Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The RootsTech Stake Fair Effect and Other Influences on Genealogy Conferences

As I move around the genealogical community, I have been having a number of discussions about genealogical conference attendance around the country. Some regularly scheduled conferences have seen a dramatic decrease in attendance. Some conferences have been cancelled due to the increased facilities costs and the inability of the sponsors to have enough attendance to pay for those increases. However, the discussion focuses on the reasons for the decrease in attendance. Those discussions have focused on the following reasons:

  • The RootsTech Stake Fair Effect
  • The availability of alternative online educational opportunities
  • The general localization of conferences
  • Vendors abandoning local conferences
  • A dramatic increased cost of facilities

    What I call the "RootsTech Sake Fair Effect" is the fact that the 2014 Conference is being re-broadcast to more than 622 locations around the world. However, these local Stake Genealogy Fairs are mainly being held in the United States. A Stake in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a geographic division of the Church defined by a certain level of membership activity in an given area. Before making any other comments, I think the idea is wonderful. Having local units get the opportunity to view presentations from RootsTech is a marvelous opportunity and a great breakthrough in genealogical activity. Notwithstanding that particular benefit, there has been a fallout. The Stake Genealogy Fairs use Church facilities and promotional venues. Support for the local fairs come from volunteer time donated by local members of the Church. 

    As I discuss the issue of attendance with various conference sponsors, I see that the larger conferences, including RootsTech have not been affected very dramatically. On the other hand, local conferences have seen a constant decline in attendance, year after year. Obviously, these declines cannot be attributed solely to the RootsTech 2014 Stake Fairs. In effect, the Stake Fairs are a symptom of the changes in the genealogical community (and beyond to the greater community) that contribute to the struggle of conference sponsors.

    Possibly, the main reason for the decline and the reason why the RootsTech Stake Fairs can succeed is the change in technology. As genealogists online, we are bombarded with invitations to webinars and video conferences. Many of these are being held regularly with exactly the same people that are speaking at RootsTech and previously attended local, smaller conferences. For example, the Mesa FamilySearch Library has sponsored a series of excellent webinars that are now online as webcasts. In any given week, you can find some of the best genealogical teachers and presenters online for free or for a very small cost. Huge libraries of these online presentations are presently available for a nominal cost. The cumulative effect of these online webinars is finally taking its toll on conference meeting attendance. Why should I pay money to attend a conference and go to the expense of traveling when I can see the same people online about anytime I choose? 

    Another factor is the localization of conferences. The FamilySearch Blog recently posted a list of "selected" genealogy conferences. There were 18 conferences on that list and I personally know of many more that were not included. Along the Wasatch Front (Salt Lake City and surrounding communities) you could almost attend a genealogy conference or event every single week during the rest of this year. Some of the major conferences are even overlapping such as the BYU Family History and Genealogy Conference in Provo, Utah and the the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies IAJGS Conference, both in the same week in July/August. 

    I think there is probably a saturation limit on genealogy conferences given the availability of the same conference presenters online.

    Another example, the Mesa FamilySearch Library sponsored a small, local conference beginning a few years ago. This event has since grown and last year exceeded the capacity of the facility to hold the attendees and people were turned away from registering. The success of this local conference had a decided effect on the availability of other conferences, particularly those that would be forced to pay for the facilities, presenters and travel expenses. I have been asked to speak at local conferences around the country and then told that they could not afford to pay my expenses to travel to their conference and cancelled the invitation. 

    Another factor is purely economic. The larger vendors have abandoned the smaller conferences to a great extent due to the costs of travel and having people present. They now concentrate on the huge, national conferences and barely advertise at smaller, localized events. While at the same time, their representative appear in webinars and online events regularly.

    Because of the economy in the U.S., hotels and other venues have dramatically increased their charges for events. The sponsors of local conferences find themselves priced out of the market because of a decline in attendance and an increase in costs. Think about paying more than $4.00 a gallon for gas just to drive to set up a local conference. 

    In this environment, local conferences with all volunteer staff and donated facilities will continue to be held. The largest conferences may even get larger. The mid-range smaller conferences will either change their way of conducting their conferences or disappear. Genealogists will rely increasingly on webinars, video conferences and other online activities for their education. 

    There is something important about gathering together in person to attend a conference that cannot be duplicated online. I hope that the mid-range providers will survive so that we can keep the smaller conferences going and available. I am not very optimistic on this account however. 


    1. One effect you did not mention is the fact that genealogists can purchase any genealogical book, pamphlet, chart or gadget online now, sometimes at sale prices, so the vendors don't so as well at selling their products at suggested retail prices at fairs and conferences.

      1. Yes, availability of competitive pricing on almost any product is certainly a factor in the vendor participation. I can stand looking at a product and compare prices online with my smartphone. I often making buying decisions based on that information.