Are In-person Genealogy Events Dead?

There are rumblings on social media about the possible end of in-person genealogy events like conferences and seminars. With all of the blogs, webinars, and email newsletters out there, are in-person genealogy events dead? 


Christine Woodcock of Scottish Genealogy Tips and Tidbits wondered if large genealogy events are going the way of microfilm. Though others haven't made that exact analogy, there have been comments that conferences are passé. The thinking seems to go that if the conference doesn't have huge attendance, it must have been a failure. And if it's a failure, then it must be dead.

Here's my take on it:

Genealogy conferences and seminars are not dead. 

Look at the attendance at RootsTech. Yes, one could argue that RootsTech has a built-in audience with the directors and volunteers of local Family History Centers. But 20,000 of them? I've been to each RootsTech except for the first one and the attendees are from all walks of life. It isn't even close to being a Mormon-only event. 

FGS and NGS draw steady numbers, as do the Southern California Genealogy Jamboree and the Ohio Genealogical Society. 

So why do we seem to have this discussion every few months? Because of two myths that keep turning up.

Myth #1: Webinars and Other Online Events Are Killing Conferences​

People are wondering if the plethora of webinars are making in-person genealogy events less desirable. After all, why go to the expense of traveling to a conference (even one within driving distance), when you can watch a webinar from the comfort of your couch?

Webinars and other online offerings do not automatically kill an in-person event. If you don't believe me, consider the Social Media Marketing World conference. It's sponsored by Social Media Examiner, one of the major players in social media marketing education. SME offers tons of online education, including blogs, webinars, and podcasts. Yet their annual conference draws thousands of people. (And if any field would be "virtual only," you'd think it would be social media.)

When done right, online offerings can actually entice people to attend in person. It may not be for that year’s conference, but it plants the seed of “Hey, I really enjoyed the livestreaming sessions last year. The conference is closer to me this year; I’d like to attend in person.” It’s a “try it before you buy it” scenario. And it works. (Just look at Social Media Marketing World.)

Myth #2: In-Person Events Are Passé. People Don't Learn Like That Anymore.

This is the same argument that came up when ebooks were invented. Weren't we supposed to have seen the end of print books by now? And what happened to that paperless society we were supposed to have? What about VCRs (then DVDs, then BluRay, then Netflix) killing off tv and movies? 

There are two things to consider. The first is that different people learn in different ways. Some people don't do well learning via webinar, just like some people would rather have a root canal than go to an in-person event of any type. (Even the people who do like in-person events don't necessarily like all types of them. Some prefer large conferences like RootsTech; some prefer state or regional events; some like week-long institutes.)

The second (but related) point is that webinars and in-person events are different. There are aspects that are similar, but that cannot truly be replicated by the other. 

There is room for all types of learning models in the genealogy world. 

Let's Stop the Handwringing and Do Something About It

That being said, those of us who "cut our teeth" on in-person events need to realize that not everyone even knows that these events exist. There are some things that societies — local, state, and national — can do to increase in-person attendance.​ There are two basic things that event organizers need to keep in mind:

  • People can't attend things they don't know about
  • People won't attend things they aren't excited about

Promote, Promote, Promote

As soon as the date is sent for an event, start talking about it! Don’t wait until a month before the event. The sooner you start talking about the event, the longer people have to plan — and the more opportunities you have to build excitement for it. Speaking of excitement…​

Give People Something to Look Forward to

If you don’t sound excited about your upcoming event, why should anyone attend? What are they going to learn? What are they going to see? In short, what's in it for the attendee?

Use Social Media to Your Advantage

I see this happen all the time. A society has an upcoming event and they post it on Facebook… once. It's perfectly alright to post it more than once!​ Facebook doesn’t show every post to every person who follows a page. Find different things to talk about — the speaker, the venue, the upcoming early-bird deadline.

Speaker and Exhibitors: You Can Help the Event, Too!

A note to speakers and exhibitors. Help promote the events where you’ll be. Post links on social media and talk about it on your blog. Speakers: You’re not being paid based on headcount, but nobody enjoys speaking to an empty room. (BTW, if anyone is curious about where I’ll be, here's my list of upcoming speaking engagements – in-person and virtual.) Exhibitors: You can’t make sales to attendees who aren’t there. Help drive some traffic to those events.

My Take on It

Conference are not dead. In-person events and online offerings are not mutually exclusive. They fit different needs and different desires. To those who are ringing the death knell of conferences: Start working with event organizers to help get the word out and build excitement. To those who have never been to a conference, give one a try. (And if you're thinking it's too expensive, start planning now for one next year. Find a roommate to share hotel costs. Drive where possible or keep an eye out for cheap airfare. It might be more do-able than you think!)​

Your Turn

Do you attend in-person genealogy events? Why or why not? Let’s discuss it in the comment section below.

[Note: This post was updated from one done in 2016. See what I mean about myths that persist?! Some of the comments below reflect 2016 conferences.]

Posted: September 6, 2017.

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  • I love going to in person genealogy events–local, state and national. But many things come into play–like time, distance and money. Conferences are expensive to attend and not everyone can afford to fly or drive to Ft. Lauderdale. And when I do go to a conference, I make sure before hand that the sessions/workshops are pertinent to me. That being said, I am really looking forward to the FGS conference in Springfield, IL.

    • I’ll be at FGS, too, Betty! (I’m not speaking, but FGS is always a great conference. The fact that I can drive to it is a bonus — easier to pack all those books and gadgets I’ll buy in the exhibit hall!)

      • I was at Roots Tech and look forward to next year, but as I live in New Zealand it is wonderful to have live streaming and webinars to watch as it is a tad hard to get to all the conferences I would love to.

  • I think it’s similar to the way that other industries have changed too like the concert industry. Promoters and presenters need to step up their game and adapt. Especially with limited financial resources, people want to know that it will be worth their time and the expense to attend.

  • I attended the NGS conference last week mainly because I live in fort Lauderdale. It was my first time national conference and found it extremely well worth the cost. However I don’t travel much so the likelihood of attending other national conferences is not very great. I am thinking about Raleigh but with the new law in place there I am actually boycotting the state and will not attend unless the law is overturned. I would highly recommend that people attend national conferences Regional conferences and even local conferences. The knowledge gained as well worth the cost of registration and travel level 8

    • Glad you had such a positive experience with your first conference! I, too, enjoyed the conference in Fort Lauderdale. It’s sad that more people didn’t attend.

  • Totally agreed, Amy. And so much more can be said about this topic! Besides everything you covered, I think there are at least two other points.

    One is that NGS may have suffered from the same issue we sometimes see in California: The venue is not centrally located, and sometimes the journey to get there seems too tedious to mount (all the more reason to apply your advice on early and enthusiastic promotion).

    The other, I think, is that people’s expectations are evolving. The talking head model may not be as attractive as it once might have been. The scenario of everyone sitting, facing straight ahead in an audience, while one expert expounds endlessly on one specifically defined topic may need a change-up with other ways of sharing information. Round table sessions are one attempt at variety in the process. I’d love to see other ways to get attendees to connect with each other and share their observations, resources, or experience.

    For the most part, I see conferences as a way for people to connect with like minded enthusiasts. The more conference committees can successfully address those needs which drives in-person attendance, the more the event’s attendance numbers will thrive.

    • great comment – I definitely think we need more of workshop, round table sessions, and I especially liked the ask an expert tables where you sign up for a session – I heard about them at WDYTYALive – and it is a good way for local societies and associations to be involved and good for attendees as well. The model used at some science conferences – the table and presenter having posted their information and available to answer questions – with a focus on 4-6 at a time was also impressive. Lots of ideas out there and we need to be willing to see what works best for all parties to a conference.

      • Tessa, those are some great ideas. I think we can learn from other organizations outside the realm of genealogy. No matter what subject matter I’m following via conference-going, I find I hit a realm, after a few years, of feeling like there is nothing out there for me (as far as conference offerings go). The beginners’ stuff is too basic, likely because my needs have evolved. I think the cry for “something else” has its basis in some unmet needs by those “in the middle” of their learning curve. Interactive learning, sharing, cooperative models seem just the fit.

      • As one of those “experts” this year at WDYTYALive I would say do add Ask the Expert sessions but filtering and tailoring the query to the expert is vital for both parties. And although I did my session without benefit of internet it would have been a great help. Also having prebooked 20 minute slots and someone (the lady with the handbell) to police that is necessary.

  • Hi Amy, love your post and I agree completely. But I also would add that conference organizers need to work very hard at keeping the events fresh, new and exciting. Same old, same old doesn’t work anymore. If I go to a conference two years in a row and not much has changed then guess what, not likely to return. You need to be constantly adding and changing things up and promoting the heck out of the those changes.

  • Promote, Promote, Promote. You said it. Are conferences relying too heavily on “ambassadors” to get their message out? Are they following through? The ship has sailed for ambassador blog posts about what they are packing, what they saw in day one, two and three etc. Give me a “why” to go, generate some excitement. Annual Conference with x y & z speakers listed generates little interest in me, let alone encourage me to spend money on the conference. Have the conference committees reached out to those with podcasts or YouTube channels for interviews leading up to the conference? As you mentioned SME, they interview most speakers BEFORE the conference. Doesn’t have to be much, a 5 or 10 minute interview. Great brainstorming post Amy.

    • Thanks, Jenna. I, too, have wondered about the leveraging of conference ambassadors. In looking at previous conferences, most of their efforts seem to be spent during and immediately after the event. That doesn’t do anything to build excitement ahead of time.

    • and oftentimes the ambassador is promoting themselves and not the conference. When I read very little about how that person spent their time (and then figure out they did not attend any sessions and simply networked for themselves) I don’t benefit and neither does the conference.

  • There are many conferences I would love to attend, but I have to plan way ahead due to my work schedule and several are not advertised until too close to the event. My added issue is that I cannot walk far and none of these conferences let us know handicap facilites I do love the live streaming and the you tube videos.

    • Doc, look for smaller conferences in local venues (not big conference centers.) Often, the topics are relevant to a wide range of locations, even if it is a local society sponsoring the speaker. For example, I found that the sping and fall seminars of the state society where I lived had many relevant topics and speakers, even though I had no reason to do research specific to that state.

  • After being a genealogy recluse for decades I love attending “live” events now. I have even met “real” cousins at these events! Networking is another reason I love these events. I have met so many people with the same research areas as me and we’ll discuss and trade information with each other. A very nice perk indeed! P.S. Yes, I do love webinars, online education, institutes, and local society meetings as well.

    • I love the webinars and all the rest, too, Paul! There’s definitely a place for all types of educational events.

  • I was at NGS also and loved it, mostly because of the fellowship with people I’d only previously met online. (My BU alum and ProGen colleagues.) Plus I made many other new, like-minded friends. This conference seems to attract more experienced researchers and that’s a smaller crowd than the hobbyists I think attend RootsTech. The courses were taught by the best in the field and even though some were very basic in content, I found each one to be informative. I came away much richer that what it cost to attend. Nothing available online could have done that for me. It is troubling to me to hear that attendance is down but I chalk it up to the somewhat isolated Florida location. I plan on attending this conference as often as I can (although I, too, may boycott N.C.).

    • I would like to comment on your use of the term “experienced researcher” versus the “hobbyist”. As a personal family historian, I feel the term “hobbyist” sounds frivolous and feels dismissive. Many personal family historians are very experienced. While I am sure you never meant it in this way, I just thought I would add my reaction to the thread. BTW – Yes, I have attended several national conferences and highly recommend the experience to others, and I will be attending the upcoming FGS conference in Springfield.

  • Forgot to mention that I thought the organizers could have taken better advantage of Twitter. They had a contest for attendees but the organization itself did not use the tool as they could have. Like, why not announce the prize winners? Or post weather reports? Or trivia facts of some sort about the org or the event? I was expecting them to post attendance numbers and they didn’t. So, there’s that.

  • I doubt that I will attend another national conference. I went to NGS in 2015 and once was enough. I was disappointed in the “big name” speakers who I had read about for years. Their presentation skills were very poor. There were too many sessions crammed together and the conference lasted too long. The highlight, as always, was socializing with friends and sharing our genealogy adventures. There were just way too many people there. Attend Roots Tech? No way.

    I will continue attending one and two day conferences that attract fewer than 300 people. These usually feature one prominent speaker who does about four sessions. I get much more from these kind of state, local and regional conferences. It’s much more low key and better suited to my personality type and learning style.

    • You bring up a good point, Susan. Not every in-person event is alike. RootsTech can easily be overwhelming. I’ve always been a fan of the FGS conferences. (Disclosure: I’m the program chair for FGS 2017 in Pittsburgh.) Just like there’s a need for both in-person and online educational opportunities, there’s a place for in-person events of all sizes and length.

      • I understand next years conference will be in Pittsburgh, PA. Will you be on the planning committee? If they miss seeing this beautiful historical city, then they will be losing out.
        I hope Pgh. gets a good crowd.

        • There are two national conferences that move around the country: NGS (the National Genealogical Society) and FGS (the Federation of Genealogical Societies). FGS will be in Pittsburgh Aug. 30 – Sept. 2, 2017. I’m the program chair for the event.

          • I lived in Pittsburgh for 65 years, and intend to go back next year for the conference. There are quite a few resources in Pittsburgh for genealogy. I do hope they have good attendance.
            See you next year, Amy.

  • Attending a conference in-person is about making connections, whether it’s talking directly to a speaker or exhibitor, chatting with others while waiting for the session to start, or having a surprise cousin connection as I did at an NGS conference. Location is a major consideration for attending an FGS or NGS conference. My husband attends with me and we consider if ancestors lived nearby and after-conference sightseeing. Ft. Lauderdale had neither for us. We are attending FGS in Springfield – lots of Lincoln sites to see.

    • I have attended several NGS conferences, but this one in Florida didn’t draw me in because I had no ancestors who lived there or nearby, and I’ve vacationed in Florida before, so that’s not new. Looking forward to next year in North Carolina (I don’t care what their law is as long as I can feel safe there.)

  • I love the opportunity to be among likeminded people, so I love the conferences and institutes.

    I do have to agree with Lynn that while there are standard topics that everyone likes and needs to hear, there needs to be fresh approaches to them. If I look at a conference and see that a lot of the lectures are rehashes of past classes, I am less likely to attend if it requires travel.

    It seems a lot of conferences have a lot of beginner topics and possibly with the wave of online educational opportunities and webinars maybe conference goers are a little more knowledgeable today than they were before and are looking for more advanced topics? Not sure about that one, but have heard chatter among individuals wishing for more options for advanced topics at conferences.

  • For people who make a living (or part of one) from genealogy, the conferences make sense as a chance to see each other face-to-face. In addition to the lecture-sessions, there are any number of planned committee meetings and ad hoc gatherings. People in the industry still need to see each other’s products and talk about them. Seeing and being seen are still a business requirement to be perceived as a viable “player,” at least for now.

    For people who are not making a living from genealogy, the sessions still make sense as a vacation-education opportunity, for those with the cash, ability to travel, and a compliant spouse. Before the web was in common use, they were a chance to learn about and buy books that were not widely advertised. For in-depth learning, however, week-long institutes and home-study courses have more to offer, and they don’t get caught in trade-offs with the exhibit floor’s interests, such as planned down-time to push conferees to visit the exhibitors.

  • I have only attended NGS once before, when it was in an area where I could stay with relatives, just because of the expense of traveling from California. It seems to me that travel expenses have really gone up in recent years–airfare, car rental, and hotels–so it is a challenge to attend more than one or two big events. I was very happy about the live streaming this year, and registered for that because it had some great classes being streamed and also gave me a syllabus for the whole conference. Since I am not a regular NGS-goer the streaming option helped me feel like I was supporting the conference by adding to their (virtual) numbers, so I hope NGS at least saw an increase in that area and the revenue helped offset the lower in-person attendance. I agree that attending in person is the best way to go, though, for it gives attendees far more class choices and is a real energizer. It’s always great to be with other genealogists!

  • My first conference was last month in Mason Ohio and I found it very enjoyable and beneficial. I can probably only afford one event a year but hope to make one every year. I live in Ohio so it is likely to be the OGS annual conference for the near future. Maybe after I retire I will go to some farther away. The one I attended was great fun and those that are chasing not to attend conferences are missing out!

  • There is NO substitute for attending a live educational event. The opportunities for networking and making new friends are invaluable. Working the vendor/exhibit hall to talk to professional people in the business can provide ideas, answers, products, and services to get you past your brick walls. It also helps them provide better services in future. The personal contacts can last a lifetime!

  • I attended last year in Missouri because it was one county over from the area I really focus my research on (Franklin County, Missouri), even though I live in Salt Lake. I loved the regional presentations at that event, and I dovetailed it with going to Franklin County and doing more research there. It was a fantastic 10 days. However, I have no connections to Florida or even the southeast in terms of research, so consciously decided not to go this year. Ended up having major back surgery 3 weeks before, so that all worked out.

    On another note, I live in Salt Lake and have come to LOVE RootsTech and SLIG.

    I thrive in the Institute model and this last year extended myself a bit more to get to know the people I was in the class with and had a delightful time making new genealogy friends. This little trio of us started going to lunch together, and sitting near each other. We figured out one was 20 years older than me, one 20 years younger than me, very diverse backgrounds, but we so much enjoyed and learned from each other.

    I still really like the lecture model, and the exhibit halls. I wish RootsTech had more lecture times available with the speakers spread out more, not 20-30 offerings each of the few lectures available. I am not a fan of the “Keynotes” and don’t go to them.

    As to webinars … I’m always “gonnu”, I’m always going to do one, but I never get around to it, so it’s not webinars that are drawing me away from conferences.

    • I have attended SLIG and really agree that the focused institute style is great both for learning and making genealogy friends who have that same interest. Learned so much and it was a layering effect as the sessions built upon each other (loved the track idea).

      I found the number of sessions overwhelming for RootsTech and the size of some presentations meant that you could not get through much – it is the difference between a 5 course meal with thoughtful content by the chef and a smorgasbord where you choose a bit of this and a bit of that, but what you want might not be available. Both good (or could be when run well) qualities and it depends on what you want.

  • I sure hope live events aren’t dead!! I love the opportunity to meet people in person – especially those I’ve connected with on Facebook but not in real life.

    My main issues are usually timing of the event – no one seems to get my message about not scheduling over month end/month begin time 😉 and whether I have enough vacation time to attend.

    This year isn’t a conference year for me, but only because of the vacation time thing. The minute I win the lottery I’m going to spend a year going to all the genealogy events I can find.

  • I’d love to attend more conferences. But as a “hobby” genealogists (even if I am a fanatic about it), I have to make choices. If one had the resources there are interesting events every week if not every month. I loved Roots Tech and plan to attend again. Hopefully they will have more sessions for their more popular speakers. And the NGS tour with Family History Center this year was extremely helpful. My choices are always around what is pertinent for me at a particular time in my research. Is it DNA, is it learning more about research across borders, is it ancestral history? I much prefer the “in person” to web and streaming but I choose my “in person” carefully – and there are so many events.

  • I’d like to give my 2 cents. I live in Nova Scotia and have never attended a large conference of any kind. I am not poor, but my income does not allow for travel & accommodations of the kind that are available in the conference areas. I have taken advantage of some of the free live-streamed videos that have been offered at various times and have enjoyed them. I have to say that I am AMAZED at the number of people who attend several conferences every year. I can only think that a good number of them claim the costs as business expenses.
    I love the “in-person” experience but could never attend Rootstech as I don’t think I’d survive among 20,000 or more attendees.
    I think that the genealogy “industry” is looking at this the wrong way. Instead of bemoaning the lack of attendance in person, perhaps the way to go is to plan to have fewer people in person and spend as much time advertising the live-streamed sessions as they do the in-person experience. Why do these societies have big conferences? Is it to draw as many people to the conference location in order to “sell” registrations and make a profit? If that’s the case, then disappointment is inevitable. Or, is their goal to is to promote the study of genealogy and recover the costs of having good speakers/sessions? Then perhaps they can look at a two-pronged approach. Can they sell “society” packages that would allow 20 or 30 people in a society to get together and watch several live-streamed sessions? That gains some revenue and also promotes the “in-person” experience. Once people are introduced to the sharing and fun that happens when genealogists are together, maybe those who can travel will attend. And those who can’t or don’t want to can still contribute $$ by buying into the live-stream sessions.
    The genealogy scene here in Canada is very different than in the US and England. Our population is much lower so we would have trouble attracting the kind of numbers that the big US Conferences have. Our society has had two conferences since 2014 that have attracted 90 and 120 people. I have to say that I heard grumbles about the $100 fee for the first conference and I chuckle about that 🙂 The second, we charged $65 for non-members and $50 for members and it was much better received. As you can see, these folks are not about to spend thousands of dollars to go to a conference. Especially considering the current exchange rate on the Canadian dollar, the ramped up security, overpriced hotel rooms and food and rotten weather for travelling.
    I think there is room for everyone to attend some kind of conference whether in-person or virtually. And, I think there could be several different price points that would attract more people and maybe “infect” them with this wonderful disease 🙂

  • I currently prefer to spend my genealogy travel budget on 1) visiting where my ancestors lived 2) visiting large genealogical libraries, and week-long in-depth institute courses on specific subjects, e.g, GRIP or SLIG.

  • I’ve really enjoyed the past NGS conferences I’ve attended but I only go every other year AND when the venue offers an opportunity to indulge in some on the ground research. I was planning to attend Raleigh but as mentioned by a previous post won’t be going if the discrimination law is still in effect.

  • In the last few months I have attended 4 in person genealogy events and feel that I have gotten more from them then most webinars. Not necessarily in information but in other benefits that come from inactions with others in person. It has contributed to inspiration and renewable of enthusiasm just when my interest were waning and the process felt stale.

  • As another person commented, I have no genealogical interest in Florida. I will certainly consider Springfield as my husbands family came from that area and a good portion of my family came from Illinois. My favorite conference was the Valley Forge one. I have two ancestors who spent that winter at Valley Forge. And the person I attended with had Mad Anthony Wayne as a great uncle. We took the time to visit his home. And visiting VF was a highlight for me. Cost is a big factor, so a conference that is nearby is more doable. There were two conferences in Portland, Oregon in the past. They were wonderful. We need another of the major conferences on the West Coast again.

  • I went to my first conference in Springfield. Cost was an issue but it was only a five hour drive. I chose an affordable hotel and drove into the conference. I paid for just one day but made plans to research at the state archives on another day and the last in the vendor mall. My plans didn’t work out completely as planned but . . . Wow, was I blown away. Conferences are so worth it! I have gone to NGS in Cincinnati and St. Charles since then and plan to be back at FGS in Springfield. The content of a conference is important as well as the opportunity for local research. For example, I thought I might go to the Ohio state conference but when I looked at the focus it was African American and German. Of course, they had other lectures but this was a focus and did not pertain to me. I want to go to a conference that will be of maximum benefit to my research. I have many ancestors who lived in Illinois so local research opportunities are abundant in Springfield. In St Charles, I went to the Personnel Records Center and found a wealth of information through both military and civilian records. I think a conference should feature and promote the local opportunities available. I would love to have some hands on workshops – such as Evernote. Sometimes it is nice to have someone hold your hand. My only criticism is the chairs – often they are uncomfortable and way too close together unless you are a size 8, age 25 person. Many of us are not, but that is my only complaint. I loved the availability of food trucks in St. Charles as this made lunch quick, easy, with a variety of choices. A conference is a wonderful worthwhile experience. I remember I felt like my head was exploding with all of the new information. Go. . . you won’t regret it.

  • The main reason I did not consider attending the conference in Ft Lauderdale is simple – I lived in the area for many years. I did not wish to go back just for a conference and there were no other record repositories nearby to visit. For example, the Richmond conference had the draw of not just the conference but LVA, VA Historical Society, multiple museums, battlefields and other historical repositories close at hand. I will attend the one in Raleigh, NC, for that reason as well. I believe venues should have more than just a nice setting.

  • Great points and terrific commentors’ observations.

    In addition to the organizations’ need to better promote the events, word-of-mouth by past attendees can be helpful.

    One way to intensify great attendee experiences would be to have workshops follow those intense presentations, so that attendees can have a chance to really internalize how they would use what was presented. These will expand amount of time required, but a discussion and opportunities for Q&A could be really helpful. There is no way a presenter can really answer questions in the last 5 minutes of a presentation’s time slot.

    The person who pointed out how removed the exhibition floor was from the presentation venues had a really great point. Such logistical planning should be closer to the top of someone’s priorities list. Attendees often can find just the gem they can use among the exhibitors, and there’s no substitute for being able to ask practical questions.

  • I don’t go to in-person genealogy events. The one exception in the future, if I ever make it there, would be RootsTech. And that’s because the keynotes are only the tip of the iceberg, and I’m familiar enough with that conference because of the free livestream to know this. And to be honest, I don’t think I would ever pay the expense to attend a conference in person that I hadn’t experienced via livestream for several years in a row.

    I don’t attend these events for one reason alone: cost. When these events happen closer to a place where I happen to be living, I may reconsider it. But for the price of travel, lodging, meals, and registration fees to attend most conferences, I could take a research trip instead. Every time I’ve ever priced out a genealogy conference of any kind, they have always matched or far exceeded any research trip I’ve had waiting in the wings. And between making quality connections via my DNA test, the effective use of social media, and the availability of online resources, even research trips can often be avoided in a lot of cases anymore.

    I’m not saying that in-person events (or in-person research, since I brought it up) don’t have value. They do. But my resources are limited. I’ve always had to have a keen sense of what is truly important to my research, and what is not. And genealogy conferences are a luxury that I can live without.

  • I enjoy conferences but air travel is too much of a pain anymore. I much prefer online streaming type lectures. Also, my schedule wont permit my running off to every conference in th US. Since I’m not a social justice warrior I would love to go to the conference in Raleigh since we lived in the area for years.

  • I love going to conferences! I wish I could have attended NGS this year, but I can’t afford to go every year. I plan to go next year. i am more likely to attend a conference that is held in an area where I have research interests.

  • I cannot go to a distant conference in May as I am still teaching genealogy twice a week. However, I did not see much publicity about research venues in the area or other events other than the conference. This conference also competed against:
    FGS in Springfield, IL in Aug/Sep which is driving distance for a great many people and FGS had a huge attendance last time it was in Springfield
    Mother’s Day the day after the conference ended

    Venues without good local research facilities are less attractive.

    Chris Green

  • I like going to conferences, but I have to work around a budget, kids, work, etc. So often that means I can’t go much of a distance. I try to attend two a year, one being the one I’m in charge of, our state conference. I do try to PROMOTE the heck out of it. I’m not sure why we only get about 50-80 people. There is the possibility of 300. I’ve seen them come in past years. Very interested in all the tips here. Thanks.

    • It could be any number of things, Beth. Topic, day of the week, time of day, what else is competing with it, cost, etc. Any way you can figure out who came in the past that aren’t coming now? Maybe you can see a pattern there.

  • Another “caution sign” for the NGS in Fort Lauderdale is that the Tuesday pre-conference research trip (to Miami) was cancelled for lack of enough participants to recover the costs (bus, driver, etc.). I think the location was just too far down the peninsula for many people who would drive – and I live in Georgia! (Some people prefer not to fly any more, either.)
    My first NGS was Raleigh in 2009, and I plan to be back next year, because I have many ancestors in NC to research. But I’ll be doing my own pre- and post-conference research trips, along with the conference itself.

  • Oops. North Carolina is getting a lot of bad publicity because of the “bathroom” law they enacted. Lots of withdrawals of businesses, tourists, etc. I wonder if that will affect Raleigh next year?

  • I enjoy live conferences and seriously considered going to Orlando as a new member to NGS. However, I reviewed the offerings several times and couldn’t find enough lectures that I was interested in attending. I consider myself an “intermediate” level genealogist and felt like I had heard much of the more basic level offerings. Also I heard many similar lectures by the same presentors at RootsTech. I guess I was looking for something different to improve my skills.
    In the end I decided that the airfare, hotel and conference expenses would not give me the benefit I wanted.
    I miss seeing the vendors, however. I always find the exhibit areas very interesting and useful.

  • I was at NGS and thought attendance was low, too. I don’t think live events are dead however. I go when it’s either in SLC or a desirable location (which means I’d spend vacation time there or I have friends/family there) or when I can combine it with a work trip since I have a full-time non-genealogy job. I got the impression it was not promoted very well. I met others who commented that they wanted to attend certain talks because they had heard the speakers on webinars and knew they were good speakers. So I don’t think the low attendance means live events are dead at all, and you’re correct that promotion is key. I had a friend who lived nearby that isn’t a newbie but also isn’t involved with societies or blogs, and she didn’t know anything about it.

  • I agree with you. Personally, I love attending conferences. There is a conference in July here in South Carolina put on by the South Carolina Genealogical Society. I have not missed a year since my first one six years ago. There are some years that the lineup is not that great but I still attend. Also, I go to NGS National Conference if it is not too far and I feel that I will learn from it. I have the feeling that you will see a much bigger turn out in Raleigh next year. My two cousins and I will be there for certain. Thanks for all you do. Love your posts.

  • I really hope that in-person interactions don’t die off. Personally, if I *have to* interact with the living vis genealogy, I prefer to do it in person. There’s just something odd about electronic based genealogy.

    I would be normally very open to discussing, collaborating etc, but I’ve noticed that, no matter how many times I note online work in progress as ‘This is work in progress, please proceed with caution. I do little and often and may not yet have proved all the theories in this tree. Happy to discuss my main, known research, which is offline.’ or something similar, I am forever dealing with messages, sometimes really quite aggressive, warning me off of something, or criticising me for providing them with wrong information.

    I haven’t quite made up my mind whether this is primarily very ableist thinking (obviously no concept of varying energy levels, ability to sit etc feeding in to research time), or whether it’s more something to do with folks lacking the context of tone, voice etc, or something else.
    I think, overall, I’m just a big fan of iterative processes being amongst people.

  • I hope not. I try to go to ones that are in driving distance, but life gets in the way, including my health. Would love to go to a big conference one of these days. I do a lot of online webinars, but love the in person ones best.

  • I would love to attend a conference. However, lack of funds and time off work prohibit me from doing so. I think that the in person connectivity would be great and I hope to be able to plan to attend a conference some someday in the future.

    • Keep an eye out for conferences and seminars in your area. Many local and state genealogical societies do one-day events.

  • How many people did attend NGS this year? How many last year? No, I did not go this year but I did go last year in St Charles MO because I drove there.

    • At the Friday night banquet, they announced 1800 attendees, including those who were watching the livestreaming.

  • If I had infinite money and didn’t have a day job (which I need to finance my genealogy habit, let alone things like my mortgage and food), I’d love to attend multiple conferences per year. But since that isn’t the case, I use my vacation time on the IAJGS (Jewish Genealogy) conference and one other (this year was RootsTech).

  • Ft Lauderdale was my first national conference. I was able to drive there as I live in St. Petersburg, just a few hours away.
    I have been “collecting” relatives and information for years and was dismayed to discover I have been doing it all wrong. However I am so pleased to have attended, and had difficulty choosing which lectures to attend as there were so many which interested me. One glitch….I did not get the syllabi until the day before the Conference started so I was not as prepared as I would have like.
    Now that I am retired I can pursue this hobby more professionally, more scholarly, and am grateful for all the advice I received at the presentations.
    One point about attending in person. I met several interesting people at NGS with whom I exchanged information, including email addresses for follow-up. I believe many who pursue genealogy do so in isolation with few, if any, interested persons to share ideas with. I was excited just to be in a space with hundreds of persons whose passion is genealogy.
    I would like to see a board (perhaps at the entrance to the exhibit hall with a sign….MEET ME: I AM YOUR COUSIN….or….SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION TO A COUSIN, where we could post surnames and locations and time periods we are researching. I wondered if anyone there might be related to me.
    Will I go to the next one? North Carolina issues aside, I liken this (any) 4-5 day conference to a colonoscopy. I don’t think I’ll need another one for 10 years! Of course that is an exaggeration, however I have so much information to absorb and homework to do.

    • Your first national conference can be overwhelming! You’re luck that you’re in the St. Pete area. Check out the Florida Genealogical Society of Tampa The have monthly meetings with speakers and an annual one-day seminar in the fall; Judy Russell, the Legal Genealogist, will be the speaker at the seminar this year.

      They used to do the bulletin board thing at conferences, but then there got to be so many attendees that it just wasn’t practical. One thing I would suggest using is that if you’re on Twitter, send out a tweet using the conference’s official hashtag. Something along the lines of “Anyone else researching RAMSEY in Perry Co, Ohio? #ngs2016gen” (That was the official hashtag for the NGS conference in Ft. Lauderdale.) I haven’t seen many people doing that, but I think it could be a great way of reaching not only people at the conference, but also those at home who are following along on the hashtag.

      • Great re-make on the bulletin board idea, fellow Perry County researcher 😉

        I think I’ll borrow that idea for when I head south to #scgs2016! I could stand some new cousin encounters.

  • This was my first national conference and it met my expectations. However, I felt sorry for the disabled and elderly. The distances from one session to the other surely had to create problems for them.

  • I always look at the cost, then at the topics being offered. I realize that most are not of interest to me and those that are do not support the cost of seeing them. So many speakers use the same program they have used before or given in a webinar that I won’t pay for that again. Also, so many are for beginners.

    • This has happened to me, too. I will look over a program and realize that I’ve already heard many of the talks before, and by the same speaker. It often feels like there is nothing new. An additional problem I have is that often the NGS Conference follows almost immediately after the Ohio Genealogical Soc. Conference. I can neither afford the time nor the money for two back-to-back conferences.

  • My reason for not attending conferences is financial. I suspect that is true for a lot of people. Since the last financial crash i have had to tighten my belt and only attend what I can save up enough money for. I have to pick my priorities. Do I want to go to a conference or do I want an Ancestry subscription? Most conferences cost me a minimum of $1000. That is a lot of subscriptions I can use all year long for my research. It is the combination of the hotel and exhibit hall that do me in!

    So I cry and wine (yes I will have some cheese with that very fine wine) and choose to not attend major conferences. I do attend as may local ones as I can.

  • I have only attended one local one. Most of my weekends have been spent chauffeuring my children to all of their activities. My last child at home will be a senior this next year and will be getting her license soon. I hope at that point that I will be able to attend more meetings.

  • A wonderful, engaging discussion here. Thank you Amy for making this visible. I enjoy conferences – I do see a trend towards smaller groups with attendee participation and engagement. Thank you for letting us know about FGS in Pittsburgh 2017. I would like to talk offline about this.

  • Since the cost of attending conferences is an issue, I wonder if some attendees of the recent NGS conference would give a ballpark figure of the total amount they spent to attend the conference. The average amounts might influence conference planners to find venues that are easier on the pocketbook.

  • I love national conferences and have attended FGS in 2004 (in Austin TX where I was residing at the time), 2012, 2013 and 2014. Went to NGS in 2015 but am switching back to FGS this year. I loved the NGS conference in St Charles and I am an NGS member. But I make my choices because of Location – mainly distance. I live in Mississippi now but Ft Lauderdale was 900 miles from me and Springfield is 600 miles, plus the added attraction of Abraham Lincoln tourist activities made it an easy choice. Ft Lauderdale was just too far for most people who drive (San Antonio in 2014 FGS had a similar problem). I am quite disappointed that NGS has chosen Grand Rapids Michigan for 2018 – again an extreme location for many people and considering the fact that FGS will be in Ft Wayne in 2018 – if I attend, I will choose Ft Wayne – slightly closer and with the research available. I hope NGS is looking for a better location for 2019.

    • I, too, am quite surprised (and a bit dismayed) that NGS chose Grand Rapids for 2018. Even though I am within driving distance of both Fort Wayne and Grand Rapids, it seems that NGS is hurting itself by being so close (2.5 hours driving) to the FGS conference just 3 months later — especially since Fort Wayne is an outstanding choice for a genealogy conference. I think Grand Rapids is a good choice in location, but not in the same year that FGS is going to be in Fort Wayne.

  • I am 2 hours from Grand Rapids and 3 from Fort Wayne, so I hope they have enough classes that I would want to attend. I am surprised as well about Grand Rapids, but thought it was about time some one had something close for Michigan residents. Although Detroit might have been a more logical choice.

  • I wouldn’t worry about in-person events disappearing. I belong to another worldwide organization that has similar issues; attendance at the national convention has dwindled over the years from over 3000 to an average of about 1200 (out of 18,000 members); regional convention attendance varies with the region, of course, but has declined in most; but attendance at local activities is always on the increase. To give some credibility to my following comments, I have chaired four regional conventions, and while I’ve never been directly involved with the national convention I did serve on the national board for many years. And I apologize in advance for how long this reply ended up being!

    Much of the reason for the decline in attendance is exactly what many have said: cost. Transportation and registration costs really aren’t that bad, but lodging is a killer! As an example, the other organization I mentioned has a regional convention (4 days, effectively 5 nights) coming up next month. The cost of one night in a hotel in the convention city *starts* at the cost of a full registration, and most places are 50% higher. As it happens I can only get to the board meeting this year and I’m staying 45 minutes away (on my route to and from home); the total cost for my 2 nights will be less than one night at the convention site.

    I’m sure that this year the location was an issue, as well. My other organization had its convention in Fort Lauderdale several years ago and we saw the same thing. I don’t know how much of an issue it is for genealogists attending conferences, but when we have a week-long event people won’t come unless they can make it their family vacation. The simple fact is that there is a perception of very little to do in Fort Lauderdale unless you’re in love with beaches and/or golf. The professionals will come anyway, but most people prefer to travel with their spouses (and kids, if applicable) and the one not attending needs to have something to do, too.

    I subscribe to the philosophy that an attendee shouldn’t be able to do everything he or she wants to do, but I think Roots Tech is actually *too* big. I’ve attended national conventions of a service organization, with attendance in five figures, I’ve been to conventions with one or two thousand, and I’ve been to some with on or two hundred. The ones with one or two thousand are the best, usually with six tracks of breakout sessions all day long, every day (and no plenary sessions). This provides enough variety that the attendee can probably find an interesting session in each time block, and if some are repeated (as they are in this other organization) then everyone has a better chance of seeing their top choices.

    This is going on way too long, but I do have one final area to comment on. I have watched some of the videos of conferences in the past (probably NGS; hard to remember when you only get to view them for 90 days) and was singularly unimpressed with the presentations. These may be well-known experts, but that vast majority could well do with spending some time in Toastmasters. They spoke in monotones, reading a carefully scripted speech, using some very poorly-designed slides (I won’t assume PowerPoint since there are other, better presentation programs available), and had no interaction with the audience (because the audiences themselves were too big — see my previous paragraph). If the presentations at other conferences are similar, I’d just as soon learn by reading what they have to say.

  • I’m largely in agreement with the above comments.

    For me, it’s not about social media pro or con. For me, it’s all about Location, Location, Location. I’m going to Raleigh this year because (thanks to DNA!) I now know my ancestors lived there during the Revolution, so I will spend some time after the conference going out to Randolph County for further research. The last time NGS was in Raleigh I had no interest, having already vacationed in the Carolinas with hubby a few years earlier.

    If a conference is not in a place where I have relatives/friends or vacation appeal, or reasonably near one of my ancestral counties, I won’t even consider it. Then again, if it’s in an appealing place like Salt Lake, then I would be spending all my time at the Family History library, and not at the conference, so why go? Social media isn’t really a determining factor, except that conferences seem to be a little more front and center than in, say, the early 90’s, so at least I’m aware of them subliminally.

    I loved my first NGS conference in Houston, just down the road from my home in Dallas. This one in Raleigh will be my second NGS conference. I hope it’s good. If I’m bored, i’ll skip out and go to the NC State Archives. 🙂

    • If you’re looking for conferences that also have research possibilities for you, you should put the Federation of Genealogical Societies’ 2018 conference on your calendar. It will be in Fort Wayne, Indiana (home of the Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library) August 22-25, 2018.

  • I agree completely. There’s plenty of room in the this world for in-person events and virtual events. I have attended live events in the past, but it’s been over five years since my last one. My budget is tight, and I have some food allergies/sensitivites that make out-of-town eating a challenge.

  • I agree! In person events are not dead! And they are much preferred by me! I like a class where I can talk to other people about what we learned or ask questions of the instructor. And I like the chance to network with other genealogists and meet old friends. In fact, I actually do not enjoy online classes very much. But I can’t always come to everything. There are too many and I have to make choices.

  • It seems like webinars are always for beginners. At conferences they label for beginners or advanced. Like someone else mentioned I always look at the classes being offered that are not for beginners and then decide am I going to learn $1000 worth of information. Usually the answer is no. And also like someone else mentioned a lot of the times at a conference it’s a presentation that has already been online.

  • I attended my first major conference last week in Pittsburgh. Yes, I sat in on Amy’s Wednesday session and I don’t think I will ever forget her NASCAR story! That’s a great analogy to promoting society events. In-person learning works for me.

    Perhaps one issue that might have affected the turnout in Pittsburgh was the coincidence with Labor Day weekend.

    I’m taking advantage of the momentum I gained from the FGS conference and I plan on going to more major conferences.

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the conference and my Wednesday session there! I hope to see you next year in Fort Wayne!

  • I am rather surprised you didn’t mention that the Who Do You Think You Are LIVE event in the UK is indeed dead. It was announced by the Society of Genealogists back in May ( So far there has been no sign of any replacement event.

    As I understand it, the event had lost money for several years before the commercial company (Immeadiate Media) that ran it decided to stop. RootsTech is unique in the level of financial support it receives.

    I agree that promotion is essential and that many conferences have become stale.

    When I attended RootsTech in 2012, I combined it with SLIG. My major cost was an international airfare. I found cheap, self catering, hostel accomodation in Salt Lake City. Perhaps conference organisers could look at cheaper altenatives?

    • The Who Do You Think You Are? Live website is still promoting 2018, though there aren’t any dates listed.

      All of the conferences that I have been a part of organizing have tried their best to keep down costs for attendees. Registration costs would actually be higher for conference attendees if there weren’t agreements with the official conference hotels. Generally, the conference site gives (or deeply discounts) the meeting space in exchange for the conference bringing in an agreed upon number of room nights at the hotel. Without that, the meeting space would cost thousands of dollars — costs that would have to be passed on to the attendees.

  • I love live events but never even knew about them for genealogy until a few years ago. I’ve been to NGS twice but now that I’m retired, the travel and expense of multi-day events is harder to manage. I do enjoy one or two-day seminars that are regional and easier to get to, and also buy CD’s of some sessions to listen to in the car to reinforce important topics.

    I just finished a 4-week online course on British Genealogy with FindmyPast. They used a combination of webinars, handouts, interactive chats with the group, one-to-one phone calls, and an active private Facebook Group for Q&A and commenting as we went through our material. That combination of methods was very helpful, as we all learn differently.

  • I attended my first ever research event in SLC in February. I loved it, but my only regret was that I didn’t better prepare; and therefore became quickly overwhelmed. Additionally I wished I would have opted for the Roots Tech the week after. Lessons learned. I plan on going to Roots Tech next year and follow up with another research trip better prepared. I love conferences because I am able to meet & exchange ideas with seasoned researchers. That is a big bonus! I also try to squeeze in webinars as well as reading blogs, case studies, etc. There is, as you point out, most certainly advantages to both onsite & offsite learning. And since you will be in Fort Wayne next year, Amy – which is my home town – you can bet I’ll be scheduling that trip as well as I so enjoy your blogs and helpful info.

  • I love attending conferences. My first, a NGS conference, was totally overwhelming. I’ve since learned to plan my schedule and take time out. I like OGS since most of my ancestors settled in Ohio on their way to other places. Okay, I admit that a lot of my conference love is based on the entertainment value of the conference as well as the city where it is held. When at home, I don’t have the attention span for webinars.

  • I enjoy “rubbing shoulders” with family history researchers regardless of the size of the conference or workshop. The informal talking with other researchers is sometimes more helpful than the sessions. I meet people who have good research advice for me that I would probably not have met online.

  • I would love to attend a national convention someday but distance and cost is a factor. I live in northeastern Montana and usually attend our annual 2 day state conference held on Friday and Saturday. That is a 500 to 600 mile trip (one way) most years although this year it is only 350 miles. Costs are low and rooms are reasonable and I can drive it in a day. I do have to take 2 days off work but it is well worth it. Attendance is usually 75-130 or so but you recognize people by name and look forward to sharing the excitement of our hobby with like minded people! They have 2 nationally known speakers (this year is Tom Jones and CeCe Moore) who each give 4 presentations over the 2 days – 1 tract only so no competing sessions. Because it is small, the speakers share our tables at the lunch and banquet meals and often visit with us between sessions. It is always an honor and an advantage to get to sit with them! A couple years ago I was fortunate enough to attend when we had Amy Johnson Crow and Judy Russell, both excellent! Now when I read something they have written I can hear their tone of voice and their enthusiasm and it means more. I attend Dear Myrtle’s Hangouts when I can because they are informative, cover many topics and give me a sense of belonging to the genealogical community as a whole. I also attend as many webinars as possible but in person interaction can’t be beat. If you can’t afford to attend national events, do check out your state or region for conferences.

  • Some people may be put off by the grand scale of the conferences of the larger societies – in addition to the cost of the venue and travel. It is unfortunate that there isn’t more support at local levels to do mini-conferences and workshops.

    I was fortunate to live in Regina Saskatchewan for a couple of years and was delighted to discover that not only was the provincial genealogical society very active with educational workshops, so was the public library as well as the LDS Family Centre. I took advantage of all that I could during the relatively short time I lived in that area.

    Since then, time and expenses has only permitted me to attend one provincial society conference. I’m now living in an area that doesn’t seem to have a very active society, conference/workshop wise. And the Family History Centre only seems to be accessible by appointment, so I doubt they have people able/willing to do workshops.

    I know I shouldn’t complain if I’m not willing to step up and volunteer. I do admire the go-getters that are willing and able to do so.

  • RootsTech is a great event; the only one I missed was 2013. If you have a chance to go, please do so. I don’t think conferences are dying; they’re alive and well.

  • Thanks for a great perspective on live conferences! To me, it’s about the people you meet who are of like minds and the stories you share!! There is nothing like it!!

  • Hi Amy, I love both. A webinar is for concentrated learning and that is your focus. An event is not just the learning but the social side as well. It is the connections you make, the conversations you have, the vendors you see and the best part, the FRIENDSHIPS you make.
    Each is a valuable part of the genealogy world and we should embrace both. Bye, Lilian in Sydney Australia.
    p.s. We are have our National Congress in Sydney March 2018, why not come and visit us.

  • I agree. In person conferences are not dead. Every year I drive an hour to my mom’s house to spend the night. The next morning, we drive about an hour to attend a day conference. We have been doing this for about the past five or six years. What’s happening here? We are building a stronger relationship doing something we love together. Moreover, we both look forward to being in a roomful of people who share the same passion as we do and hearing their stories. Attending the same local conference year after year, also opens the door to building friendships with other returning participants. Can you do that with a Webinar? Don’t get me wrong. I do use webinars and other forms of on-line learning. They certainly have their benefits. But in-person conferences allow me to make learning a social event.

    I would like to make one last point. It may be difficult for some people to believe, but not everyone has a Facebook page. Some of us prefer to be in the physical presence of others where we can carry on a conversation face to face. We also prefer speaking to others by phone rather than texting or emailing. Don’t get me wrong. Emailing and texting have a place in my life, but I don’t want them to consume my time so much I am forgetting about the life, people and adventures that exist outside my front door.