What do malls, conventions, the internet, webinars, classes, genealogy, and a pandemic have in common? Recently, a major department store closed at a nearby mall. These stores are called "anchor tenants." The idea of a mall is that all the tenants benefit economically from their association with each other. The mall becomes a "target destination." Almost immediately after the store closed, they began demolition. Within a very short time, the store structure disappeared and a "new" anchor store is planned however this repurposed mall includes offices, apartments, condominiums, and a huge parking structure. Meanwhile, at another nearby mall two of the three main anchor store locations sit empty. News accounts for the past few years have chronicled the demise of the American shopping mall. See "The Death of the American Shopping Mall Is Coming Sooner Than You Think."
The COVID-19 pandemic that began near the end of 2019 is hastening the end of the mall culture but the decline started long before the pandemic. Think of a mall as a distribution point for goods and services. As I noted, the concentration of stores in one connected location was supposed to attract people (customers) so that stores that would not have otherwise survived as stand-alone businesses would benefit. It is all too easy to blame the downfall of the malls on internet commerce, primarily on Amazon.com. But Amazon is not the cause of the downfall of malls, it is really a product of the economic and cultural forces that are affecting all of the entities named in the title to this post.
The pandemic has accelerated the shift from a concentrated and focused distribution system to a dispersed system tied together by electronic lines of communication. To illustrate, I recently purchased a computer. However, the only store in my area that sold that particular computer is closed because of the pandemic. In addition, that store does not "carry" the model I wanted to order but I could order the computer through the store. So, I opted to order the product directly from the manufacturer (not Amazon). If this chain of decision making events occurs over and over again, then there is no need for me to get in my car, drive to a mall, walk around to find the computer store that sells this particular computer, and order it through the store which will then require me to return to the store to pick it up. A hybrid system would allow me to order the product online and pick it up at the store which would still require one trip to the store. Either way, I get the exact same product in about the same time but in my case, I do not have a trip to the store which, by the way, is about an hour or more away from my home.
Now, what is a convention? It is essentially a "mall" for information and entertainment. The idea of a convention is to animate sales or promote something through personal interaction. Just like a mall, the convention promotes an "anchor presenter" usually a celebrity known by the target group of people invited to attend. The convention aggregates and concentrates attention to the product or services being promoted or sold. Just like a mall, I have to travel to the convention (sometimes at my own expense and sometimes sent by my employer) where I am expected to spend time shopping for new ideas or products. Are conventions immune to the forces that are shifting to dispersed systems of distribution?
Conventions depend primarily on economies of scale. The larger the attendance (malls during the holiday season) the more successful the entire operation will be. Over the past few years, we have seen a number of genealogically oriented conventions (with a variety of names such as expos or conferences) disappear. One of the largest such disappearance was the "Who Do You Think You Are? Conference held in England and billed as "The world’s largest family history show." Other smaller regional conventions (conferences etc.) have also disappeared.
In 2019-2020, the worldwide pandemic resulted in the cancellation of several other long-standing genealogical conventions. Some of the remaining ones have tried to transition to a virtual or online conference format. Does that sound familiar? A move from a concentrated and focused distribution system to a dispersed system tied together by electronic lines of communication. Will that transition be successful? I am guessing that to the extent that the "virtual conference" is truly virtual and not merely an electronic facsimile of a live conference, the move to virtual may be successful. Unfortunately, what I see is that those planning "virtual" events are trying to duplicate the live attended conference experience. So now we come to webinars and online classes. Even though genealogy is a rather restricted area of interest, on any given day, you could probably listen to or watch dozens of online genealogical presentations. So how will those traditional live conference promoters survive in that preexisting background of well-produced webinars and classes? Why would I pay to attend a 3 or 4-day online conference when I can watch good quality presentations from, in many cases, well-known genealogical community celebrities for free? How much will I spend to sit in front of my computer for 2, 3, or 4 days? Will I buy from vendors in a virtual "Exhibit Floor?"
Isn't the potential conference attendee now in the same position as I was in deciding to purchase a computer directly from the manufacturer online to be delivered to my house? Of course, the difference being that there are not a host of computer manufacturers out there giving away exactly the same computer for free like there is for the genealogy organization or company trying to sell an online virtual conference with a host of online presenters giving webinars and classes for free. How will those who are now trying to transition to virtual conferences survive the cataclysmic shift to dispersed distribution?
I have a lot of ideas about how and why some of the ways genealogy is presented will evolve in the virtual environment, but that will have to be a topic for another post. But I am certain that whatever we see as a "virtual conference" will not have much in common with whatever survives the pandemic and the shift to dispersed distribution.
One last note, the pandemic will eventually die down to a background issue. When this occurs, will we rush back to attending live conferences? Think about it.