Dear RootsTech: Let’s Make the 2019 Conference Awesome

Dear Rootstech,

I just returned home from the 2018 RootsTech conference in Salt Lake City yesterday.  And what a conference it was.

This was my first experience at RootsTech, and I’ve shared it day-by-day with my readers.

Truthfully, although I did have a lot of fun, it wasn’t BECAUSE of the conference sessions, but IN SPITE of the problems. I was intent on making lemonade out of lemons. The conference itself was very disappointing in many ways, but awesome in others – and has so much rich, unfulfilled potential.

RootsTech, I think, based on the attendance and facility, you’ve become a victim of your own success. Perhaps you need to step back, take a breath, engage in heartfelt reflection and regroup.

I’ve always told my kids and employees not to bring me a problem without potential solutions, so I’m doing the same for you. I even asked my blog followers to contribute as well and have incorporated their suggestions. So, if this kind of sounds like a “sit down and listen” mother talk, that’s because it is:)

RootsTech, I really hope you’ll read and listen carefully and thoughtfully – and then retool to make the necessary changes.

In a nutshell:

A $2000+ trip to visit with people when you planned to attend educational sessions that were full beyond capacity and be repeatedly refused admission after standing in very long lines is simply not acceptable!

Let’s fix the problems going forward.

  • An apology goes a long way. You screwed up, plain and simple. Acknowledge the problem. At least a partial refund to the attendees because we all were significantly impacted, along with a statement that you are going to address this issue by next year, and possibly how, would go a very long way. Many people plan for next year’s conference now – and I can tell you from talking with many attendees that they aren’t planning to attend next year.
  • Extremely long registration lines – Find a way to eliminate the two and a half hour wait to register. That too is unacceptable and without justification. No, I don’t care WHY it happened. Period. Full stop. For the amount of money that this conference plus trip costs, if you need to charge an extra $10 to mail the badge and bag in advance, then do it. Please hear this loud and clear. The registration line was full of people old enough for senior discounts, in pain. No excuses – just fix the problem.
  • Sessions unavailable due to being overfull. The sessions (especially DNA sessions) were so popular that they were often filled to capacity long before the session began. On the first day, NONE of the ballrooms had empty seats, and people who had just finished standing in line for two and a half hours couldn’t get into the sessions they wanted. Perhaps having people pre-register for the session they are most interested in would help with sizing rooms adequately. Having to stand in line for an hour and a half, or more, to get into a session means that you can’t attend a previous session, and in many cases, the people in line were STILL not able to get into the session.
  • Standing in very long line for every session, and still not getting in. Many people simply cannot stand in line for hours, repeatedly, and this should not be required in order to attend the conference sessions. Otherwise, you should state before registration that the conference requires that level of physical ability multiple times daily AND that after standing in long lines for an extended period, you’re still not going to get into several sessions. Many people would not have attended had they known what they faced and those who did attend would have had their expectations set correctly.
  • Reach out to planners of other large conferences outside of the genealogy sphere that utilize electronic registration much more effectively and do not encounter these issues.
  • Handicapped Access – There are not enough elevators for effective handicapped access, especially since an exorbitant amount of standing/walking was required. More people in the future will avail themselves of scooters, because many people simply cannot stand for the required lengths of time, which will compound this problem. Additionally, several times the escalators were not functional.
  • Layout of session rooms combined with turning people away meant that many were frustrated and unable to attend sessions. Trying to find a second session that wasn’t full, especially with the rooms distant from each other, meant that you simply couldn’t attend any session for that timeslot. I attended a grand total of 1 session, and that was because I volunteered to help the speaker. In essence, I finally gave up trying due to the long lines and repeated frustration.
  • Many people simply gave up trying to get into sessions they wanted and looked for the session they felt would be least popular and tried to attend that session. It’s absolutely unacceptable for conference attendees to have to devise strategies such as this to attend sessions.
  • Spillover rooms with large screen monitors would be helpful for incredibly popular sessions, even if they were in scattered among adjacent hotels. I don’t care if I see the speaker physically – I want to hear the message and without standing in line outside of every room.
  • Capacity and facility – Determine what your capacity actually is before the problems on this list emerge, and close registration when your capacity has been reached.
  • Expo Hall – The flip side is that the expo hall was very popular, because people couldn’t get into sessions, so the vendors weren’t nearly as unhappy as the attendees. This isn’t a competition between the classes and vendors. I like the idea of scheduling some time where there aren’t sessions so that attendees don’t have to choose between seeing the expo hall and attending (or missing) sessions. This is, of course, assuming that you address the capacity problem and attendees actually can attend sessions.
  • Beginner sessions focused on Saturday – Consider making the main RootsTech conference Tuesday through Friday for intermediate and advanced, with Saturday fully open with only beginner classes. More advanced attendees can plan accordingly.
  • Signage would be a huge help. For example, multiple “you are here” signs throughout the building with room names and numbers indicating the location you are trying to find.
  • Vendor map – A large map/sign enabling attendees to find vendors in the expo hall would be very useful. You provided a “map” but other than the largest vendors, it only showed booth numbers. Finding specific vendors was a challenge.
  • Announce luncheon and keynote speakers well in advance. Other major conferences do, and RootsTech should be able to follow suit.
  • Adding on paid sessions – After a ticket is purchased, in the conference schedule application, if you discover that you want to attend a lab or sponsored meal, there is no way to add that onto your schedule. Or, if there was, I couldn’t find it. When I click on that event and star that I’d like to attend, either indicate that it’s full, or allow me to pay.
  • Track capacity – Conversely, on the schedule, don’t allow me to select a session or event that is already full to capacity.
  • Pay the speakers – Compensate the non-vendor speakers, meaning people who are not speaking for an employer who has a booth at the conference. I’m not referring to keynotes either, who, given what I know about (some of) their speaking fees, are compensated. Not compensating speakers (other than a pass to a conference) sends the wrong message that genealogists are expected to provide free services and have no or little value or worth. Not OK. Really NOT OK. Don’t egotistically presume that speakers are going to be “attending the conference anyway.” RootsTech needs to step up and be a leader instead of building the conference on the back of unpaid others. This is not how ethical leaders in any industry treat other people, let alone people of the talent and caliber that speak at RootsTech. This would also allow RootsTech to select from all speakers, not just ones that are willing to work for free or token compensation. Being expected to work for free is a demeaning message.
  • Vendor demo agenda – Provide a secondary agenda listing the locations of vendors providing sessions in the expo area. I realize you may see these as “competing” with the larger sessions, but in this case, that might be the only way for an attendee to see a speaker or a topic of interest – given that the general sessions were full and required standing in long lines, best case. I only discovered the vendor sessions quite by accident.
  • Subscription virtual conference – Since attending the conference doesn’t mean you can see the sessions you would like, consider a subscription “conference” where purchasers can see the livestreamed sessions, but also receive access to the other sessions as well. This might be popular with people who do attend, as part of a conference package because there are often multiple sessions in the same time slot that attendees would like to see, but can’t. Sending a thumb drive to all of this year’s attendees with all of the recorded sessions would go a long way towards that apology.
  • Luncheon timing and space – Given the distances between rooms, the luncheon sessions were packed too tightly against before and after sessions. Some luncheons were too full, with long lines and no place in the room to sit.
  • Scanning badges upon entering rooms was a significant bottleneck. Requiring attendees to leave the room after the previous session and go to the back of the line simply assured that if you were actually in the previous session, you certainly weren’t going to be in line in time to be admitted to the next one in that room. Additionally, some people felt that scanning badges was an invasion of privacy.

It’s understandable that snafus happen, but these issues together combined to create a rather miserable experience if an attendee wanted to do much of anything except visit the expo area.

Things I Liked:

  • The teal-shirted volunteers were absolutely amazing, especially given that the attendees were often extremely unhappy about the situation in which they found themselves.
  • The variety of speakers and sessions was great – which is also why the sessions were so popular and filled beyond capacity.
  • I loved seeing and visiting with the vendors, large to small.
  • Meeting other attendees, my blog followers and cousins.
  • Livestreamed sessions. I’ll be watching those now that I’m back home.

Readers – Please Help!

If you know anyone with any influence at RootsTech or FamilySearch, please forward this article or link. Let’s make sure RootsTech actually sees this article and addresses these issues in a positive manner so Rootstech can be a totally awesome conference in 2019!

92 thoughts on “Dear RootsTech: Let’s Make the 2019 Conference Awesome

  1. Roberta. This was my first time attending. I honestly didn’t know anyone else felt this way. I too was only able to attend one session/class. Absolutely unacceptable! I didn’t know that Labs had to be signed up for and never saw a way to do that ahead of the conference. Once I tried to sign up at the conference I was out of luck. And, I didn’t find many classes geared toward advanced researchers.
    I loved the Expo Hall and meeting fellow bloggers I had been friends with for years, but never met in person.
    I don’t know if I’ll ever attend again, unless they fix all the issues you brought up. Let me check in online and pick up my bag later. Please don’t make us wait 2 hrs in line.
    I was very disappointed, to say the least. Thank goodness I was with a long time friend and I allowed time to research at the FHL.
    Thank you for speaking up.

  2. I have not attended a major genealogy conference in a long time. So long in fact that it was prior to the internet. Back then you signed up for a particular class session and a 1st alternative session (once in a while a 2nd alternate too) for each time slot you wanted to attend a class session. Weeks before the conference start you got via postal mail a confirmation list of which class sessions you were assigned. Sometimes they took registration at the door but only if seats were available.

    At the conference, if you wanted to try to get into a class session that you were not assigned to only then you waited in a line to see if someone who was assigned did not show so you could have a seat. Also there was a color scheme usually to the badges. One color for full, every day attendees and then for those one-day attendees each single day had its own color and that way monitors knew who had paid for that day and who did not — no electronic scanning needed even if it had existed back then. Oh and there were lists for each class session as to who was assigned to that session. Oh and enter a session thru one door and exit thru another for orderly transitions between sessions. If you paid for an option like a lunch you had a ticket also color coded if needed.

    Frankly when more attendee “tickets” are sold than there are seats available that is wrong. Large crowds need organization and yes that means conference holders need to invest in organization methods. And know when to cut off registration. When is that? Figure out how many seats are available for all the class sessions at any given point in time during the conference. That is the number of attendee tickets that can be sold and why pre-registering for each class and picking alternates if the desired class is full are a necessary must. Over-selling leads to chaos and unhappy attendees.

    If you are trying to build attendee numbers each year then you’ve got to move to a bigger venue when you outgrow a venue. Even if it is not right next door to your audience’s draw point like the SLC library. Or accept you’ve sold out the number of seats available.

    I’ve attended local conferences that used online registration that still required class selection. (And yes it said if seats were still available or not.) These conference organizers still apply many of the techniques I mentioned above even after adding the benefits of the internet for registration.

    Attending RootsTech is one of the genealogy conferences on my bucket list but I’m not so sure now. At least at this point.

    I do not think Roberta is being a Negative Nelly. She was pointing out mis-steps and problems she and others experienced and has given some ways to correct or think about how to correct a particular situation.

  3. These very well-thought out suggestions, giving voice to much of what I was thinking all week. I did not know about the nonpayment of speakers and you make very important points about the impact of that. The idea of making the beginner classes on Saturday is genius. I missed the smaller vendors such as many more historical societies; I imagine it’s just too $$ for them to participate anymore. They definitely don’t need any more “photo preservation” vendors! I will not attend Rootstech next year. At this point, I think my money is better spent attending institutes or simply planning a week at the FHL.

  4. Right on. This was my 3rd year but if these issues are not addressed it will be my last. I won’t waste my money on going to a conference where I cannot attend sessions or spend the majority of my time in line. I did not have this problem in the past. Also, several of the sessions I did attend were advertised as intermediate, but I found them very basic. I would like to see more advanced and truly intermediate sessions. Another option might be to tape more of the classes. Thank goodness one of the sessions I wanted was taped, but others were not.

  5. I wasn’t able to go to RootsTech, although it’s been on my bucket list for at least 3 years, so I didn’t know about all of the problems. But at someone #NotAtRootsTech, I was able to watch possibly more sessions online than some attendees were able to get into see. I definitely missed the Expo hall and chance to talk with vendors, but I think maybe this conference is too big for me to manage logistically. As someone who is mobility challenged at the moment, sitting home with my leg propped up and speakers up close and personal on my laptop gave me a good experience. I’d even pay for that to avoid 2 hour lines and over-capacity problems.

    I’m also a librarian and know that we are almost never compensated when we speak at our professional conferences. We’re just expected to do it, but it’s a financial hardship for many who work very hard on the presentations we give. I’m sorry to hear that the same is true for genealogists who speak, and whose work I value.

    • I hope that librarians are paid by their employer while they are presenting, and that their way is paid to the conference by that employer. For professional genealogists, we sacrifice the pay we would have received while we are gone to present, along with the travel and prep time.

      • Because of budget restrictions, fewer and fewer libraries are paying for librarians to attend conferences, even those they speak at. They might get the conference registration paid for by their institution, but travel, hotel, and meals are often not reimbursed.

      • It depends on the type of library. They used to cover conference expenses for librarians, but as budgets got tighter and tighter, professional education was one of the things that got piled more on the individual. I do understand that professional genealogists don’t have the luxury of even partial support. I appreciate you all the more!

  6. Thanks so much for writing this post. Like the others, I was only able to attend one session. I wanted a refund and thought about initiating a dispute with my credit card company. I have told all my genealogy friends that I would never go again. It was CROWDED and unfriendly with people pushing and shoving. It was CHAOTIC. It seemed like the only planning that went into the event was “how can we make the most money?” I was stunned by the emphasis on Hispanic and African roots with dominant advertising and, by chance, that hispanic/african people won the major door prizes. It was a marketing gimmick. I spent more than $1500 to attend and it was a waste of money.

  7. In STRIKING contrast to RootsTech, the National Genealogical Society Family History Conference in Grand Rapids last week was OUTSTANDING! Attendance was good (I think they estimated about 2,500), speakers were generally excellent, rooms were the proper size (if any were too small, I never observed it). The place was lively but never overcrowded or chaotic. The exhibitors were were very helpful, not pushy. Overall, it was a great educational and social experience!

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