Sunday, May 15, 2011

Conferences and Events: Getting It Right, Making It Great - The Last Post of the Series

“Just The Facts, Ma’am”

Lots of genealogists live and work in the fact-based world of evidence where information that is presented as being true needs a proper citation to a confirming source before it can be accepted.  Still, there are some things that they take on faith alone, like the oft-bandied-about statement that “Genealogy is the second most popular hobby after ______.”  Sometimes the Number One hobby is golf.  Other times, it’s stamp collecting. In any case, genealogists think that their hobby is pretty neat (it is) and also think that it’s pretty widely popular among the general population (it isn’t, despite the seeming success of WDYTYA).

For years, genealogy has been perceived as the "Avis of Hobbies".  We're Number Two.  Except we don't Try Harder.

Is genealogy growing?  Frankly, nobody really knows.  As far as I know, there’s lots of speculation, but no reliable statistics that you could actually hang your hat on.  

Size Matters

So, what does this have to do with conferences? Well, if the hobby is wildly popular and if it’s growing, then it follows that conferences should also be increasing proportionally in popularity and also growing.  

Problem is, they’re not.

Look at the numbers.  Years ago in 1983, The Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) had a conference in Hartford, CT.  801 people attended. Several years later in 1991, there was an FGS conference in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  About 1600 people were there.  In other words, between 1983 and 1991 – a space of 8 years – the FGS conference attendance doubled. (By the way, the FGS statistics cited come from the FGS website – History section.

Now, let’s assume that 20 years after the Fort Wayne conference, the FGS had made a big push to increase its annual conference attendance by 9% or 10% each year.   After all, these were heady times. Internet genealogy got underway, lots of new software came on the market, Ancestry started (albeit as a book publisher, not a subscription database giant) and Everton’s The Genealogical Helper and other magazine publishers acquired lots of new subscribers. In the years that followed, even more stuff happened (think “internet”) to draw even more people into the fold.

So, IF conference attendance had increased by only 9% or 10% a year during those “gangbuster” years, how many people should be planning to attend this year’s FGS conference in Springfield, Illinois?

Conservatively – somewhere between 9,000 or 12,000.

That World Outside Genealogy

It’s hard to imagine that many folks assembling at a genealogy conference, since nothing even remotely close has ever happened.  Still, the New York Antiquarian Book Fair – where lots of rare and expensive books get sold for thousands of dollars each over three days or so – gates nearly 5,000 people every year.  Chances are, you don’t know many folks who regularly buy lots of books for thousands of dollars.  That’s because they’re few and far between.

Look elsewhere then.  Later this year, fans of the old “Star Trek” TV series will descend upon Las Vegas, fork over about $150 for a “full” admission and maybe catch a glance at 80 year old Bill (Captain Kirk) Shatner.  If they want to take Leonard Nimoy’s photography seminar while they’re there, that’ll cost an extra $199.00. How many “Trekkies” will live long and prosper enough to spend their weekend this way?  

The expected number is around 15,000.  How many of them do you know?

But . . . Things Are Supposed To Be Different in Genealogy, Right?

Of course, these are entirely different kinds of “events” than our large genealogy conferences, you might say.

Right.  That’s because many, many years ago, we borrowed the “academic/ professional” conference model from other fields. It seems, however, that people in other fields really seem to like “events.” 
So, let’s roll back time a bit and speculate what might have happened had another model been chosen.  Let’s look for another “hobbyist” field that may have some similarities to genealogy.  You might be surprised by the one I’ve settled upon.


Now, if you’re not a quilter – or like me, married to one – you may not immediately see the similarities.  So, to get you started, here are just a few. 

Comparing Two Worlds

One o' the Missus' fishes
Quilters have varying levels of expertise, like genealogists. A quilter can be quite happy doing relatively simple stuff for many years, just like a genealogist.  

Quilters read about their hobby in hobbyist magazines and on the internet, just like genealogists.  Quilters like to read about techniques and like to learn how to do new things, just like genealogists. 

Difference here is that there are lots more popular quilting magazines than popular genealogy magazines, and apparently no peer-reviewed academic-like quilting journals.  The other difference: far more people subscribe to quilting magazines than to genealogy magazines.

Some quilters work alone; others like to join local groups known as quilt guilds.  Some genealogists work alone; other like to join local genealogy societies.

Quilters often take classes, go to workshops and attend seminars, just like genealogists. There are also lots of gizmos and gadgets to use and learn about.

Within the world of professional quilting, there are professionals who take commissions, experienced quilters who are teachers and lecturers, conducting classes and workshops for a fee for local quilt guilds, and “certified” quilters with initials after their names who judge quilts at exhibitions and appraise them.  Quilters write and publish books and articles.  The world of genealogy is eerily similar.

Many – but not all – quilters join one or more of several national societies, like the American Quilter’s Society (AQS), kind of like it is in genealogy.

There are many other comparisons (age/gender demographics, regional interest, etc.) where quilters track right alongside (or very close to) genealogists (although not many guys quilt), but these are probably enough to make the point that, as hobbyists, quilters and genealogists aren’t that far apart.  In fact, sometimes they’re the same people. 

Meet the very talented genealogist-quilter Ann S. Lainhart.  You can see the exquisitely beautiful work of Ann S. Lainhart at her website here

Ann is a quilter’s quilter and also a genealogist’s genealogist; she’s the author of GPC’s State Census Records and NEHGS’s A Researcher’s Guide To Boston. Furthermore, Ann is the former Historian General of the Society of Mayflower Descendants.  Oh, did I mention that she was a quilter, too?

Events – Similar But Very Different

As you might expect, quilters have things to go to, much like our genealogy conferences.  They call ‘em Quilt Shows.

What’s the difference? 

Well, first – let’s talk about the similarities.  

Quilt shows have workshops and classes led by nationally known quilters.  Quilt shows have exhibit halls where they can buy supplies, fabric, sewing equipment and books from exhibiting vendors.  Quilt shows have side trips to quilting museums and textile arts centers.  Quilters who attend quilt shows go home with new ideas, new enthusiasm and new fat quarters for their fabric stashes.  Quilters get to meet their friends from around the country and see the latest trends in quilting which are on exhibit.  There are door prizes and cash prizes for the juried quilt exhibits.

So, like I said, what’s the difference? 

Quilt shows attract lots – I mean LOTS – of attendees.

How many is “LOTS?”

PADUCAH – Can You Hear Me Now?

In Paducah, Kentucky, the headquarters of the American Quilter’s Society, the annual Quilt Show attracts between 30,000 and 40,000 quilters for a 4-day event.  Nearly 50,000 folks attended the Paducah event in flush economic times. Smaller AQS events in places like Lancaster, PA, Knoxville, KY and Des Moines, IA gate many multiples of even the best genealogy conferences ever held. 

Consider that even a smaller, locally sponsored regional quilt event like the one in Lowell, MA gets about 5,000 paying quilters every year.  Here’s the link.

By the way, Paducah has a population of about 26,000 – hardly a major metropolis. Still, the Quilt Show attracts more people than the town’s entire population every year.

What makes quilt shows work so well?  While I don’t claim to know all the answers, here’s my considered opinion:

Quilt Shows are Events.  Events generate excitement, even among amateurs. 

Sizzle, Excitement and Things A La Carte

Quilt Shows sell SIZZLE.  First, take a look at the AQS’s website here.  

The website draws you in and makes you want to go to Paducah for the excitement, even if you’re not a quilter. Of course, even if you wanted to, you couldn’t go to Paducah this year, because it was in April.  It’s over till 2012.  But you could still sign up for Knoxville in July. 

Remember, though, that quilt shows do things “a la carte.”  Buy what you want in advance on their state of their art website.  It looks inexpensive to start, but it all adds up.  On the other hand, genealogy conferences look expensive to start, but are actually bargains by comparison.  Like most things in life, appearance is everything.

In Knoxville, half day workshops are $45, full day workshops, $75 and one hour workshops $12.  There are river cruises.  There are talks.  Some stuff is free, most everything else costs something. You can sign up online and easily fill up three of the four days with learning experiences for about $250, which includes the initial cost of registration ($30).  You will, of course, leave the other day for your foray into the exhibit hall with hundreds of exhibitors, ready to sell you whatever you need and also to see the quilts on display.  It’s a quilt SHOW, remember?

You can also just spend $30 for the registration and spend four days wandering around, looking at quilts and visiting the exhibitors.  Whatever floats your boat.

Bottom Lining It All

Bottom line: quilters do it right.  First of all, they know that stuff isn’t free.  They also know that you spend money for stuff that you find interesting. Their events don’t purport to be scholarly and don’t start out by asking you to register with a large “all-inclusive” fee.  You want to learn something? Pay as you go.  You want to shop?  Have at it.  Need inspiration?  There are yards of it.

Would this work for genealogists?  Hard to say – it’s never been tried on a large scale within the genealogy market.  Generally, genealogists are a bit resistant to change, probably because so many of them come to the hobby late in life.

Will genealogy conferences survive by reusing the same model year after year?  Probably.

Is there room for improvement and innovation?  Absolutely.

Will it happen? Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, when it comes to long-term success, smart money - including mine - is on the quilters.


  1. Great article! The quilter analogy is spot on. We need to create more Genealogy You Can Touch.

  2. This whole series has been fantastic. You've raised some great points.

  3. Bravo!

    Each year, Houston hosts the International Quilt Festival. The 2010 attendance was 60,000.

    There is definitely room for improvement and innovation. Thank you for this discussion. It is definitely needed!

  4. Amy, thanks for stopping by. I remember the national conference in Houston in the early '90s. Would have been great if we had seen 60,000 people. The quilting folks really know how to turn out a crowd.

  5. Kerry, glad to hear you found the posts worth reading. I enjoy reading "Clue Wagon" as well; I'm always careful not to have too much hot liquid in my mouth when I read it - otherwise, I'd be replacing keyboards regularly as I double up with laughter! Keep it coming!

  6. Excellent series and food for thought. Your poster idea for new speakers is great (I'm from a scientific background and seen it work well). I've also experienced the short highly focused speeches.
    Quilters are obviously doing something right. Rootstech may be the conference that can take this further and become an EVENT. We saw new features such as 'unconferencing' sessions, games room, etc and felt the buzz and excitement.

    Good job, thanks.

  7. Thanks for stopping by. I'm all for introducing new ideas; some stuff will work - other things may not. The key is the think "EVENT", because without that spark, it's just another conference!

  8. Publishing a small "free" online magazine, I have been researching our market as well. I love your insights. I've wondered how the UK can publish so many glossy, free CD magazines with a population base so much smaller than ours. We can't seem to support the three magazines we now have.

    I love Quilting magazines. Colorful, entertaining, instructive, and full of excitement. Unlike genealogy magazines? Have we eliminated the fun factor, the sizzle as you suggest? Are we academic journals or "can't wait to get my hands on the next issue" magazines.

    Must we strive to look and act academic? Is there anything wrong with the sheer enjoyment of genealogy?

    Saturday morning at my house also sees at least 6 Quilting TV Shows. Did genealogists really enjoy WDYTYA or did they take more enjoyment in criticizing it?

    Perhaps, as you've intimated, we are taking ourselves much too seriously. Perhaps we need far more excitement.

    And, I have more questions than answers.