the number is more like Y?

What are your thoughts on attendance at genealogy events in general? Do you think that conference and event planners prop up attendance figures, and if so, why? Should vendors at these events insist on a report as to number of registered attendees, number of walk-ins, etc. after the event?

Finally, do you think that in general genealogy events are seeing a decline in attendance in the past few years? Is it the economy? The popularity of genealogy webinars?

Post your responses in the comments or at a post on your own genealogy blog and place the link here in the comments.

* * *

While I may be in a precarious position here since I volunteer as publicity person for several genealogy events and societies, as someone who tries to get our community to view current issues from all angles, I feel the need to speak up about the topic of attendance at these events.

Do You See What I See?

When I am at a genealogy conference or event, I use my observations and analytic skills to figure out what the “real” attendance is.  I can factor in a bigger exhibit hall over last year.  I do a head count when I am in each lecture.  If handouts are left on seats before a keynote address, I can count those that are left behind.

The fact is this and it has to be said: genealogy event attendance is down over past years.  Some events have seen a more drastic decline than others.  Yes there are  many factors such as geographical location, the economy and others, but come on . . . let’s admit what’s going on and have a serious discussion about attendance at genealogy events.

The Emperor Has No Clothes

As I often say, genealogists are smart cookies and we can smell bologna and cheese a mile away.  We are researchers at heart after all.  We do our homework.  We look, we observe, we analyze.

The planners of genealogy conferences are doing the genealogy community and industry a disservice by not being honest about attendance figures.  In my mind, it is much like “realtor geography.”  It means that a dump of a place in a high-crime area which borders a better neighborhood is marketed as being in that good neighborhood.  Think Beverly Heights instead of Beverly Hills.

I’d love to see an organization be up front and admit that it didn’t have the numbers expected and reveal the actual figures.  There is no shame in this.  It can be done without affixing blame. We – vendors, societies, genealogists – all need this info if we are to move our field forward and understand why some events are not successful.

We are only deceiving ourselves by not being honest about genealogy conference attendance.

What The Genealogy Industry Is Telling Me

The facts tell me that some vendors, even big ones like, are cutting their conference exhibit budgets and looking for new and different events at which to appear instead of the usual annual conferences.

In addition, more and more vendors are doing the math and when they add up what they see it doesn’t match what the conference organizers are telling them.  I’m seeing certain vendors pass on some events where they’ve always appeared and they are being more selective in terms of where they set up shop.

Perhaps the economy has had an impact, but it might be more than that.  Has the “portability” of genealogy attendance impacted “brick and mortar” events? I mean webinars that make it easy to participate in workshops and lectures from the comfort of one’s own home or office.  While a webinar will never replicate the in-person experience of seeing your favorite genealogy speaker, the concept has made genealogy education available to the masses and in a convenient format.

Or perhaps the genealogy conference concept needs updating. Are we “doing what we’ve always done” and seeing a diminishing return on the investment? Many of these events rely upon thousands of volunteer hours.  What if professional conference planners were used to improve efficiency? What if the volunteers could then return to running society projects and providing member services to help improve the society and maintain it as a vibrant part of the genealogy community?

Finally, what if genealogy events went more radical?  Have we been following what other industries are doing with their events? What about offering a Groupon deal on registration to bring in new folks to the event? What about using a ticket-per-seat option to guarantee a seat in the most popular lectures?

I don’t have all the answers, but I do know this: if we want to find the answers, we need to admit there is a problem.


This is a great topic for this week’s Open Thread Thursday! And please, if you have a topic you’d like to see discussed among your genealogy blogging colleagues, please contact us and we’ll take it under consideration.

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

©2012, copyright Thomas MacEntee

27 thoughts on “Can We Get Real About Genealogy Conference Attendance Numbers?

  1. Great post Thomas! I would like to see numbers broken out, for genealogy events, by number of vendors, speakers, 1st time attendees and others … and, is there anyway to track the 21sters versus others?

    Though vendors and speakers do obviously also attend sessions and purchase items from “other” vendors — how many new genealogy (family history enthusiasts) and long-time returning ones are attending …

    As you said, we need to be “honest” about numbers as they do better help us understand what’s going on and come up with possibly new and creative solutions!

  2. Thomas,

    Great topic:

    1) Can’t compare attendance numbers, as I haven’t been to too many conferences multiple times

    2) Having been involved with other conferences, where numbers were an issue, a review of Feedback forms, from the attendees are important

    3) Appropriate ACTION taken following review of feedback

    4) What got me to RootsTech2012, was the Live Feeds from RootsTech 2011 and am signed up for RootsTech2013

    5) Speaking of RootsTech2012/13, the feedback I heard, as a first timer, was the Exhibit Hall in 2012 and the announced expansion of the same for 2013 (to my point #3)

    6) I have driven to a number of conferences that are ‘not’ local. Why, I found out about them through various Social Media, like the Genealogy Calendar of events and the fact that Speakers update those calendars.

    7) Webinars – These may be having an impact on attendance

    8) I take #7 as a Plus for this topic. I have heard (many speakers) on a Webinar or two, and I just gotta hear that person IN Person

    9) Bloggers – visibility at these Events. The Beads that YOU (and Dear MYRTLE) and others provide help get other attendees to start a conversation.

    Its great to meet a Blogger in person, whose Blog I follow.

    All that to say, is that the future of these Conferences should take advantage of “All of the above” and their own ‘tricks’ to present quality conferences with quality presenters.

    I understand your use of the term Industry, as it is, but, from my limited experiences at these conferences is the sense of Community. Having said that, the aspect of having a chance to build community is plan the event so that community building can take place. The ability to communicate to whose not in attendance (Twitter for example, Streaming Video) may help draw new folks to these conferences.

    I know for me, I have had to Plan which conference(s) I want to attend in 2013. Most of that planning comes from what I heard / saw from the 2011 and 2012 conferences. I know I can’t make all of them, but with the above (my comments) I have better information to make my choice.

    Sorry for being long winded, but ….

    Thank you for the topic.


  3. Good topic, Thomas. A few thoughts:

    a.) I love attending genealogy conferences, not only for the networking, but also for the opportunity to immerse myself in genealogy for a few days. I always come home with lots of ideas and, more importantly inspiration, for new projects and new directions to take my research. I don’t get that kind of immersion experience from webinars.

    b.) I do think we need to get ideas from other types of conferences or from outside the U. S. When I hear the attendance numbers for Who Do You Think You Are Live (10s of thousands), I’m always stunned. It’s a very different kind of event than what we have in the U. S., but maybe we could take some of what they do and incorporate it?

    c.) I think there are opportunities for more – and different types of – marketing. There are a lot people out there doing genealogy who have no idea that conferences are going on nearby. The genealogy blogging world is fairly small; we need to reach out to people who don’t read blogs or follow genealogy in social media to attract a wider audience.

    I say all this because, going back to my first point, I love attending conferences. I want the existing conferences to thrive so that I can continue attending them.


  4. Yes.

    To everything. And the whole genealogy conference model needs to be turned upside down and turned inside out.

    We don’t need to look to other industries and markets and what they are doing in order to imitate. We need to look at them to inspire us…

    …to do something that’s completely different…

    …and radical.

    Basically? No more of…

    “…but this is the way we’ve always done it…”


    “…Look! They’re doing it so it should work for us…”

    Because that kind of thinking always crushes creativity and innovation.


  5. Geat post Thomas!

    This may be a little off-topic. I can’t answer your direct questions about conference attendance since I’ve never attended one of these large conference events you are talking about.

    But perhaps I can address one reason why conference attendance may be down.

    Last year I watched Rootstech 2012 online and loved it! This is how I discovered there were such things as genealogy blogs (thank you Lisa Louise Cooke).

    After watching Rootstech at home I thought it would be fun to attend in person. But the reality hit when I started adding up the total cost to attend (plane ticket, hotel and food prices, and the cost of the conference itself). So sadly I probably won’t be able to attend as hoped.

    If others are like me, perhaps the costs to attend conferences are keeping them at home too.

  6. I can’t speak to numbers, mainly because I’ve been to too few (genealogy) conferences. The ones I have attended have been West of the Rockies, and seemed to have as many people as was cited. Full rooms and packed hotels tell me numbers are good. But the scuttlebutt is also that those conferences have a younger, more tech savvy attendance, and are far less focused on “the way we’ve always done it.” *Community* has been my experience there, and I’m hesitant to go into debt to fly cross country and get a rental car, for something that won’t include that element. Heck, the FGS Karaoke tweets have done more to convince me to go next year than any speaker list. I am not a 21st-er, but I like to think I’m a little closer to them than much of the well-established genealogy community and fact is, folks younger than I am see no need to spend money to sit in a room when they can learn just fine remotely. We can argue the quality of that education till the cows come home, but until the genealogy establishment understands that people under 40 *have* money to spend but would rather spend it on something more worthwhile than gas to drive them to a class to be spoken at, not engaged with, I suspect we’ll continue to see national conference attendance go down.

    P.S. No one likes a fibber. If conference organizers are not being honest about attendance numbers, they deserve to have fewer attendees and vendors.

  7. I going to agree with Caroline. It’s time for innovation. Next month I will be attending a blogging conference. My main goal is to be inspired and to think outside of the box. I feel if I look outside the genealogy industry I will find new inspiration and creativity for my own blog and I’ll certainly be observing how their conference differentiates from a genealogy conference. Change is important. Keeping things fresh and evolving are necessary. I can’t speak to attendance but I believe we have barely scratched the surface. I still believe many genealogy conferences are too costly and intimating to the average family historian. I think the genealogy industry is in need of a marketing make-over.

  8. I sit on two society boards. The subject of conference attendance (and maintaining membership) takes up a considerable amount of our time, ingenuity, and resources.

    Personally, as an act of faith and support, I’ve attended many one and two day genealogy seminars. I say an act of faith and support because I almost always walk away with precious little for my time, trouble, and money. I’ve long considered genealogy conference fees a donation.

    In my dreams, I envision a genealogy conference that includes practical skills. Part of my problem is that I’ve attended comparable events. Like you Thomas I’m a technical writer (still working). For many years I attended local, regional, and international events hosted by Society for Technical Communication. I’ve acquired many skills from these events and they were worth every dime I’ve spent attending.

    When I’ve said to other genealogists that I think genealogy conferences should offer presentations with identifiable skills, I’ve been told that my expectations are unrealistic. I beg to differ. I went to RootsTech last year and found much that I could use. I walked away with Twitter skills (thank you Thomas), e-book skills, Fold3 skills, and lots of other skills that I’m still exploring.

    I’ve also observed this same lack of practical skills plaguing publications. I routinely see two international genealogy magazines (commercial pubs with subscription fees). I can go through them in under a half hour because they are long on fluff and short on skills.

    I continue subscribing to genealogy magazines and attending genealogy conferences to keep them in business. I’ve been lucky and I happen to be in a position to do so. However, I can well understand that others must watch what they spend. If the sponsors of genealogy events are going to tempt someone to attend (particularly someone with limited means), they are going to have to revamp their offerings to keep up with the fast paced world that is evolving around them. If they don’t, their events will eventually go by the wayside because people have many more options for getting the information they need and want.

  9. First, I’m on the side of full disclosure when it comes to projected versus actual attendance numbers. Honesty breds good will.

    I’ll admit, FGS2012 was my first major conference. I chose it over other options because it was located in a city I also had research opportunities in.

    Some impressions from a conference novice:

    1) Of the national vendors in the exhibit hall, I was already a customer/user of but one. Does someone really come to a genealogy conference NOT knowing about and What can these vendors contribute in terms of events or seminars of their own instead of just booth access? As examples: Could they be presenting lectures of their own on overlooked record sets or how to get the most effect use of their search functions, community forums or message boards?

    2) Sessions billed as Intermediate or Advanced were informative but not as advanced as I might have liked. To be honest, I spent alot of time nodding my head in agreement when really I was hoping to learn something I didn’t know.

    3) The lecture format is stale. I intend no disrespect to the speakers, some of whom clearly knew their material and entertained their audiences. For me personally, I would have much rather seen any of the following: Moderated panel discussions of techniques or hot topics such as dealing with common surnames, records access or community engagement. Forums that allowed for audience participation on a specific topic. For lectures, a more indepth and practical treatment of the material rather than just the idea or overview.

    I’m with Caroline and Lynn on the need for innovation. As well as Kim, I am not a 21st-er but I’m closer to it than many of the folks I engaged with at the conference. A regular refrain I have encountered in our industry is the need to bring new and younger participants into the community. That’s not likely to go well without a revamp of the current conference format if FGS2012 was a pretty standard treatment. The level of interaction and discussion has to be imporved.

    I want to finish by saying that I had a blast at FGS2012. I met an amazing number of wonderful people. I achieved my original goal of determining whether or not to certify (I went on the clock). I would like to think that I would attend another as money allows but it would depend on location and theme. This conference was focused on Southerners, Settlers and Indians. The theme and topics fit well with my personal research needs. Were it themed on say, the mountain west, where I have never had people and don’t research professionally, I can’t say I could justify the money for the problems stated above.

  10. Slightly off-topic but still relevant: the 2011 International Quilt Festival in Houston had 60,680 attendees.

    What brings them in? What keeps them coming back every year?

    Genealogy conferences may never hit the 60K+ mark, but the way other fields, hobbies and industries pack ’em in should be examined.

  11. Yes I think conferences need to be more innovative.
    I haven’t been to any MAJOR conferences but I have been to a couple state ones. Expense is a problem for me; I’m just starting out and can’t afford a plane ticket, hotel and meals out. We’re living on one salary. Plus I think conferences need to appeal to the younger generation. I am often the youngest or close to the youngest attendee at genealogy conferences. And I have to get babysitting lined up because I can’t leave my preschooler and baby alone. Perhaps lining up family activities along with the conference would help. That being said, now I have to go pack for FHExpos.

  12. Some interesting comments – everyone should go read them BUT only one person commented on vendors. If you are not getting anything out of vendors, I wonder what they should be doing differently. I agree that oftentimes these conferences and seminars have very little hands on, practical classes. The best way to learn is to combine telling, showing and doing. One of the best classes I went to had handouts of search tips and then put us in front of computers to do the searches for ourselves – thanks Debby Horton, Barbara Renick and D. Joshua Taylor. We really need to take advantage of doing rather than just listening. As to the smaller players in this business why not have 10 or 15 minute spotlights – you could group them based on topics, and showcase them rather than someone sitting behind a table with some brochures? I think Lisa Louise Cooke talked about the London WDYTYA and how much more interactive their displays were (more substance, less flash). How is charging for webinars going – do we have any stats on that?

  13. I’ve attended 2 NGS conferences and LOVED THEM!!! I got so much out of them — the lectures, the vendors, the opportunity to examine the BCG certification materials, the networking. I bought the proceedings each time and use them for ideas.

    I would love to attend more conferences, but to me, location is vital — I can only attend conferences that I can drive to. I’m in Raleigh, NC, so I’ve attended the Raleigh 2009 and North Charleston 2011 NGS Conferences. My next conference will be NGS in 2014 in Richmond. I also attend the state and local conferences in NC. I attend many webinars, but they are not a substitute for a major conference.

    It would be interesting to know how many attendees are local and how many are out-of-town. The conferences do move around, which helps attract local attendees.

    State capitals on the East coast are most interesting because I can do research while there. I certainly don’t have research to do in Las Vegas! It would be interesting to compare numbers at the different locations.

    I totally agree that the organizations should provide accurate actual attendance numbers.

  14. Although I’ve attended a couple of regional conferences (FHExpo2010 and 2011 in Georgia) FGS2012 was my first national conference, and I must admit — I loved it (even it if was a bit overwhelming at times). I agree that I probably got the most out of the hands-on sessions and the one-on-one conversations with other attendees, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t learn something in almost every session I attended.

    I agree with Rorey that some of the sessions billed as Intermediate/Advanced were a little disappointing as far as content. I would also like to see more hands-on skill-building type sessions in the future, but I’m not sure how this would work from a logistics standpoint.

    My decision to attend FGS in Birmingham was heavily based on convenience – only a 2 hour drive – and cost. After tallying the cost to attend NGS in Las Vegas (airfare, hotel, meals, conference, etc.), I realized that I wouldn’t be able to go short of winning the lottery.

    As much as I enjoy the networking at conferences (because I did make some VERY good contacts while in Birmingham), I think some serious thought should be given to paid web attendance. I would gladly pay full conference price to be able to pick my seminars and watch them in my jammies – without the added cost of travel and hotel. (Also – not sure how the hands-on thing would work in this medium). This way, even though the webinars may take away from actual physical attendance, it wouldn’t necessarily take away from the income generated.

    As for the vendors, I can see the economy affecting their ability to break even at some conferences. I spent about $100 last week, and all at one vendor. A fellow society member had a booth and said that he doubted he would break even at all. Now – there is something to be said for marketing, including offering conference discounts, etc., that also have an impact on spending. If you’re not offering a discount for me buying your products at a conference, then I’m not likely to buy anything from your booth. However, if the numbers are being padded to get vendors to sign up for the next one, then I think that’s pretty deceptive and should be addressed. If the numbers are there and the people just aren’t buying, that’s another issue entirely.

    I am interested in knowing the total attendance at FGS this year, even though I have nothing to compare it to, simply because I would like to see if my perception of attendance matches the actual attendance. The venue was extremely large and spread out. All of the sessions I attended were sparsely populated, but then they also had 6 or 7 sessions going on at one time and had some rooms set up to hold a few hundred people.

    That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed my time at FGS this year, and have already made my reservations for Ft. Wayne (mainly because I have research in the area).


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  16. Thomas — do you know if the room monitors were also doing “rough” attendance tallies? It would be interesting to know, statistically, how many people were attending sessions, versus going to meetings (I know there were some that conflicted with people attending sessions), hanging in the vendor area, chatting with colleagues, etc.

    My two sessions, W-113 and F-300 seemed to be attended by about 30-40 people (if you attended — feel free to correct me up or down ;-)) which I thought was decent … and I know that every session I attended, often in the “bigger” rooms had probably 50-100 … so, do we have any actual numbers?

    And, I’m enjoying reading all the comments — great thoughts and observations!

  17. Diane – I had the same experience for my 4 lectures – I had about 30-40 people but I was placed in rooms that held 200 or more so it seemed like just a handful. I don’t think room monitors did a head count (I always do my own) but I wouldn’t mind seeing this as part of a room monitor duty for genealogy conferences. Of course, if we followed the quilter or scrapbooking conference model, we would sell individual tickets to lectures and then know ahead of time the proper room for each lecture based on ticket sales . . .

  18. Things go in cycles, but I think we’ve hit a low (or do you consider it a high?) of people thinking they can do everything at home, in front of their monitors in their PJs. I’m all for sitting at home with my mug of tea or adult beverage and finding great discoveries on my computer, but there is nothing like actually getting out and meeting PEOPLE in classrooms, workshops, libraries, and even just like minded folks in the town clerk’s offices or in the cemeteries. Yes, I’ve made major discoveries online, and the thrill of the hunt can be addicting, but just one morning in a library meeting other genealogist by chance or design, shaking hands, sharing a hug and lots of good research, notes and manuscripts tops a month’s worth of webinars and searches. Conferences are even better. Anyone who doesn’t plan to attend one once in a while, even a local or regional one instead of a national conference, is missing out on a major part of genealogy education and research.

  19. Thomas, as you know I was at FGS2012. I have a few thoughts about it.
    1. The Exhibits. I’ve been working at conferences/exhibits for 22 years, not in the genealogy field. New exhibitors need to be sure the name of their company is front and center along the back wall of their booth. If the budget permits nothing else, leave the simple convention signage up. Those with new products need to step down from the hard sell and actually ask their potential customers what their needs and problems are. Those with established products and large booths need to quit the chit chat with each other and appear ready and willing to be approached. Give customers a reason to be happy they stopped by. Thanking them if they are an ongoing customer goes a long way.
    2. Here is my budget for this conference: registration $200. Lunch tickets $50. Hotel $650. Airline ticket $417. Food and, um, beverages $120. Book purchases in exhibits $190. Sessions on CD $30. Does this sound like a commitment a beginner would make? Yet why is so much of every conference geared to beginners? I would have been happy with a little more complexity and more sessions with real life examples of really hard problems. Or controversial topics. Every session was pretty much talking at you, with a couple of questions at the end. I’ll bet YOUR sessions weren’t quite like that, and honestly, that’s not a crime anyway, but the biggest benefit I got from this trip was meeting some wonderful genealogists and bloggers. It was not the sessions, which I think would have been just as good through the web.
    3. I looked at the website for Who Do You Think You Are Live in Great Britain. A conference of doing, open to all for a price, with a great chance for the big companies to attract new sales – no wonder that conference is so big. Established folks could have their detailed sessions in the background, with lots of hands-on practice for the inexperienced in the exhibits, and a chance for the established folks to pick up a new skill there if needed. And of course the public likes it if they think there’s a chance they can get some individual consultation – like Ancestry’s Family History Days. Every society has lots of experienced genealogists as members – how about letting them help the paying walk-ins?
    4. My last point is about corporations vs. societies. There is a place for both, but if you look around you’ll see the companies are pulling in the big numbers at their events. Societies should read the handwriting on the wall and join forces with those companies, to add quality content to the events and yet benefit from the fact that a large part of the event is already planned and paid for. An organization like FGS needs to look around for big opportunities, not tweaks.

  20. Interesting question, Thomas. I can’t speak about other genealogy conferences but I can speak about the Genealogy Jamboree. Yes, our headcount is down about 100 people from the 1700+ high two years ago — just the way we wanted it. The slightly reduced headcount shows that our strategy of raising prices slightly helped curtail our growth. We had just too many attendees for the size of our venue.

    We would gladly provide attendance numbers to our exhibitors if they asked for it. When we exhibit at other conferences, though, we wouldn’t think of asking for “proof.” That’s not what it’s about for us – it’s all about partnerships and collaboration.

    Our count reports do jibe with reality. We explicitly describe what the count represents. We don’t have any reason to inflate attendance.

    Here’s what I see about conferences. We get many, many attendees that are not wired in to the online genealogical community. They are not over-exposed to lectures, either live or webinar. They truly appreciate the opportunities that Jamboree affords. We don’t want to neglect these occasional or offline researchers.

    I agree that the conference structure can use a big boot in the patootie to get more innovative. If you have an idea on how to do that, I encourage you to volunteer with one of the many genealogical events to help implement your ideas. Everyone will be better because of your involvement.

  21. To Tessa’s comment, I’d like to clarify that I did get some benefit out of the exhibit hall, particularly in the book category and among the smaller vendors offering new products or ideas I hadn’t heard of yet. And, of course, looking at the portfolios in the BCG booth was instrumental in my decision to certify.

    But Diane Boumenot’s comment “Those with established products and large booths need to quit the chit chat with each other and appear ready and willing to be approached” caused me to shout ‘YES’ at my computer. If I’m already a customer/user what incentive did I have to approach their booth? Act like a groupie and tell them how much I love their service? I might have to interrupt their conversation to do it.

    Look, all sarcasm aside, I have worked the booth before in another life. I know it can be boring and exhausting work, frequently with the Catch-22 of negative ROI for attending or bad press for not attending. But get out into the walkways. Not a user? Let me show you what we’ve got. Already a user? What do you like and how can we improve. Is that so much to ask?

    For the lecture format as constituted, I would be opposed to pre-selling tickets. I changed my lecture schedule a couple of times. Twice based on recommendations from other attendees, once based on lecture X made me want to attend lecture Y. I also think pre-selling for the basic lecture format might leave first timers/beginners feeling disappointed with how they allocated their funds.

    On the other hand, the waiting list for some of the paid workshops should be a big neon sign to organizers these hands on/advanced events should be playing a bigger role.

    I want to be clear, I loved attending FGS2012. I absolutely expect to attend at least one national conference in 2013. (I wanted to attend NGS but I can’t afford Vegas and have no research there.) The face to face interaction and business networking opportunities are invaluable. I absolutely loved taking the screen that usually separates me from some of the folks who encourage and inspire me out of the equation.

  22. Thomas, what an interesting subject. Genealogy is such a complex industry;unlike any other business model. The broad spectrum of consumers in the genealogy market make it especially challenging to determine best marketing strategy. My impression, from having only been around for a bit over a year and attending NGS2012, is that genealogy conferences are as much social events as they are chances to learn. I was surprised at the number of people I met who willingly called themselves ‘conference junkies’. While I wish I had the financial means to go to all the conferences, like many others here, I simply don’t have the funds to do that. I suspect that the combination of a weak economy and more readily available material such as webinars, ebooks, etc. have had a direct impact on the number of current conference attendees. Fresh material, innovative presentations and tech supportive venues will help to draw and hold a more diverse consumer.

  23. My observations/questions/thoughts.

    Why was the Cincinnati conference so well attended compared to Birmingham?

    It’s not fair to compare a conference in London with one in the U.S. Millions of people can get to London in 1 day on a good rail system. In the U.S. there are few places that could compare.

    I attend conferences, but hate to pay for registration and find that many of the sessions require additional fees. Every year more and more “pay per view” sessions are being added. Maybe all lectures, workshops, etc. should be paid for separately, with no overall conference fee.

  24. My first national conference was FGS 2010 so I don’t have any basis of comparison prior to that. It was obvious from the start that the numbers in Birmingham were way down. Maybe a holiday weekend wasn’t the best time to have a conference and it’s hard to gauge how Hurricane Isaac impacted attendance by people from the Gulf coast. Both of those things probably had some effect but it’s doubtful they were totally responsible for the drop.

    The crowd at NGS in Cincinnati this year did not seem to be down at all from the previous year in Charleston so I’m not convinced that all conference attendance is in decline just yet. Many sessions in Cincy were packed to the point that everyone didn’t always get into the session they wanted. On the surface there doesn’t seem to be much difference in the two cities. Both had local/regional research opportunities and the programs were comparable with many of the same big name speakers. The only real difference was the mid-western vs southern flavor to some of the sessions. It will be interesting to see if the numbers shift next year when NGS is in Las Vegas while FGS has the draw of the ACPL in Ft. Wayne.

    Looking at ways to improve things, including considering why other types of conferences are drawing bigger crowds, is always a good idea. That really should be done even when things are going well but it’s imperative when they are not. It’s obvious from the comments here and elsewhere that people have been thinking about this issue. I hope the people who have the power to make changes are listening.

    Thomas – thanks for starting this conversation.

  25. I’ve been thinking about this post for several days and mulling over the comments made thus far. My comment speaks to the exhibitors/sponsors/speakers and conference management. I wanted to approach this from another direction.

    Thomas asks: “Should vendors at these events insist on a report as to number of registered attendees, number of walk-ins, etc. after the event?” My answer: “Absolutely and not just after the event”! At shows I exhibit at I not only get the pre-conference attendee list, I get their website traffic stats for the conference home page and any other page my logo/name appears on. I get the click-through rates on any emarketing that the conference sends out as well as any deliver ability rates for print mailings. All of that data is needed to calculate your ROI and just as importantly your ROO…return on objectives. The exhibitors and sponsors should be treated as a partner of the conference and you work together to make the conference successful. It’s a mutual relationship, you can’t have one without the other. Also, don’t think “I just have a 10×10 booth with a sign and a table cloth, that sort of data tracking only applies to the big guys.” Don’t ever sell yourself short, you have obviously worked hard to create/market/sell a product or service and you deserve to be treated with the same respect as those with a 20×30 booth. You should also operate with the same level of professionalism as an exhibitor with a 20×30 booth.

    What does the conference management do in the way of working with their exhibitors and sponsors? If they are not providing you with any data, what are they giving you? Do these conferences generally hold a pre-event conference call with their exhibitors? That is very helpful as it gets everyone on the same page with what marketing opportunities are available and provides those that may not be as secure in the marketing area to get help from others that are. I often wonder why I don’t see more vendors promoting the conference before hand? What if every vendor spent months 6 to 3, leading up to the conference, promoting the conference then months 3 to 1 promoting themselves? Doesn’t it stand to reason you would see more attendees through the door just through increased marketing volume? I feel strongly that exhibitors should be working “with” the conference and the conference should facilitate this relationship.

    This is the biggy…I hear so much swirling around about the value/benefit of networking at conferences. When I attend a conference my networking is random…it’s social. When I exhibit there is NOTHING random about my networking. If I approach you, you can bet I have been all over your website and LinkedIn profile frontwards, backwards and sideways. If you approached me, I looked you up as soon as I had a chance. When I attend a conference I go to dinner with whoever asks and whoever I want to. When I exhibit, you know you are going to breakfast, lunch or dinner with me because I called you before the conference (from the attendee list I gain as an exhibitor) and scheduled the meal. Exhibitors/Sponsors/Speakers…you MUST be focused in your networking at conferences. Face-to-face marketing is a very powerful tool, but you need to be looking at the right face. If you are a promoting a new book…why are you going to dinner with me? I’m not a publisher or distributor. If you are wanting to speak at regional conferences, why are you going to dinner with me? I’m not on any board of any society that hosts a conference. You want to have an entertaining dinner…I’m your girl, but if you are truly at the conference for business purposes and concerned about your bottom line you should be targeting your dinner partners to those that can further your career in some way. If the attendee numbers are lower than you would like, but you have identified who you need to be doing business with and connected with them, your conference value will be strong.

    I don’t know that the trade show industry as a whole is seeing a drop in attendance numbers. Currently I’m at back-to-back conferences that both have record-setting attendance numbers and both exhibit halls are sold out. I do know that with our business model, the larger the conference attendance the LESS likely we are to exhibit. This relates to what we have set as our objectives for exhibiting. Do you exhibit for: sales, leads, product demos, product launches or customer relation building? Your objectives should drive first, if you should exhibit and second at which conferences. I don’t know that the conference model needs to be turned on it’s ear but I do know we need to have options. I also know that just like you educate yourself in proper genealogy research, vendors need to educate themselves in exhibiting best practices.

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