The largest annual genealogy conference in the English-speaking world is the Who Do You Think You Are? LIVE!, or WDYTYAL, show held each year in London, England. This conference typically attracts 10,000 to 15,000 attendees. Obviously, with crowds like that, the organizers are doing something right.
The 2009 edition of the WDYTYAL show opened today, and I was standing in line when the doors opened. Even better, I brought my camera so that you, too, can see what this conference is like.
You can see all my photographs at http://blog.eogn.com/photos/2009_wdytyal although there are a few samples embedded in this article. Click on any of the thumbnail-sized images to see a larger version of the same photograph. You may have to scroll down a bit to see the descriptions that are under most pictures.
The Who Do You Think You Are? LIVE!, or WDYTYAL, show is not a genealogy conference. It is more of a fair than a conference, with a strong emphasis on vendors and services available. The show attracts thousands of genealogy newcomers, and the vendors work hard to show how much fun it is to research your family tree. This event typically features presentations by well-known British TV personalities, by genealogy experts, and by DNA experts as well.
This year's event was the third annual WDYTYAL event although the Society of Genealogists (SoG) has held an annual conference every spring in London for many years. That conference has since been merged with the WDYTYAL event, and the SoG is now one of the sponsors of this newer, expanded annual event. Of course, Who Do You Think You Are? is the name of a very popular BBC television program, and the producers of that program also produce this annual event called Who Do You Think You Are? LIVE with the word "LIVE" added on to the name to signify the live event.
As I walked to the Olympia Exhibition Hall a few minutes before the 10 AM opening, I was struck by the length of the lines of people patiently waiting for the doors to open. Of course, the British have a reputation for patiently queuing for many different reasons, but I was impressed by how long the lines went up the sidewalk and around the block. I don't recall ever seeing hundreds of genealogists waiting in line to gain entry to any other conference I have ever attended. Of course, the mild winter weather in London didn't hurt: it was sunny and rather warm for February. Indeed, the doors did open promptly at 10:00 AM, and all the early attendees quietly filed in, myself included.
Within a very few minutes, I noticed the change in exhibitors when compared to the last two WDYTYAL events. In past years, the WDYTYAL exhibition hall has been filled by genealogy vendors as well as by military re-enactors, representatives of military historians, military museums, archaeologists, and even companies selling miniatures of armies in uniforms. The hall at past events has featured displays of real airplanes, tanks, military vehicles, and an anti-aircraft gun, all accompanied by men and women dressed in uniforms from past wars. I saw none of that at this year's conference; most of the booths (or stalls) featured genealogy and DNA vendors (with a few exceptions).
I did not see a single person at this year's event dressed in a period military uniform. Actually, I did see one person dressed in a British army uniform, and I assumed that he represented some historical organization. I soon found that I was wrong. It seems he was dressed in a CURRENT army uniform and, indeed, he is a member of (today's) British army. I think he was simply a conference attendee, interested in researching his own family tree.
I did not see a single tank or airplane or anti-aircraft gun or vehicle inside the exhibition hall.
Later in the day, I chatted with Else Churchill of the Society of Genealogists, and I remarked about the changes in the exhibition hall. She assured me that the change was deliberate. The Society and other organizers of the event closely examined the feedback forms after last year's event, and one fact stood out: the overwhelming majority of those who filled out the feedback forms were far more interested in genealogy than in military history. The organizers decided to focus on genealogy this year, and the result was worthwhile, in my opinion. Not only were there more booths for genealogy organizations, but the aisles were wider and the general noise level was lower. Attendees were actually able to talk with one another this year without shouting. As you can see from my pictures, the show did attract crowds, but all attendees on the first day were able to walk and talk without feeling compressed like sardines in a can.
The last two years' events also attracted a number of vendors even further removed from genealogy. At previous WDYTYAL events I saw vendors selling mattresses, food, reclining chairs, and more. I did see a few of them again this year, but the number was significantly reduced. I did rather miss the Cadbury chocolate exhibit this year, however. I may be a hard-core genealogist, but I still like a bit of chocolate!
As I wandered the exhibit hall aisles and watched some of the lecture theatres in operation, another change became obvious. Previous years' events had some coverage of DNA topics, but DNA seemed to saturate this year's event. I watched as Max Blankfeld, Vice-President of Marketing and Operations at Family Tree DNA, gave a presentation to a standing-room-only crowd in the DNA Theatre, a lecture hall devoted to DNA presentations all day long for the three-day event. I talked with Max late in the afternoon and he reported that the entire day had been similar: enthusiastic and curious attendees filling every available seat at every DNA lecture.
Max also told me that he had brought what he had thought would be enough DNA kits for the entire three-day event. When we spoke late in the afternoon of the first day, he reported that he was almost sold out of the kits. Since this was Friday afternoon, there was no way to send additional kits by air courier. Once the supply was exhausted, he planned to switch to an "I.O.U." operation in which he would take names and addresses and would mail kits on Monday to those who purchased them at the show.
Megan Smolenyak also gave a number of lectures about DNA in the Ancestry.co.uk Theatre. I wandered by when she was speaking, and she seemed to have similar results: every seat filled. Brian Swann, Katherine Borges, Michael Hammer, and Doron Behar also gave talks about DNA. I didn't see all of them, but the ones I did see were all very crowded. DNA interest is obviously high in England.
FindMyPast.com has a very large booth that was always crowded as the company showed off its newly-released 1911 census records and other offerings. The online database of the 1911 U.K. census has been acclaimed by several expert genealogists whom I know as containing highly accurate transcriptions, unlike some previous census records released by others. No set of transcribed records will ever be perfect (did you ever try to transcribe 1911 enumerators' handwriting?), but kudos go to FindMyPast.com for providing what appears to be the highest accuracy seen so far of any major set of hand-written records.
Ancestry.co.uk always has sponsored a large booth and a "theatre" at past WDYTYAL events, and this year's show is no exception. I saw Nick Barratt at the Ancestry.co.uk booth and in the Ancestry.co.uk theatre most all day. Nick is an English genealogist who is best known as the genealogical consultant for the BBC television show Who Do You Think You Are? He also has made numerous other TV appearances, and his credits include House Detectives, Invasion, Omnibus, the BAFTA-nominated Seven Wonders of the Industrial World, History Mysteries, Hidden House History and So You Think You’re Royal on television, and Tracing Your Roots for Radio 4.
GenealogySupplies.com has a very large pair of booths at this year's event, one of them featuring frequent lectures by John Titford. John is not only a genealogy expert but also a great story teller. I interviewed John a few months ago on Roots Television (see http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2008/11/video-intervi-4.html) and found that he was a delightful person. I can report that he hasn't changed since then; he amused the audiences today.
I have seen a number of new products and services at today's show but have not yet had an opportunity to see all of them. I'll write more about that after I spend more time tomorrow at the 2009 Who Do You Think You Are? LIVE! event. After all, this is London, evening is approaching, and I'm about to join some friends to enjoy another British institution: a local pub.
If you would like to learn more about the Who Do You Think You Are? LIVE! event, look at http://www.whodoyouthinkyouarelive.co.uk. Again, my photos are available at http://blog.eogn.com/photos/2009_wdytyal. Some of the photos have my descriptions at the bottom. You may have to scroll down to read the text.