Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Genealogy Conference Model, The Speakers’ “Big Bucks”, And Maybe a Turducken?

Picking up where we left off a few days ago…

(Editorial aside:  I intended to get this out sooner but I had forgotten that 19 month old boys have different sleep schedules than their grandpas.  Apparently, there is something in their little owner’s manual that explains that 5:30 AM is when playtime is supposed to start. I must have missed that page, and in the words of the late Johnny Carson, “I did not know that.”  In fact, I had forgotten, as most grandpas do, that there actually was such a time as 5:30 AM.Now…on to the matter at hand.)

At first blush, large genealogy conferences may appear to be really expensive compared to the day-long events hosted by local societies, except, when compared to other kinds of conferences, they’re really not.  Part of the perception of “expensive” comes from the long-standing conference model itself (since surely, all those “name-brand” speakers must be expensive, right?)

The Conference Model

What is the “model” anyway? Let’s take a look.

Years ago, the current genealogy conference model of a multi-day & multi-track “educational/social experience” with a surgically-attached “trade show” was adopted because that’s what many of the “professional conference/annual meetings” were in the other areas that had them.  

Ask any librarian or practicing academic or accountant or physician.  The “professional conference/annual meeting/trade show” model was the norm, with its selection of topic-specific talks and acres of blue-curtained booths with sales reps in the exhibit hall, all hoping to sell stuff that cost thousands of dollars that would in turn be paid for not by the attendees, but by their universities. Or hospitals. Or corporations. 

Most important, this was the model that a lot of folks in the academic world already used.  In fact, as time went on, genealogy conferences and their program committees adopted another of the academic world’s hallmarks: the “call for papers.”  

You’ve seen those announcements.  “Such and such conference has announced its “call for papers.”  Deadline for abstracts is [insert date here].”  

Frankly, I still chuckle whenever I see them, probably because after all these years, I tend to view things through the eyes of a cynic. 

Papers, Please…

Think about it for a moment or two.  When was the last time you saw anyone at a genealogy conference actually “present” a “paper” in the “academic” sense?   Frankly, if people at genealogy conferences presented actual “papers” like those in other academic fields (such as spending 20 or so minutes reading an actual paper that summarized several years of laborious research on a series of interconnected families of weavers and flax spinners in Washington County, NY between 1815 and 1855, with lots of footnotes, for example), you can be sure that conference attendance would plummet.

People don’t go to genealogy conferences to hear about the minutiae of other people’s family research or even to learn about the Grand Unifying Theory of Prosopography, no matter how good the PowerPoint slides might be.  Genealogists are practical, mostly. They go to learn things they don’t know and learn things that they can use.  They also go to be inspired. And since they’re paying they want as much of learn and inspire as possible.

Even though academic-type “papers” aren’t really being called for, the “call for papers” concept gives genealogy conferences a nice “academical” gloss, and also a very pretty shine.  If they’re “calling for papers”, it must be “important.” 

Many Are Called, Then The Fun Begins  

A potential speaker submits a proposal to a largely anonymous program committee of volunteers and then several months or more later, learns whether or not the proposal was accepted.  

While many “papers” are “called for”, not all are chosen; submitters whose proposals are not accepted may get a “thanks, but no thanks” communication, but will rarely get feedback as to why their submittals were rejected.  Possibly the topic doesn’t mesh with the conference theme.  Maybe it’s a proposal very similar to somebody else’s, and that “somebody else” is much better known.  Then again, it might be that nobody on the committee thought the proposal was very interesting.  Perhaps nobody on the committee has ever heard of the proposer or heard the proposer actually speak.

Or, perhaps they have. 

Most of the time, the submitter never learns the actual reason that the proposal doesn’t get selected.
What about the selected proposals? If the submitter gets a “yes”, then it’s off to the speaker’s drawing board, to build lots of PowerPoint slides for a 50 minute talk and then to construct a 4 page handout for the syllabus. 

After all, conferees expect great slides and great handout materials; in turn, speakers usually try to please.

Time Is Money, Or Maybe Not

Let’s consider the time it takes to make the slides and write and polish the handout for a 50 minute talk:  Here’s what I suggest to new speakers:  for a good talk, with reasonably good visuals, you should plan on probably spending 50 hours minimum, not counting the actual topic research itself.  The big reward: a check, rarely exceeding $225, polite applause, increased name recognition and some “great talk” comments. Sometimes, there’s an additional payment to offset some of the speaker’s travel expenses.   

After the conference, there’s often a flurry of emails from attendees wanting additional information.  There are also usually a few requests to do the same talk(s) again for a smaller group, but only if the speaker is willing to accept a smaller “honorarium.”  

Speakers hear that a lot from local society program chairfolks, who are quick to point out that they don’t have a lot of money to pay speakers for “regular” meetings because their members already think their $30 a year dues are highway robbery anyway.  As you may know, there are a huge number of people who believe Everything in Genealogy should be free. 
Oh, yes, even at big conferences, you’ll usually have to provide your own LCD projector, which these days can cost $800 - $1200.  So, if you’re a “new” speaker on the national circuit, with not much of a track record, your first six or so speaking gigs at national conferences will help pay for your projector.

But you won’t mind because, after all, since we’re using the “academic” model, it’s an honor to be asked to speak in the first place, right?  Plus, in the academic world, speakers rarely get an honorarium. Plus, you’re building street cred.

It’s important to keep that “honor to be asked/academic model” going in genealogy, because nobody actually makes money by speaking at large conferences.  If anyone tells you that they do, please do NOT ask them for help with your taxes or other financial advice, because they obviously don’t understand basic finance or cost accounting. 

Maybe they have a book to promote; maybe they’re looking for more paying clients, maybe they’re… you name it.  No matter what their motivation for speaking, you can be sure it’s not for the big bucks. These days, the folks who teach tennis to little kids at summer camp make considerably more per hour than “nationally known” speakers at multi-day genealogy conferences.

Genealogy Conferences: The Turducken of Conferences

It’s important to remember that the genealogy conference model is actually a kind of hybrid affair, borrowing some ideas from the academic conference model and other ideas from the “proprietary school” adult skills education model, with a trade show thrown in on the side.

Reality check: ask the average academic if he or she presents papers at professional meetings.  Invariably, the answer will be “yes.”  Next, ask the same individual if he or she has (a.) ever received a check for speaking at a professional meeting or (b.) ever purchased a spare bulb for the LCD projector they use.  
Now, watch how they look at you funny, kinda like you have two heads.

Are you crazy?”, they’re likely to say.  I don’t “own” my LCD projector; it belongs to the department where I work/teach.  I sign it out when I give a talk/paper/presentation.  We have “people” who take care of that sort of thing.  Plus, nobody pays me extra to present papers; presenting papers is part of my job; it’s part of the “publish or perish” world that all of us academics live in. It’s how I get promoted.

If they’re high enough up the academic food chain, they’ll have “people” who might actually make their PowerPoint slides as well.  Those “people” are called “graduate assistants.”

Very, very few speakers at genealogy conferences have “graduate assistants.” 

So, if it’s not the speakers who are making all the money that make these conferences seem to be “expensive”, who’s raking in all the dough?

For the answer to that and yet more questions, stay tuned . . .  at least until Grandpa gets a bit more sleep.

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