There has been quite a bit of chatter on Facebook the last few days about the low attendance at the recent FGS Conference. I recall the same sort of chatter last May following the NGS Conference. While low attendance is certainly a concern for the exhibitors and vendors, I have to wonder if large conferences are going the way of microfiche.
People get so much online - even the opportunity to network. So much of this connection is now done through FaceBook groups. In terms of the learning, webinars and online courses are more convenient and less costly for learners because there are no travel or hotel costs, and that also means that the travel time, time away from work or family is significantly diminished as well.
Certainly RootsTech seems to still be successful in attracting large numbers, but RootsTech skews the bigger picture. Rootstech has large numbers because of the free passes that are given to Ambassadors to give away. We all see the blogs and posts for weeks with free passes to be claimed. RootsTech has large numbers because of the Family Day on Saturday when busloads of people show up. All for free. Those people aren't traveling long distances. Those people aren't paying registration fees. Those people aren't paying for accommodation or meals. Those people aren’t really interested in attending a genealogy conference. The classes they take are all geared for the LDS and when they get to the Exhibition Hall, they are not interested in small vendors or in spending money. They are there to get access to the free databases from the large corporations and to grab whatever freebies the other exhibitors and vendors are giving away. A number of smaller businesses have stated that they won’t be returning to RootsTech because RootsTech is not small-business friendly and the smaller vendors and exhibitors are not even coming close to breaking even on their investment to attend RootsTech.
The smaller, more regional conferences seem to continue to attract decent numbers. What’s the difference? Fewer people traveling long distances? Less frequency (some are every other year rather than every year)? Lower expectations from the vendors and the attendees, perhaps? Organizers being more grateful for any level of support, including small business vendors or society exhibitors?
I recently hosted a very successful (yes, small) conference for the Scottish Diaspora. The theme of this year’s conference was “Engaging Our Youth” In recognizing that we are all getting older, have worked tirelessly and don’t want all of our years of blood, sweat and tears to be for naught, we need to look at ways to get younger generations as passionate about our organizations as we are. Fair enough.
One woman was quite incensed that their Society's Facebook page’s followers were referring to themselves as members. It was in that moment that I realized that part of what needs to happen is that we need to adjust our thinking. Just as we have gone from thinking that the only way to do genealogy research was by writing letters, scouring microfiche and transcribing directories to being comfortable with researching online databases, we need to readjust our understanding of what constitutes membership. Those people do feel that they belong. That they are members. Even if they haven’t paid a fee or attended a meeting. This group is their tribe. We can’t overlook that.
Similarly, we need to change the way we look at genealogy conferences. The interest in taking several days away from our lives, traveling long distances, paying for accommodation and meals is waning. We can’t overlook that.