Friday, May 6, 2011

Genealogy Conferences, Long Time Passing. Okay, I'm In!

Early Conference
There’s been lots of discussion on the ‘net this week about genealogy conferences.

What’s good?  What’s not so good?  What works? What doesn’t?  What’s coming down the pike? NGS? FGS? NERGC? Rootstech? Webinars?  The head spins at the thought of all of them.

I hadn’t planned to blog about this, but then, the more I read this week, the more I said to Self, “what the hey, why not?”  In fact, I expect that I will likely spread this over several posts, because I think it’s an interesting topic.

First  -  the background (known in some parts as “the Appeal to Authority”, or, why I think I’m qualified to talk about the topic of genealogy conferences in the first place…)

I, along with Mrs. W., have been exhibiting as “Jonathan Sheppard Books” at genealogy conferences for a Very Long Time.  

So, how long is a “Very Long Time”, you ask?

Since the very first “real” national conference hosted by the National Genealogical Society in Atlanta, Georgia in 1981.  (Although we exhibited at book fairs prior to that, there were no large genealogy conferences with national vendors.  Really.  I'm not kidding.)

In The Beginning…

At that conference, we sold lots of maps and rare and out-of-print books to lots of newbie genealogists, experienced genealogists and also to genealogy giants like Milton Rubincam and John Coddington, who were Fellows of the American Society of Genealogists. 

Back in those early days, I would not stock books that weren’t bound in hard cover.  I'm still not fond of the paperback stuff (most of it's just Xerox copies in a perfect binding, not really a book) but that's what publishers seem to like these days.  It's cheap. And the market gravitates toward "cheap", generally.

Later that year, we exhibited at the Federation of Genealogical Societies event in Decatur, Illinois, where we were set up next to an exhibitor selling both family group sheets and bottles of jojoba oil and where I chatted for a very long time (under duress) with a woman who was interested in talking about (but not buying) books about vexillology (study of flags) and insisted on pointing out that she had inherited the title of “Grand Turtle of the Mohawks” from a remote Iroquois ancestor.

For years, we exhibited at almost every NGS and FGS conference in the United States, missing less than a handful because of scheduling conflicts.  We’ve been at every single NERGC and also have exhibited at the SoCal Jamboree, various Great Lakes conferences and a whole host of smaller events.  At one point, our exhibit schedule, with genealogy conferences and antiquarian book fairs together, had more than 30 scheduled events a year around the United States.  In some venues, we contracted for 400 or more square feet of exhibit space.

In addition to being a genealogy conference exhibitor, I’ve also been a speaker at NGS, FGS, NERGC, SoCal Jamboree and a whole lot of other events large and small since the 1980s.  (Point of information: before I was a bookseller, I was a genealogist who took paying clients.

Plus, I’ve planned large genealogy conference events, and I’ve served on conference program committees, the whole nine yards.

In short, I’ve been around a while and I’ve paid my dues, so to speak.  More important, I’ve spoken with literally thousands of genealogy conference attendees in my “exhibitor” capacity and have learned what they’re looking/hoping for and what ticks them off.

And, while I’m not saying that I have all (or even any) of the answers to the question of what makes conferences work, I am suggesting that when I say, “Been There, Done That” - - I really have.   For a Very Long Time.

While I don't have the T-shirts, I have the tote bags to prove it.

What I’ve Been Hearing

One of the perennial issues I hear about with regard to conferences is that they are Very Expensive, even Too Expensive.  First, there’s the conference registration.  Then there are the banquet meals, the cost of any one of which might feed a family of four for several days. And then there’s the conference hotel.  And the airport transportation and/or parking.  And all the little things that nobody thinks about in advance, like internet access, etc., etc.  

Pretty soon, it all starts to add up to “real money” for the folks who want to attend a major multi-day genealogy event.

Plus, folks who attend genealogy conferences want to come away feeling “Thanksgiving-Dinner” stuffed, intellectually.  At the lectures they choose to attend, they want to be (a.) educated and enlightened with something they can put to use in their own research and (b.) be entertained to some degree by a speaker who doesn’t put them to sleep.  They want door prizes from exhibitors.  They want to schmooze with friends and associates. They want a syllabus.  Some even want that syllabus so that they can crib info for lectures of their own…

In short, they want to have A Very Good Time.

Problem is, not much in life is free anymore, or even inexpensive.  In fact, I’m not sure it ever was.

Conference Costs.  What Does It All Mean?

So, here’s the question – as conferences go, how do genealogy conferences stack up, cost-wise?

Actually, they’re pretty cheap, overall, considering what attendees get for their money.

For example, you could be going in a few weeks’ time to the annual Society for Pediatric Sedation (SPS) conference which will take place at the Radisson Plaza Hotel in Minneapolis.  (I picked the Pediatric Sedation conference, cuz I’ll be babysitting a couple of toddlers for the next several days and, frankly,  the idea of “pediatric sedation” sounded pretty appealing.)

According to their website, this conference will draw between 180 and 300 people, all “pediatric sedation” professionals.  There will be lectures.  There will be exhibitors.  It will take place over two days or thereabouts.  Generally, you’ll pay between $425 to $600 to attend, depending on what kind of “sedation” professional you are or whether you’re a member of SPS or not.  Exhibit space for vendors will cost about five times what it cost at NERGC for substantially fewer days and substantially fewer people.

You’ll get to go to your choice of six (count ‘em, SIX) lectures or panel discussions. You’ll also get a reception, a breakfast and a lunch included in the price, along with coffee breaks and a syllabus. 

NO! NO!, you say.  NOT FAIR! That’s a PROFESSIONAL conference, for people who can deduct the cost from their taxes as a business expense.  

We’re different.  We’re genealogists.  See, we don’t have oodles of money!

You’re absolutely right, of course.  

However, the good folks at the Radisson or at the XYZ Convention Center doesn’t give two shakes of a ram’s tail whether your group is made up of hobbyists living on pensions or Social Security or high-priced neurosurgeons.  Space is space.  You pays your money and you gets your space.

You want to conference with the big dogs, you’ll pay “big dog” prices.

If you expect to have a conference hosted in a world-class convenient space with easy access to transportation and decent hotels that don’t require you to keep a baseball bat next to your bed, it’s going to cost you.  And it’s not the conference planners fault, so stop blaming them.

So, let’s look at a “hobbyist” event, one where almost nobody gets to deduct the cost of attending.

I’m a member of the Manuscript Society, a bunch of people who are interested in and publish a scholarly journal about…, well…, manuscripts.  Some members are interested in autographs of famous people.  Others are interested in historic documents and archival materials.  Some are dealers.  Some are scholars.  Some are collectors.   We’re small and focused, kinda like genealogists.

Once a year, the Manuscript Society hosts a multi-day annual meeting.  This year it will be in Rhode Island in June. It stretches over several days.  There are no talks or lectures.  There are, however, “behind-the-scenes” repository tours – at least two a day.  That’s the “draw” for members.

There’s no Exhibit Hall.  There are no banquets with speakers.  There are, however, several lunches included in the registration price.  The registration price:  $500, hotel and transportation and dinners and breakfasts not included.

So . . ., tell me again how multi-day genealogy conferences that cost less than $200 for a comparatively huge selection of lectures by “name” speakers in the field, an exhibit hall, and a bunch of other extras are ... “expensive”.

Far as I know, Wal-Mart or Kmart are not hosting or underwriting genealogy conferences these days… Besides, try asking a Wal-Mart stock clerk for a copy of "Evidence Explained."

[To Be Continued…]


  1. Very eye-opening post. Thank-you!

  2. Genealogists are the most frugal folks I know, so the organizers always have this in mind! NERGC could meet for beaucoup bucks in the Boston, but they select good, second tier sites with savings in mind. The array of speakers is always amazing - sometimes it's difficult to choose. You can decide NOT to attend the banquets or pick and choose the ones you want, so savings can be had. There's nice free stuff. Mel is right on the money about all of it and now having read his "resume" no one seems better qualified to say it.

  3. Thanks for your observations, Janine. NERGC has been consistently great throughout all of its 19 years (been to 'em all)with its willingness to experiment with new ideas.