Conferences: Different Flavors – How They Work & What to Expect as an Attendee or Speaker

As you’ve noticed, I’m sure, I sometimes speak at conferences.

Roberta speaking at conference.jpg

Not all conferences are the same – nor are they created equal for either the speakers or attendees. That’s by design, based on the type of conference and who is sponsoring the event.

How well a conference resonates with you depends on your personal goals and the goals of the sponsoring party.

Let’s look at the different factors that makes conferences unique – and interesting.

After we understand the different kinds of conferences, then we’ll talk about conferences from the speaker’s, and aspiring speaker’s, perspectives.

Last, we’ll review aspects you’ll want to consider when considering conferences as either an attendee or speaker.

Conferences Types and Sponsors

Conferences in general, not just genealogy, are sponsored by four types of organizations – each with different goals. We will look at each type in terms of organizations, sponsorship, speakers, expectations and fees!

Type 1 – Academic and Professional Conferences

Long before I spoke at genealogy conferences, I spoke at academic and professional conferences about technology and science related topics. These conferences generally focus on a specific theme. Example themes would be GIS (geographic information systems), medicine or a specific area of technology.

At academic and professional conferences, the speakers are paid by organizations that they work for, such as universities or companies associated with the subject. In other words, they are speaking as an employee, meaning they are paid by their employer and speaking is part of their job. Speakers at these conferences aren’t typically free-lancers, self-employed people or consultants.

In my opinion, this conference model is the origin of the myth that genealogical speakers only need to be offered a small honorarium, often in the ballpark of $100, instead of being “paid.” The conference committees were and are used to speakers who are paid by their employers and feel that simply being asked to speak is an honor in and of itself within your profession.

It’s a fine model for a group of speakers who are speaking as part of their paid employment, but not for people who aren’t.

In the genealogical world, people employed by vendors who speak fall into this category, but professional and non-professional genealogists who don’t work for a company that pays their salary are exceptions. People not employed by organizations are literally trading a significant number of hours of paid work for preparing their presentation, traveling and speaking – not to mention paying their own costs.

The conferences who subscribe to this model feel that the exposure to the public will build the speaker’s business, and while that’s true if the speaker has something to sell, like a book, it’s not true if the speaker already has a full calendar and the only thing they “sell” is services. In this second scenario, it actually costs the speaker to speak because they forego revenue.

Some speakers are retired from professions that offer pensions, so they aren’t trying to earn a living as a professional – but that’s far from true for everyone.

In terms of expectations, at a professional or academic conference, you can generally expect to hear a wide range of speakers including individuals who work for organizations other than vendors, academics, and of course vendors’ employees.

These professional conferences are generally run by professional or academic associations that are often nonprofit and charge a membership fee, in addition to a conference admission fee.

Their goal is usually not to make a profit but to cover the actual conference expenses. Some conference functions, such as lunches and a dinner, if offered, are usually extra.

Generally, the attendees’ and speakers’ conference fees, travel and expenses are covered by their employer, because the attendee needs to keep current in their field. Conferences of this type are considered part of continuing education and professional development.

Costs of Holding a Conference

For all conferences, venues and associated services, meaning food and beverages, prices are exceedingly expensive. For example, a conference center fee for water pitchers in a conference room is $55 per room for 5 gallons, plus an additional $35 for 3 additional gallons. Coffee costs over $100 per carafe. Of course, these costs include the people in the background delivering and coordinating.

The deposit alone for a conference expecting a maximum of 250 people was $28,000 last year. And that was just to reserve the facility. You get the idea.

Attendees often receive a “goody bag” with items contributed by the conference itself or vendors who would like for you to visit their booths and/or consider purchasing their products.

2019 familytreedna booth

Generally, associated vendors have paid booths or table space which generates some revenue for the conference itself. Sometimes booth space is purchased by location, with the largest, best and most expensive “premier” locations just inside the entrance to the Expo Hall.

At RootsTech, below, during setup before the conference opened, FamilySearch, the conference sponsor is in the center, just inside the door, flanked by MyHeritage to their left, and Ancestry, not shown, to the right.

Rootstech day 1 setup

The conference keynote speech is generally given by someone well known who is of interest to anyone in that particular field and is expected to be both informative and entertaining. Some keynote speakers, such as entertainers, are very pricey, in the 10s of thousands of dollars.

Type 2 – Vendor Sponsored Conferences

Vendors sponsor conferences to educate their customers and create goodwill in their user community.

These types of conferences highlight the vendor’s products and innovative ways to utilize those products.

You can expect to see several sessions about the vendor’s tools, products and services, including new announcements. You won’t see anything about competitors’ products.

Generally, there is an admission fee, but these conferences tend to be highly subsidized by the vendors and include events like receptions and often some included meals.

MyHeritage 2019 Gilad keynote.png

Photo of Gilad Japhet, opening MyHeritage LIVE 2019 in Amsterdam, courtesy MyHeritage.

A good example of this is the recent #MyHeritageLIVE conference in Amsterdam. Gilad Japhet, the founder and MyHeritage CEO is giving he opening keynote, above, at their second international conference.

At MyHeritage LIVE, the $149 conference fee didn’t begin to cover what the attendees received. For example, an included canal tour, a nice sweatshirt and stuff bag, a journal, a reception with drinks included, 2 lunches, several breaks with snacks and drinks and an amazing party with live entertainment including a “Beatles” band and Dutch folk dancers.

MyHeritage LIVE me with Marianne Melcherts.png

No, those people aren’t Dutch folk dancers, that’s me celebrating our shared Dutch heritage with Marianne Melcherts!

All of that’s in addition to the actual conference sessions with the best speakers in the industry, which is the actual purpose of the conference. You can see a quick one minute video, here, and free session recordings including the keynote, here. I covered the conference here and here.

Next MyHeritage LIVE conference – Israel sometime probably in the fall of 2020.

The annual Family Tree DNA International Conference for project administrators falls into the vendor sponsored category too and costs about the same.

2015 ftdna panel

Panelists, left to right, Katherine Borges, Steven Perkins, Dr. Tim Janzen, Jennifer Zinck and Debbie Parker-Wayne.

Above, Bennett Greenspan, Family Tree DNA CEO hosting a 2015 panel discussion and below, Bennett speaking about the Y DNA pedigree.

Rootstech day 3 Bennett Y pedigree

The next Family Tree DNA conference is scheduled for November of 2020 – next year. Their conference is focused on educating project administrators who are hightly interested genetic genealogists that function as volunteer supporters for their tens of thousands of cumulative project members.

Family Tree DNA has over 10,000 projects focused on a wide variety of areas, all of which are free to participants. I’ve always perceived their educational conference for (and restricted to) administrators as a form of an educational “thank you” for the many hours donated by administrators.

2015 ftdna 2004 bennett

The Family Tree DNA conference, the first in the genetic genealogy industry was initially held in 2004, back when NOBODY was talking about genetics at genealogy conferences. Katherine Borges of ISOGG provided this slide of Bennett welcoming project administrators at that first conference. We’ve come a very long way in the past 15 years as an industry.

Vendor-sponsored conferences often don’t have vendor booths or tables, and if they do, they are organizations that support or utilize the vendor’s products and tools. Sometimes the vendors themselves have support tables, roundtable discussions and such.

How individual vendors industrywide handle speaker compensation at their conferences for people outside of their organization varies widely. Speakers are generally personally invited to speak and there is no open call for papers at these types of conferences.

Vendor conferences are usually extremely affordable and represent a great value for the attendees because they are subsidized.

Type 3 – Organization Sponsored Conferences

Most genealogy conferences fall into this category.

2019 Rootstech sign

Some conferences are general in nature, such RootsTech (sponsored by FamilySearch affiliated with the LDS church) and NGS (National Genealogical Society.)

You can read about the history of RootsTech here. I covered RootsTech 2019 here and here and will be speaking at RootsTech 2020.

The current RootsTech information for February 2020 with earlybird pricing can be found here and for NGS in May 2020 here. RootsTech is always in Salt Lake City, and NGS 2020 is as well.

Other conferences focus on a specific theme, such as the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) conference.

In the genetic genealogy world, the i4gg (Institute for Genetic Genealogy) conference was launched a few years ago to focus specifically on genetic genealogy, which means they included sessions all the way from basic to advanced.

Today, almost every conference includes several DNA sessions and most include a DNA track.

Most general conferences focus on a wide range of topics. RootsTech, the largest conference with 30,000 to 40,000 attendees over several days (no they’re not all there at once) is a good example. You can find everything from how to use German church records to advanced DNA – and pretty much everything in between.

These conferences highly encourage vendor participation and have an exhibition hall.  Vendor tables and vendor sponsored sessions help to offset the cost of the venue and of speaker compensation.

Rootstech day 3 Charting Companion

Organization sponsored conferences generally tend to handle speaker compensation based on the old academic model. However, this isn’t always true and varies widely.

The reason that organizations tend to lean towards the academic conference model is a matter of dollars and cents – it costs less than paying a large number of speakers in addition to their transportation and lodging which keeps the conference costs lower, which in turn presumably encourages more attendees.

Part of their thinking is that the speakers, because they are interested in the topic at hand will be attending the conference anyway, so the organizers feel they are in essence only paying speakers for an hour of their time in a location where they would already be.

For the record, I disagree and feel that speakers, if they are not paid by their employer should be fairly compensated for their time and effort.

For attendees, due to the wide subject matter draw and size of these conferences, they are great for networking and meeting other people you may only know virtually.

You’ll also find all of the major vendors and many sponsor talks by well-known speakers and/or employees in their booths as well.

2019 ftdna booth presentation

Here’s me in the Family Tree DNA booth at RootsTech and Ran Snir speaking about DNA in the MyHeritage booth.

2019 MyHeritage booth

Nonprofit organizations that don’t have anything to sell, such as WikiTree, also have a presence and offer learning opportunities. Their booths are staffed entirely by volunteers, so stop by and say hello and learn what’s possible.

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In terms of expectations, these conferences are often large, which is both the good news and the bad news.

Sometimes the conference organizations themselves will sponsor free learning areas.

Rootstech day 2 discovery zone

There was even a DNA Basics area at RootsTech in 2019, staffed by volunteers. I’d volunteer for a shift there.

2019 DNAbasics

Another favorite conference is the entirely free Dublin, Ireland conference, Genetic Genealogy Ireland headed up by volunteer,  Dr. Maurice Gleeson and with the lecture rooms sponsored by Family Tree DNA. This lovely conference takes place in a conference center as part of the larger “Back to Our Past” conference with an admission to the entire conference center of about $10 per day.

Genetic Genealogy Ireland 2019 schedule.png

A wide range of speakers volunteer in order to support this amazing organization with something to offer everyone with Irish ancestors. GGI attempts to live stream and makes their sessions available on their own YouTube channel, here.

In 2019, the GGI conference takes place on October 18th and 19th in Dublin and I strongly encourage anyone in Ireland or Northern Ireland to attend. It’s well worth your time. You can see the speaker bios here on their blog and or follow them on Facebook, here.

Two new conferences in 2019, both in England, include RootsTech London taking place October 24-26 and THE Genealogy Show in Birmingham. Yes, there’s still time to sign up and attend RootsTech London.

THE Genealogy Show in June was a smashing success, according to attendees. While the initial conference was relatively small, about 4000 people, it was extremely well received. I heard glowing reviews and people really enjoyed the intimate atmosphere that included lots of wonderful sessions with well-known speakers from around the world.

THE Genealogy Show 2020 will be held on June 26-27 and you can take a look at the keynote speakers here.

Yes, you just might know someone who’s speaking:) I can’t wait!

Type 4 – Virtual Conferences

Entire virtual conferences as well as live streaming and recording sessions at regular conferences as they occur are becoming increasingly popular.

In fact, now there’s a Virtual Genealogy Association who has a full 3 day conference coming up in November – as in next month. Registration closes on October 18th and since there’s no travel involved, it’s an exceptional value at $59 for members and $79 for non-members.

Virtual Genealogical Association 2019.png

Choices of types of virtual learning for attendees not physically attending conferences vary, including:

  • Live webinars where viewers can interact with the speakers in some capacity. These tend to be purchased in advance, restricted in number and one must register.
  • Live streamed sessions where large numbers of people can watch as the sessions occur, or later. #MyHeritageLIVE did this in Oslo in 2018, recently in Amsterdam and the sessions were entirely free. RootsTech does live streaming and recording in some capacity for selected sessions. A few RootsTech sessions are live and free, some are available only for paid attendees and last year, a virtual pass was available. Some sessions aren’t recorded or livestreamed at all. NGS also records some sessions and provides them to members and conference attendees. Family Tree DNA doesn’t record but provides presenters’ Powerpoint presentations available online afterwards – if the presenter agrees.
  • Webinars where speakers create and record sessions for organizations in advance who then provide the sessions to members either by subscription, such as DNA-Central and Legacy Family Tree Webinars, or as individual purchases. Legacy Family Tree Webinars offers many for free.
  • Recorded sessions available to purchase. This model varies, but several conferences record sessions and make them available later in some way to be viewed. Often conference attendees are provided access either free or for a minimal cost so they can “attend” sessions that conflicted with other sessions during the actual conference. Non-attendees can pay for the entire set. As a speaker, it’s easier to participate in this type of venue because you’re not traveling. On the other hand, for speakers, it takes some adapting to be able to present looking at a screen when you’re used to looking at a crowd where you can see reactions.

Speakers are often compensated better for these types of sessions than at the large conferences. Again, your mileage may vary.

Ummm, YouTube

When you attend sessions of speakers who have been selected to speak at conferences, virtually or in person, generally, they are competent, capable and engaging.

Some vendors and organizations make their videos available on YouTube and that’s great. Some of these same speakers do the same – and that’s wonderful too.

However, other not-so-competent people produce a wide variety of “informational videos” which range from wonderful to highly inaccurate. The consuming public has no way to differentiate between an informed specialist and a crackpot, or anything in-between. Including less than upstanding companies.

Same caution for Facebook and social media. There’s no way to discern the difference between 20 bad, incomplete or incorrect answers and the one that is perhaps unpopular, but accurate😊

Consumer beware.

Speaker Compensation, Considerations and Expectations

Lots of people aspire to become speakers at conferences and would like to know how this works but are just too polite to ask. So I’m just going to tell you.

  • Public Speaking

First, you need to be comfortable in front of people. Audience sizes range from a few at local events, to hundreds at state and regional events, to thousands at national conferences.

2019 ballroom b

Here’s a photo of a portion of one of the medium sized rooms at RootsTech. Hint – they look even larger from the front – where the speaker is standing – and the room is often dark so the speaker can’t see the entire audience. In other words, it’s a kind of endless, dark sea.

People will be coming and going, so speakers need to be well-prepared, confident, not easily distracted, able to handle technical glitches and not subject to stage fright. Also, bring your magic wand.

  • Compensation

At various conferences, there’s a wide range of speaker compensation and packages offered, from nothing to significant. Let’s face it, there’s a huge difference between Donny Osmond and performers who would be of interested to many and comfortable on a huge stage, and an unknown speaker.

Rootstech main stage.jpg

If you’re interested in speaking, watch for the various conferences’ “call for papers” or “call for sessions.” That’s code for submitting your ideas and applying to speak at their conference. When submitting proposals for sessions, focus on the theme of the conference, don’t duplicate what other speakers are offering and look for a unique topic or angle.

If you’re not used to public speaking, you can hone your skills, and presentations, at local events.

Some conferences, large and small, where it’s perceived that the speaker will be attending anyway offer honorariums in the range of $100 per session and sometimes one night paid hotel per session presented at the conference. Generally, but not always the speaker’s conference entrance fee is waived too. If you are actually going to attend the conference anyway, and want to contribute, this is a good way. It’s also a great way to break into the speaking circuit and get your name out there.

If you’re an experienced speaker, these conferences aren’t terribly attractive unless you actually are planning to attend or have something to sell, such as books or subscriptions to your website. In other words, speaking can be great for sales – but it’s an opportunity, not a guarantee.

For better-known high-visibility speakers who are not necessarily going to be attending a conference unless invited to speak, compensation is individually negotiated and generally includes full travel, lodging and expenses in addition to a speaking fee.

Nationally known speakers often, but not always, fall into this category.

For example, to the best of my knowledge, other than the keynotes, RootsTech pays all speakers the same which is an honorarium, one night’s hotel for each session, plus a ticket to the conference is included. There are some other perks too, such as a speaker prep room with drinks and snacks (chips, etc.) where speakers can find relative peace and quiet for a few minutes.

“Famous people” such as the RootsTech keynote speakers are in another compensation category altogether and I’m not privy to that information. Most people at the level have agents who negotiate on their behalf.

Some organizations pay residual royalties for your sessions if people purchase them during or after the conference.

The bottom line about compensation is that your mileage will vary, widely, and it’s up to each person to decide what is and is not acceptible.

Dear Myrt recently wrote about why organizations need to pay speakers well, and included lots of really great suggestions for organizations, especially nonprofits, that need assistance with fundraising.

  • Copyright

Copyright is another matter that speakers need to consider. You may or may not retain full copyright to your material. Read the speaker contract carefully. I declined an opportunity through a university where the contract specified that they, the university, retained copyright of my prepared material. I had spoken there previously and the contact was different at that time. The new contract also specified that I was responsible for my own hotel, which meant that in essence, I was speaking for free AND driving a (long) day each way, plus preparation for the privilege. Needless to say, that didn’t happen, and the university was insulted that I wasn’t simply honored enough with the invitation to accept.

Also consider that if your session is provided to the public for free that other venues might not be anxious to hire you for that same session. Once content is freely available, other people aren’t likely to want to pay for the same session and you’ll need to come up with something new for future conferences and speaking engagements.

  • Photography in Sessions

As a speaker, you may or may not be required to include specific slides forbidding picture taking during sessions. This is a result of conferences attempting to be respectful of copyrighted material and making attendees aware of same.

If you are not required to add this slide, you need to think about what you will and will not allow in your sessions, and how to handle the situation if you have a rule breaker in the audience. Some conferences monitor rooms for this occurring and will deal with it so that speakers don’t have to.

As a rule of thumb, vendors LOVE it when you take pictures, because sharing on social media equates to free advertising, but private speakers don’t. I always ask if there is any question.

I generally don’t mind occasional photos, BUT, not of every slide. I have had the situation occur where someone literally copied all of my slides’ content and recreated it as their own. Some people feel speakers are inflexible and unreasonable about photography, but after incidents like this, I’m sure you’ll understand why speakers who invest years becoming educated and maintaining that level of education and days preparing (often for minimal compensation) don’t want their work infringed upon and abused. Most people wouldn’t even think of doing that, but unfortunately, we have to prepare for that possibility.

  • Photography of You

You’ll also need to decide if you’re going to allow people to take photos of you in social or classroom situations and post to social media so long as it’s handled tastefully. In other words, no hating on me by using my photo that I allowed in good faith. Most people at conferences understand that photos may very well be posted on social media and are fine with that.

2019 blogger photo

This picture, taken by Daniel Horowitz of a group of bloggers at the Family History Library, that he gave me permission to use in my blog article, shows me giving out my very first DNAeXplain ribbon that I had made specifically for RootsTech 2019. What great memories with my blogger friends – one of whom 7 months later recognized me passing by walking on the street in Amsterdam. Small world!

  • Evaluations & Feedback

As a speaker, you can expect to be evaluated. Not all evaluations are wonderful. There is almost always a “grouchy” person, so if you’re super sensitive – public speaking might not be for you. (Hint – humor is not universal. Do not joke about your bigamist ancestor in Salt Lake City, even if he wasn’t Mormon😊. Trust me on this.)

You may or may not be provided with the feedback. There are sometimes very good suggestions. Other times, not so much. I’m sometimes left wondering why an attendee downgrades a speaker, complaining that the session wasn’t advanced enough when it was described as introductory, or vice versa. Many things, such as audio quality in a room, are beyond the speakers’ control, but the speaker’s ratings will suffer because of it.

One conference pays an honorarium-size bonus to speakers who rank over a certain score – as if to infer that the speakers would do less than their best without that small financial incentive. I don’t think for one minute that’s true.

What Do Conferences Expect of Speakers?

Most of the time, other than a few specifics, there isn’t a universal list of speaker expectations. However, I’m sharing based on my own experiences. Your experience may vary and other speakers may have other items to add.

  • Speakers are expected to create a Powerpoint presentation, sometimes in a specific format, screen size, fonts or using a specific template.
  • Speakers are expected to have practiced the presentation and both fill and limit themselves to the time allotted. This takes practice and fine-tuning the presentation. Rule of thumb is 1 slide every 2 minutes.
  • Speak slowly and clearly. People tend to speed up and sometimes mumble when they get nervous.
  • More graphics, fewer words, high contrast, large font. I never use below 24 and generally larger.
  • Speakers are expected to have a remote “clicker” and may or may not be expected to use their own laptop for the actual presentation. Speakers may also be required NOT to use their own laptop, so should at least be marginally comfortable with other technologies, such as both MACs and PCs.
  • Your room size with multiple screens may preclude you from using a laser pointer, so don’t depend on that feature.
  • As a speaker, you will need to have a backup (thumb drive) and a backup of the backup, preferably someplace online and accessible remotely just in case. Yes, I’ve needed both.
  • You will probably be expected to show up for a brief practice session that includes a technical dry-run to be sure your laptop is compatible with everything. In cases where you aren’t using your own laptop, then you’ll need to practice with the system in use.
  • You will be expected to provide adapters (dongles) and conversion devices. For example, different kinds of video in and out cables.
  • If you want to utilize the internet, this will require special planning and arrangements, and I highly discourage this practice. Utilize screenshots. Wi-Fi is unreliable and Murphy, guaranteed, will visit you. Voice of experience here.
  • You’ll be expected to utilize some type of screen capture software that is of a higher quality than “print screen” when creating your slides. I use Snagit. It’s not free but works wonderfully and has both mark-up and blur features.
  • You will be expected to be sure that your images are copyright-free and if you use other people’s or company’s images, you have permission to do so. This isn’t just a courtesy, as some media companies specifically target infringers for compensation in the thousands of dollars if you’ve used their images without permission or payment.
  • You will be expected to obscure/blur names and identifying information of any examples you use unless you have obtained permission from that person. I generally obscure anyway because I don’t want anyone thinking I’m remiss even when I have permission. It’s just easier.
  • You may be expected to provide your own projector (NGS) which is an archaic practice at best. Projectors are not inexpensive and are deal-breakers for many speakers. Projectors are available to rent from hotels but rentals are often as expensive as simply purchasing a projector. In my opinion, all conferences should rent or own enough projectors to accommodate all rooms utilized simultaneously for speaking, plus at least one spare – because Murphy.
  • You may be expected to provide a syllabus several weeks or months in advance, in a very specific format or template. (This is my least favorite part of speaking.)
  • You will be expected to provide promotional information in advance, generally including a summary, a brief bio, a larger bio and at least one professional quality photo.
  • You may be encouraged to or conversely forbidden from mentioning your own items for sale, such as books. You may be discouraged or forbidden from mentioning your website even if nothing is for sale. Know the expectations in advance.
  • You may be encouraged by the conference to include links or relevant references to articles you’ve written on your free website, then be criticized in the speaker rating for doing so. Or vice versa.
  • Creating a session for a conference, including research, Powerpoint and graphics, and the syllabus will take approximate a week of your time for each one-hour session and that’s assuming you already know your topic well. If you can utilize the same presentation again, the up-front “cost” may be an investment for you. However, keynotes and high-visibility speakers as well as speakers for national conferences are expected to have fresh, up-to-date content customized (at least minimally) for each organization.
  • Speakers are expected to be available for questions – if not during the session, then sometime during the conference.
  • Speakers are expected to mingle with other conference attendees at least part of the time. Exceptions to this would be “famous people,” such as RootsTech keynotes that aren’t connected to genealogy. If you’re not Donny Osmond, you’ll be expected to make yourself available. Of course, most of us would be mingling regardless. What better way to meet new friends and cousins? I can’t tell you how many people I’ve discovered I’m related to at conferences in general conversation.
  • Dress and act professionally. For example, do not show up in a t-shirt and flip-flops unless it’s part of a “costume” that goes with the topic of your presentation.

Jedi me.jpg

Yes, I confess, the rumor is true, I once appeared as a “Jedi,” complete with surprise lightsaber at the appropriate moment. But I had a great reason!

Jedi presentation.jpg

That session, completely custom, was so much fun! But was I ever nervous. It was a bit of a departure from the norm.

Courtesies

I only speak at a limited number of conferences per year, so I do provide an announcement on my blog that I’m speaking for an organization. Not everyone has this ability, but it’s something I feel I can provide as a service to both the organization and my readers because I limit my speaking engagements to 4 or 5 per year and no more.

Speakers should never be expected to stay in private homes, marginal areas, or in hotels that are less than “Holiday Inn” level accommodations. If there is a conference hotel, the speakers should expect to stay in that hotel.

Check with the organization to make sure you know who is supposed to make your reservations (you or them), and when, and obtain a confirmation number. Nothing worse than showing up to a booked hotel, insisting you have a reservation that someone else supposedly made.

Considerations

Here are several things to think about, both when selecting a conference as an attendee or a speaker.

  • Networking

For me, the best part of conferences is networking. I love meeting people, many of whom I only know online.

People, like you, who follow my blog.

People who don’t.

People I “know” on Facebook.

People who are distant cousins.

Serendipity!

In 2019, in Salt Lake City, I accidentally met Myrt and wound up on her show while researching at the Family History Library, before 2019 RootsTech. Beside Myrt on the right is Luana Darby who is the conference chair of NGS 2020. All I can say is bless Luana’s heart, because I chaired one national conference and it’s something I’ll never do again.

2019 me with Myrt

I can’t tell you how many times I’m chatting with someone and we discover that indeed, we are related or we have a DNA match that needs to be explained. That happened right after the Myrt session, at lunch, with Cheryl. Serendipity!

Conferences and speaking are very rewarding experiences – even if you’re not a speaker or don’t attend a lot of sessions at the conference.

The key to having an enjoyable experience is to understand your goals and evaluate the conference in light of those goals.

For example, I don’t feel I need to attend sessions all the time. I select a few that are of particular interest to me and schedule those in my phone. I like having the option of recorded sessions later for viewing at home.

What I really enjoy is to visit with people, check out vendors’ booths, see demos and learn from other conference attendees. That I can’t do at home.

  • Venue

For both speakers and attendees, location can be very important. I only speak at 4 or a maximum of 5 conferences per year. My goal is educational outreach, so I want to reach as many people as possible. For me, this generally means larger conferences and often keynotes.

I confess, I decide which conferences I’m going to attend based on the following criteria, in no specific order – in fact, the order may change based on the attractiveness of the offer. This criteria is probably equally as important to attendees.

  • Schedule

I have not yet cloned myself to be in two places at once and I will not back one event up to another. Been there, done that, won’t do it again. Jet lag is miserable.

  • Lead Time

I book about a year in advance, sometimes more. Many speakers do. As an attendee or a speaker, if you want to attend a specific conference, register early and book at the conference hotel before the reduced rate conference room block is sold out.

  • Location, Location, Location

If a conference is occurring someplace I want to visit, I’m much more likely to be interested. For example, I just spent the week after the MyHeritage conference traveling in the Netherlands with my friend, Yvette Hoitink, Dutch genealogist extraordinaire.

I have three separate ancestral lines that lived in the Netherlands and I love to walk where my ancestors were born, lived, married, worked and died. I also love to meet my cousins and I met 8 Ferverda (Ferwerda) cousins. Pure bliss!

I’m not including a shameless list of places my ancestors lived that I’d like to visit😊

There are more locations than I could ever visit in my lifetime, as well as a few bucket list locations that I’d like to visit where my ancestors inconsiderately didn’t live.

As a genealogist, I’m sure you have a “genealogy location bucket list” too.

  • Topic

Some topics interest me much more than others. I love teaching about all aspects of DNA, but one of my favorites is how to utilize genetic genealogy to identify Native American ancestors.

This fall, in addition to a Native American session, I’m keynoting about the Lost Colony of Roanoke in North Carolina for the North Carolina Genealogical Society right after a documentary about the Lost Colony is released. (More about that documentary in a future article.)

I’m also attending and keynoting at an Archaeogenetics and Genetic Genealogy conference at the University of Umea, Sweden in November. Ancient DNA is fascinating to me, and I really wanted to attend this conference, so I welcomed the invitation to keynote. And no, I have no ancestors from there, at least not that I can individually identify, although clearly my mitochondrial DNA line originated in Scandinavia before being found in Germany in the 1500s.

Find topics that you love in places you want to visit.

  • Exposure

Given my personal goals of reaching a large number of people relative to utilizing DNA for genealogy, organizations that have large audiences and/or that include livestreaming, webinars and other outreach activities are generally more attractive to me – while the opposite may be true for other speakers who don’t want their sessions to be widely shared.

  • Compensation

I’m human and I want to be paid fairly for my time. I can stay home and enjoy a full consulting schedule without speaking, or I could do genealogy or quilt – my other loves.

Unfortunately, hours and minutes are like money and we can only spend them once and then they are forever gone. For most in-demand speakers, speaking is something we enjoy, not something we do to get wealthy. I have yet to break even for the hours I would have otherwise worked – which is another reason why I limit my conference speaking to 4 or 5 per year, max, at places I want to go or conferences I want to attend.

I think of this as ying and yang.

  • Convenience

I actually don’t like to fly, at all. I do it anyway, sometimes. However, two transfers to get from where I live to the conference venue probably isn’t going to be attractive to me unless I really, REALLY want to go there. Three is a deal-breaker.

You may feel exactly the opposite. Fortunately, there’s a lot to choose from today.

Most of All – Have Fun!!!

I hope this article helps you understand the lay of the land relative to conferences both as an attendee and as a speaker.

  • If you’re looking for a specific topic, consider joining or following an organization that specializes in that topic.
  • If you’re looking for a general conference, consider some of the larger regional or national conferences.
  • If you’re looking for something that doesn’t require traveling long distances, monitor local, state or regional groups along with virtual conferences.
  • If you’re looking for something entirely online, consider the Virtual Genealogy Association, Legacy Family Tree Webinars or the recorded sessions from other conferences such as Genetic Genealogy Ireland on YouTube.
  • If you’re looking for a low-cost conference but still with high quality speakers, consider the subsidized vendor conferences or the virtual conferences.
  • To familiarize yourself with these groups and conferences ahead of time, join the organizations, follow the them on Facebook, subscribe to their blogs or bookmark their webpages.
  • If you’d like to attend the Family Tree DNA conference, which tends to focus on science along with Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA in addition to autosomal, volunteer as an administrator for a project of interest to you, or start a project if one doesn’t exist. Does your surname appear on the search page, here or half way down the main page, here.

We have more quality opportunities for genealogy and genetic genealogy education today than ever before.

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13 thoughts on “Conferences: Different Flavors – How They Work & What to Expect as an Attendee or Speaker

  1. Went to a conference dressed as a Jedi Knight? You SURE this wasn’t a comic con? Because I do have a slightly banged up thirty-five year old plastic light saber you could use. Man ’80s toy companies did not take child safety into account did they?

    Anyway, thanks for giving us the 411 on how to do these conferences. I’ve actually been wondering about them for a while because I watched the Rootstech vids streamed on their site and I’ve seen the tweets. Good tips.

    Another important con tip that applies for any con is to bring water and pace yourself. You don’t want to go home and feel sore from walking. And people will be walking….a lot.

    It’s probably also a good idea to not be a jerk. Con security will not be happy.

    Great tips as always! =D So….do you want the slightly beaten up light saber? JK. I have no idea where it is….

    • Well, they thought it was comical:) I gave my lightsaber away to a young child in the hotel lobby. I think his parents hate me. Thanks for the offer, but no:)

  2. What a comprehensive and balanced post Roberta. Thanks for investing the time to write and share it. Blog posts as long and detailed as this chew up your time.

  3. Great post. I got a laugh out of the bigamist “joke.” Thanks for sharing that. I would have made the same mistake. On the other side of the spectrum, I have about 100 slides for a 50 min. talk. I do not use transitions or animations, so I repeat many slides with the “arrow” in different places that I want the audience to focus on. I also have some slides that are up for only a 1/2 a second making a transition to something else. I talk through my slides, heavy graphics, few words. It takes me about 80-100 hours to put together a slide show and 4 hours to write the syllabus once the PPT is put together.
    See you in NC!

  4. You wear the purple cape beautifully; It is reflective of your having been “born in the purple” meaning, of aristocratic or royal heritage.

  5. I’m at a GIS conference right now and spoke the other day! I’m surprised to see GIS mentioned. You are correct, I am being paid by my employer for being here just through my salary. There is no other compensation for speakers as it’s a non-profit organization putting it on for academic learning. I do aspire to be a genealogy speaker at some point but it’s not very practical right now with other my other obligations, particularly the traveling and developing the material in the first place.

    • I did graduate work in GIS in 1997. Light years ago in technology. I designed and implemented some if the early municipal applications. Loved it.

  6. Informative post. Your session was one of the two that I comprehended and enjoyed at the 2019 FTDNA conference. No one at FTDNA ever advertised it was for wonderfully geeky scientists, which I am indeed not. I hope someday FTDNA will do a webinar or some updated YouTube videos for rookie Project Admins (non-scientists) who want a genealogy focus on how to use their results.

  7. Great insight and a very fair and balanced handling of both groups (speakers and attendees). Wasn’t aware of all the organizational levels and their very different requirements and compensations.
    See you in NC.
    Sandy

  8. Thanks Roberta. You actually helped answer some of my questions that I have not been able to find elsewhere, particularly the in’s and out’s of the business side of presenting.

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