Friday, May 13, 2011

More on Big Conferences: Volunteers and The Exhibit Hall (Part the Fourth)

Volunteers - The Cast of Thousands

Back when I was a very young teenager, the best movies – or so I thought - were those grand, spectacularly huge historical costume dramas like “The Ten Commandments”, “Ben-Hur”, “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” and “The Vikings” (I can still hum the “Vikings” theme and visualize that funeral scene with the burning Viking ship drifting slowly out to sea.)

The “coming attractions” hype for those epic films sometimes included the line, “Featuring a Cast of Thousands” or some other bit of similar hyperbole.

A Cast of Thousands.  Actually, when it comes to large genealogy conferences, that same concept still applies.  Remember: multi-day genealogy conferences don’t just happen.   Even the ones that are formulaically “tried and true” and have been around for years don’t just happen. While it may not take a cast of thousands exactly to get everything done, there are still a thousand small things to do.  And the “someones” who get to do all those thousands of things are more often than not volunteers, not paid staff.

Who Does Everything?

Someone has to make sure that everything on the master list of chores is properly ticked off. Someone has to make sure that there are enough “someones” to introduce the speakers at the start of each session.  Someone has to make sure that there are “someones” to act as room monitors.  Someone has to coordinate the door prizes.  Someone has to handle publicity.  Someone has to deal with AV issues. Someone has to deal with printing. Someone has to order stuff.  Someone has handle the move-in and move-out of exhibitors.  And the decorating company.  And making sure the right numbers of meal choices get turned into the food providers. 

Lots of “someones” have to put things in registration packets. And so on.  And so forth. And that just scratches the surface of all the tasks that need doing in the months running up to the conference.

Without the hard work and dedication of volunteers, big genealogy conferences would collapse.  In fact, the one free thing about genealogy and genealogy conferences is the volunteer labor that goes on behind the scenes.  Even more than the speakers and the exhibitors, it’s the volunteers – from the big dogs on top to the little pups below - that make it all happen, almost seamlessly.

Again, a bit of “reality therapy”:  if all the “behind-the-scenes” volunteers at genealogy conferences decided to stay home and sit on their hands, the conference organizers would have only two alternatives.  The first would be to cancel the conference.  The second would be to hire people to replace the volunteers.

If Alternative Two were chosen, the cost of a conference registration would be so high that you’d think you were attending one of those late night TV “Make A Million In Foreclosed Real Estate” or Tony Robbins business seminars that are always being advertised.

The “Surgically Attached” Exhibit Hall – What’s That All About?

Then, there’s the issue of the Exhibit Hall, which I described a couple of posts ago as having been “surgically attached” to the “multiday, multitrack conference/annual meeting” model.  The reason I chose that “surgically attached” term was that in the early years of conferences, the Exhibit Hall was the conference’s “poor stepchild”, and, in some ways an afterthought – there to be tolerated, but not promoted.  

Some wags – including me – suggested that, in those early conference days, exhibitors were much like the medieval Jewish moneylenders who were allowed into European cities to do their lending by day, but were never granted full citizenship and were forced to return to their ghettos every night, lest they contaminate the non-Jewish population.  (Historical note: Jews in the Swiss city of Basel were granted full civil rights as citizens in – wait for it – 1874.)

Heaven forbid we should mix crass commerce with genealogy! The very thought!

At one national conference, the exhibit hall was located in one of the two downtown hotels designated as a “conference hotel.”  Nearly all of the lectures were scheduled at the other hotel more than a block away.   

At another national conference some years later, the organizers wanted to charge the non-registered general public five bucks to come into the vendor area.  I was a bit taken aback by this, since. for more than a quarter century, I’ve been encouraging conference organizers to consider the Exhibit Hall as the “bait” for those local non-genealogists who might want to explore what the rest of us find so fascinating.   

A “free” Exhibit Hall costs pretty much  -  NOTHING EXTRA and is great publicity for the field of genealogy in general. Plus, exhibitors love it. So why not promote it, with radio, TV and newspaper spots?  Up the price of exhibit space to cover the advertising costs.  Work like the dickens to get lots of local free publicity. (Thanks, Marian Pierre-Louis at NERGC, for your spot-on publicity work.)

So, why did the organizers back so many years ago even think that charging five bucks to get into the Exhibit Hall was a Good Idea?  The answer I got at the time was that the conference center was in what the locals considered a “bad” part of town and that the $5.00 admission would keep out the “riff-raff.”  

Go figure.  Plus, I've learned from years of exhibiting at antiquarian book fairs that lots of expensive rare books get sold to people who look like they sleep on park benches.  Lots of wealthy folks have no fashion sense, and vice versa.

Exhibitors – Much More Than Meets The Eye

More reality therapy:  More often than not, many of the folks staffing the booths in the Exhibit Hall are very good genealogists in their own right, not just hucksters who are there to sell you stuff you don’t need.  Some are even world-class genealogists.  These folks spend their conference days standing in the Exhibit Hall, smiling and answering questions – often the same questions – over and over again.  More often than not, those questions are the very same kinds of “where should I look” questions that attendees would like to ask a professional genealogist, were one available to proffer free advice. 

For example, while standing in my booth in the Exhibit Hall, I have been asked – in rapid succession and in a space of less than 20 minutes – (a.) how to find and get access to New York State prison records from the 1870s, (b.) where to find a map that would show the routes a person might have taken from central Bohemia to the port of Bremen in 1846 and (c.) what the main difference was between Burke’s and Debrett’s Peerage and which was the “better” book.  I was able to answer 'em all. After all, since I’m a bookseller /publisher /genealogist; therefore, I should be able to answer pretty much everything. Or so people think.

Do this for 8 hours a day for three days straight and you’ll feel ready to play “Genealogy Jeopardy” or something similar.

I have also been asked if I would let the Questioner borrow the $300 original edition genealogy printed in 1916 in an edition of 50 copies that was on display in my booth “just long enough to take it to Staples to copy the pages I need. I'll give ya five bucks, okay?”  Seriously.

I have also been told by a conferee visiting the booth that our reprint of Homann’s 1786 “Map of the Upper Rhine” was “too late and out of date” and would not be helpful because her ancestors had left the area in . . . 1784. 

Whatever.  (That reminds me: I think I need to refresh my talk on using historic maps for research…since lots of folks think it’s all online.)

Fortunately, the Exhibit Hall has grown to be more integrated into the conference itself. NERGC has taken a leading role in showcasing the Exhibit Hall by scheduling substantial blocks of “unopposed” Exhibit Hall time.  Several other national groups have held entertaining “Grand Opening” events in the Hall, all designed to encourage foot traffic.  

Still, grand openings are not quite enough. One of the things we’ve heard for years is that attendees want more time to spend in the Exhibit Hall because the things that you find there are hard to find anywhere else.  Exhibitors want to see more attendees and for longer periods, because it’s obvious that in a large exhibit hall at a national conference, it’s hard to see everything – even in three or so days.  

Is Exhibit Space at National Conferences Too Expensive or Too Cheap?

While I doubt that lots of other exhibitors would necessarily agree, I think that exhibit space is (a.) very inexpensive and (b.) should always be sold without any “complimentary” conference registration attached.  In fact, most exhibitors who’ve been doing this for a long time will agree (begrudgingly) that the booth fee is probably the smallest part of their exhibit costs.  

Most exhibitors commit to $2500 or more in expenses (minimum) prior to arriving at a national conference.  That’s no small amount.

Here’s how the exhibitor math works out:  

 If I had wanted to exhibit at the coming FGS- Springfield, Illinois conference in September, I could have rented a single 10’ X 10’ booth with one draped table. (Actually, we used to take three or four booths at national conferences, but that’s another story altogether.)  

That smallish space would have cost us $215.00 for the entire three-day conference.    That’s a little bit more than $70.00 a day.  As a point of information, I usually pay considerably more for much less space at a 5-hour antiquarian book fair in a backwater northeast town. (of course, folks coming to book fairs tend not to be surprised at $300 prices on rare books – especially when the book’s “street” value may be $500 or more; for some reason, genealogists think differently…it’s that “everything in genealogy should be free” issue again)

But that’s not the real issue.  The real issue is that, along with the booth, I would also get a “complimentary” conference registration. So, what’s that worth?  Well, at a minimum, $185.00.  That’s the “early bird” registration price.  

If I waited till the last minute, the price of admission would be $235.00.

As I said earlier, Do The Math: in reality, then, if I plan to attend a lot of the conference talks, the booth cost would only be an extra thirty bucks.  Or, looking at it another way, the conference itself would actually be “free” if I bought a booth for $215.00 and planned on selling a few things, like a small boxful of books.  Over the years, I’ve known a number of “exhibitors” who’ve purchased space in the Hall just so they could attend the conference, stash luggage and sell the occasional book or two. 

There’s nothing wrong with that.  That’s what the current “conference model” is, and anyone who doesn’t take full advantage of it isn’t thinking straight.  But still, it doesn’t generate more attendance at the conference itself and it doesn’t make money for the organizers.

If I could be assured that I’d have a three-day relatively “captive” audience of attendee-genealogists wanting to buy things AND I knew that the conference had heavily advertised the free exhibit hall to locals AND I knew that there would be a measurable, statistically significant block of “unopposed” vendor time AND if the organizers would “fess up” to the actual number of paid registrants who were not speakers and exhibitors a week or two before the conference, I would pay a whole lot more for exhibit space to cover the cost of additional local advertising BECAUSE I would sell a whole lot more stuff AND would make a whole lot more profit.

As it is now, exhibiting at a national conference takes a minimum of two or three weeks out of my life (depending on the location), and bluntly, the return on my time investment alone (150 – 200 hours minimum) – not counting the upfront cash expense - is at best “questionable.”

So, as Gertrude Stein said to her close friend Alice B. Toklas so many years ago, “Alice, what is the ANSWER?” 

[Hint: more to come]


  1. I'm thinking that at a conference like NERGC it might be beneficial to open the exhibit hall Thursday morning or dare I say Wednesday? This could potentially bring people to the conference early but would also allow NERGC to publicize the conference more directly to the local community (maybe even a special community day?) which could then translate potentially into more local full registrations for the conference. Do you think this could work? Would vendors be willing to come earlier?

  2. It might be tricky to schedule, but it could work. I especially like the "Community Day" part, since getting more people involved is the thing we all have to work on. The key (at least for vendors) is numbers. The more people buying stuff, the better. If it's more open hours for the same number of people, then, vendors quickly realize that their expenses have increased, but the slight increase in sales doesn't provide a reasonable return for the extra time and effort spent.
    I will address a lot of this in the next post, which is already written and will go up later today.

    One additional point though. A Thursday morning or earlier opening would also increase NERGC's overhead expenses. The decorating company would charge more for rental and the exhibit hall space itself would also cost more for NERGC to rent since there'd be an extra day of use. To open Thursday AM, vendors would have to set up Wed. afternoon, after the decorating company piped, draped and tabled the room that morning. Of course, if the program schedule allowed for unopposed exhibit hall time all Thursday afternoon and evening, it might be worth it. Plus, if the Hall closed after lunch on Saturday, folks exhibiting could get on the road early and not have to pay for an additional night in a local hotel. Worth thinking about.