Saturday, March 10, 2012

What Americans need to learn from the British about Genealogy Conferences

There are two main points that sum up the differences between WDYTYAL and American genealogy conferences.

Alert: Broad sweeping generalizations again. I know it. Just my general observations. Don't take them all too seriously.

First, there is an exhibitors lounge but no speakers lounge. At WDYTYAL it is all about the vendors. There are only four classes going at a time and they are taught in open classrooms. The classes are on the outskirts of the vendors' hall, and they are only surrounded by a wall that is waist high. Thus you can come and go as you please, you can stand on the outside of the wall and eat a sandwich, and wander off it the speaker gets boring.

You can pre-purchase a seat in one of the lectures for a pound or two. But that is only if you think they are going to be sold out. Otherwise, you just wander in and out. Lecturers aren't paid. Even the well known lecturers make their living not from their lectures, but from an affiliation with a company, or from doing research. I was told they get paid 300-400 £ for lecturing to societies, but not a pound for speaking at this conference.

And that is again a major difference in American and British genealogy. The societies tables were buzzing--much more than the commercial side of the hall. The societies there are healthy and could afford to pay that much--here not so much. I think--but I'm not sure--that those societies are healthier than ours because it is all about the "Local History" and the experts that these societies have that are specialists in the history of the area. Again, it just doesn't translate here in this nation of migrants.

Secondly, British people come to the conferences to DO genealogy research. Americans come to conferences to LEARN HOW to do it. There was lots of research going on at WDYTYAL. Every large booth had computers in it where the users could try out a database, or free consultations where you could sit down to talk to an expert. The users would wait in long lines for their turn to talk to someone. When we have put up computers at our booths in America we have a hard time getting anyone to sit down and try it. Americans just want to get in and get out quickly, and then go home and do it later.

I'm not sure we can replicate that coming to DO genealogy at an American conference. In order to do that we would need to replicate the leisurely pace of the conferences and that's not the way conferences go here now. It was not rushed, but rather like spending the afternoon in the pub. I found that refreshing about England in general, and hated to come home to the rush and hubbub. When you go to your local pub for dinner, it may take you three to four hours to eat, no in and out so that someone else can have your seat like it is here. When we sat down to eat at one place, we had an hour before we needed to get to our show--after the waitress came 10 minutes later, we asked if we would make it and she said no. The other night, Kim and I were in and out of Chili's in less than an 1/2 hour to be able to get to a show here. Everything is just less rushed there and I like that much better.

Having paid 20£ to get into the hall, they weren't in a hurry to leave either. Here it seems you pay $300 to go to the lectures and so you are stressed to make the most of that. As you saw in the pictures, the tables and chairs that were all over the conference were constantly full. There was lots of food, and no reason to leave. We could do much better in the food department at our conferences. I think people are much more inclined to slow down and mill around when there is good food available.

I found the difference most striking when I was walking around the conference looking for information for my own research. I found myself taking flyers and pamphlets so that I could look at their information online later, because I was in too big of a rush to get on to something else. We got the feeling that the British people there weren't doing that at all. They would look at a booth, talk to the people, and analyze them right there and then.

I like the conference where you can come and DO your research. I think it works better than coming to learn, because in America you come to a conference and after the first day or so your brain is full. I see alot of beginners walking around conferences here with a kind of zombie look. Of course in England, the users only come for one day. It wasn't anything like the 3 day gorging on lectures we do around here.

It really boils down to a difference between a "home and garden show" and a scholarly conference. We're more relaxed when were out at the home and garden show. In America, genealogy conferences are built on the scholarly conference model and that will never get us a very large audience. If you haven't read Mel Wolfgang's blog posts on this topic, you should:

Genealogy Conferences Long Time Passing
The Speakers, Big Bucks and Maybe a Turducken
Some Thoughts on the Money Thing
Volunteers and the Exhibit Hall
If I had a Crystal Ball and A Magic Wand
Conferences and Events: Getting it Right

If we built our conferences to be closer to the boat show, or even the state fair, I think we would be able to attract more people to the hobby.


Anonymous said...

We do do the more scholarly conferences too. There are 2 models the Fair (like WDYTYA) where the lectures are tacked on and the conference - usually now only 1 day at a time - where the lectures are central and display tables are an addition. Very few lecturers get £300 for speaking to a family history society, even the really big nationally known names - average is probably £30-£50 plus travelling expenses and the smaller societies struggle to meet that. I had to work on a stall for all three days of WDYTYA for a society to get my travel paid or I wouldn't have been able to speak. Most societies now can't afford to have a stand at WDYTYA so only the very largest attend and the majority of stalls are commercial - a shame but that's the economics of it. In general I think our societies are much smaller than yours - perhaps 1000-2000 members, a few have more, several have less. Interesting to compare the differences. Janet Few @JanetFew

Janet Hovorka said...

Thanks for your perspective Janet. I thought £300 was alot. I should have asked you. £30-50 plus travel expenses is pretty comparable to here I think. Very few societies are as big as 1000-2000 members around here. Most are much smaller. It is really nice that the societies are able to have stalls and pay for people to come to staff those stalls. Travel costs in the US to the big conferences average around $1000 a person by the time you pay for airfare and hotel--unless the conference is close to home.
What would you say the ratio of scholarly conferences (lecture focus) to home show conferences (vendor focus) are in England? Are the scholarly conferences the norm? Did I understand you right that they are usually only one day? And am I right in assuming the scholarly conferences are smaller and usually produced by the societies?
Thanks so much for your input. We all have so much to learn about how to attract new genealogists.