This article is being written in a hotel room in London, England, just a few steps from St. Paul's Cathedral. I attended the Family History Show in Westminster all day Saturday and must say that I enjoyed it. I believe that several thousand other genealogists also enjoyed this annual event.
The Society of Genealogists (SoG) has sponsored this annual event for many years. I have attended several of the more recent Shows and have always been impressed by the size of the crowds, the enthusiasm, and the wide variety of products exhibited. Equally impressive is the number of lectures available all day long, presented by some of the best-known genealogy lecturers in the U.K.
This year's event started with a Friday afternoon session, entitled A Taste of Family History. This was a series of eight introductory talks held at the same location as Saturday's event. Those who purchased tickets for Friday's lectures also received tickets for Saturday, and I suspect most of them returned for the main event on Saturday.
I did not hear the final "gate count" of the number of Saturday attendees this year. However, the Family History Show typically draws 3,000 or more enthusiasts. My guess is that this year's attendance probably was a bit higher than that number, helped in part by several interviews on national television in the days prior to the event. British television also has been offering a popular television series about family history for more than a year. This series has mentioned the Society of Genealogists many times and apparently has stirred the interest of many would-be genealogists throughout the country.
John Hanson of the Society was interviewed on national news a few days before the date of the Show. The SoG's Genealogy Officer, Else Churchill, was also interviewed on BBC television the morning of the Show. All this extra publicity apparently attracted an even larger crowd than usual.
I arrived at Royal Horticultural Hall about five minutes before opening time. I joined a long line of genealogists waiting to get in. The British are famous for being punctual and for queuing in lines for events. I saw this in action on Saturday morning.
The line stretched from the main door up the street, the full length of the block and around the corner. Once the doors opened promptly at 10:00 o'clock, the line moved quickly. As I approached the front doors, I was amazed to see still another line, stretching in the opposite direction from the main entrance. Apparently the other line had been as long as the line that I joined! There must have been at least 1,000 people waiting in line when the doors opened.
Once inside, I found the hall to be crowded and noisy. That was no surprise; I have attended this event several times in past years, and it has been the same every year. This year's crowd was as enthusiastic as ever.
I am fortunate to be able to attend a number of genealogy events every year throughout the United States and Canada, as well as this one event in England. I must say that the differences in the British event are obvious.
First of all, the attendance at the annual Family History Show each year is typically double that of any national genealogy conference in the United States. In past years, the attendance has been a bit less than 3,000 people although I believe the attendance figure was higher this year. The crowds always surge in at the opening and are very enthusiastic. It is a one-day event, versus the typical three- or four-day events in the U.S. Everyone seems to work hard to squeeze as much as they can out of the limited time available.
Next, this is primarily a vendors' exhibit. That is, the focus is on commercial and non-profit family history vendors. The exhibitors' hall takes up most of the available space in the Royal Horticultural Hall. For many attendees, this is the one time each year that they can examine products and services before purchasing. Several of the exhibitors report that they sell as much on this one day as they do in the remaining 364 days of the year.
While the focus is on exhibitors, 30 seminars and presentations are made in six simultaneous tracks on Saturday, as well as the eight presentations on Friday afternoon. Unlike most of the U.S. and Canadian conferences I have attended, the majority of presentations were offered at extra charge above the cost of admission to the Show. Only a few presentations were available free of charge.
Most of the Show's presentations were aimed at beginning to intermediate level genealogists. The presentation rooms were packed, and at least one presentation was sold out before the doors opened. Many attendees had purchased their tickets well in advance.
The four biggest differences between the British and the U.S. conferences, however, are the following:
- The annual Family History Show in London is held on a Saturday when almost everyone can attend. Only a small part of the conference is held on a weekday: the beginners' seminars on Friday afternoon. In contrast, many U.S. events are held on weekdays, which discourages working people from attending.
- Admission is cheap: £8.00. That is less than $15.00 in U.S. dollars or a bit more than $16.00 Canadian. Further discounts are available for those who purchase tickets in advance. The low entrance fee obviously is a great attraction. However, exhibitors pay more for their tables than the exhibitors' fees at U.S. and Canadian conferences. The total of the low admission fees for thousands of attendees plus the higher fees for exhibitors' tables adds many pounds to the Society of Genealogists' treasury. I was told that the Family History Show is one of the Society's major fundraising events of the year.
- The Family History Show is held in the same location each year, sponsored by the same society and with many of the same volunteers doing the same tasks year after year. The result is a well-organized group of people who are already familiar with their assigned tasks well in advance of each year's Show. The publicity works. The exhibition hall is properly prepared. People who know what is needed handle hundreds of other details well in advance.
- London is an excellent location for such a public gathering. It is the transportation hub of a country that is smaller than the U.S. or Canada. The public transportation system throughout England makes it easy for attendees to travel to this show at a modest cost.
I will offer the first three items above as points of consideration by organizers of future genealogy events in the U.S. and Canada. I doubt if we can change Item #4, however.
I took a lot of pictures at this year's event. A few of them are available at http://blog.eogn.com/photos/sog2006/. On that page you will see small, "thumbnail" photos. Click on any photo to view a larger version of the same picture.
If you would like to save a copy of any of the pictures to your own hard drive, right-click on the picture (Macintosh users need to hold the control key down while clicking) and then follow the menus that appear on your screen.
These pictures will show the biggest crowds that I have seen in recent years at a genealogy conference.
To Genealogy Officer Else Churchill, to the other officers of the Society of Genealogists and to the many volunteers who worked hard to present this year's Family History Show, I'd like to say, "Well done. I hope to return to next year's event."
For more information about the Society of Genealogists, look at the Society's new web site at http://www.sog.org.uk
To learn more about this year's Family History Show, look at the online brochure prepared in advance of the Show at http://www.sog.org.uk/events/fair.shtml. I suspect that information about next year's event will appear on the same web site about six months from now.