Legacy Tree Genealogists’ James (Jim) Beidler discusses the changing landscape of genealogy events and meetings and offers tips on how to get the most out of these modern, largely online, learning opportunities.
Genealogy events have certainly changed over the years. In the past, local meetings often had speakers who were knowledgeable but sometimes had less than scintillating presentations. Full-day seminars, often with a single speaker, dotted seasonal calendars. Large events often had one-hour lectures, a vendor hall, and social gatherings. But in recent years the story has changed and despite the waxing and waning of the coronavirus, many organizations are contemplating what to do next.
All Online, All the Time
After initial restrictions and some bans on large gatherings, many groups pivoted quickly to using Zoom or other online platforms to hold their events. Within a couple of months, there was more online content streaming at family historians than previously had been available in person.
Or so it seemed. In part, this was a matter of perception. It was, in many cases, the same amount of information, but without the barriers to attending the in-person events. Instead of coordinating (and paying for) transportation and hotel, the programming was now coming to the attendees.
Indeed, the meetings of many genealogy organizations now became larger-than-ever with a distant audience of members and guests who previously hadn’t had the opportunity to attend without a great deal of planning or financial outlay. In many cases, the quality of the programming was improved by the availability to host nationally known speakers who, free from travel costs and time, were now affordable to even relatively small groups.
Several annual regional conferences were canceled in 2020, but the National Genealogical Society was able to shift when its in-person conference was canceled, and the original in-person program was offered as a series of prerecorded lectures. Following in those footsteps, the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society produced a successful virtual conference, and the ever-popular RootsTech went online, too, boasting more than a million people who signed on to participate in some way. The Ohio Genealogical Society had a fully virtual conference for 2021 as well.
The International German Genealogical Partnership, which was scheduled to have a conference in July 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio, needed to cancel the in-person event but instead hosted a virtual conference (which this author co-chaired and Legacy Tree Genealogists was a Bronze sponsor). The German conference used the same technology vendor, Playback Now, that had helped the National Genealogy Society conference go virtual, plus Playback Now matched the German conference with an online platform called Whova, which kept the registrants engaged in the event throughout an eight-day run. Attendees were encouraged to interact and even schedule their meetups during the conference.
Free – or Almost!
Most people have a budget for genealogy programming – if not in terms of dollars, definitely in terms of time, even if it seems that some family historians can stay online all day!
First of all, a fair amount of the “monthly meeting”-type programming is either free or at a nominal cost. Sometimes it’s limited or discounted to members—making a year’s membership in the group a good buy.
And while it hurts me as a genealogical speaker to say that someone might not want to listen to all my pearls of wisdom, the reality is that virtual conferences and meetings free an attendee to “log off” if the programming doesn’t turn out to be worth the time. Of course, you can do that with in-person events, too, but not always as discreetly, plus you’ve invested in getting there.
Every genealogist’s “value proposition” for information is going to be a little bit different. Some put a premium purely on what events will educate them. Week-long events by organizations such as the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research, Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh, and the Genealogical Institute on Federal Records thrived as they switched to a virtual scenario during coronavirus cancellations (although some people would like a curriculum that is a bit less intense).
Another part of the evaluation is finding out where information is available in the in-person sessions, for a certain amount of time. This has become vogue with many of the “monthly meeting” events, in which speakers have allowed recordings to be made and replayed.
Larger events may have a mix of live and prerecorded presentations. As the pandemic fades, some may be presented in the “hybrid” format, in which some attendees are at a venue while others log on remotely by computer. Additionally, many virtual platforms offer robust event hosting features, including virtual exhibitor booths.
Considerations When Planning to Attend Events
With all of these opportunities, what is the best strategy for genealogists now and in the future? Here are some of the considerations you will want to think about when planning your virtual or in-person genealogical events:
What content is available? In other words, is there just one, or are there more lectures? Are there virtual breakouts for groups? Are there any other activities?
How well does it fit with your genealogy objectives (present and anticipated)? For example, you may not be interested in researching Germans now, but if you know you have them in your family, you may want to take a basic German genealogical lecture to prepare yourself.
How exclusive is the content? Can you find a particular lecture in many places online or in-person? Lecturers realize that they need to create more new presentations since the ones they do for a local audience are no longer “local” if the event is virtual!
How long will it be available? If a lecture will be available on a website for 90 days after it debuts, you should take advantage of that time to watch it before it disappears.
What activities will only be available in specific time slots during the conference? Virtual conferences have tried to mimic nearly all of the activities at in-person events, with some more successfully than others. Especially with virtual exhibit halls, watch for exhibitor specials.
If the conference has returned to being in-person, is it live-streaming some content? If so, are the only lectures you want to see being live-streamed—making coming to the conference less necessary?
If the event is hybrid, is everything available online for remote attendees? Look over the full schedule of events. Hybrid events are evolving and some organizations will do more for their online attendees than others.
It’s a time of plenty for genealogists when it comes to information access.
While virtual events are easy to attend and often economical, the downside is that they don’t connect communities the way in-person events do. Some people go to events for the joy of connecting with like-minded people. For these people, networking, forming connections, and interacting with vendors is the primary concern. For this reason and others mentioned above, hosts need to focus on more ways to engage participants online until we fully go back to in-person conferences again. Some organizations will likely be tempted to go back to the “same old, same old” after the coronavirus is over. Let’s help organizations decide what’s next, based on our needs as family historians!
Legacy Tree Genealogists’ employees are among the speakers at many meetings, seminars, and conferences. Contact us today for a free consultation and let us know what our experts can do for you.
Jim Beidler has earned a reputation as an author, columnist, and lecturer specializing in Germans, Pennsylvania, and newspapers – the last in part because he was a first-career newspaper copy editor. His other specialties come from being born (and living most of his life) in Pennsylvania and having an ancestry with mostly Germans. He’s happy to return to his editing roots with Legacy Tree Genealogists.