Warning: the following article contains personal opinions.
One thing fascinates me: almost everywhere I go, I hear genealogy society officers moaning and groaning about declining attendance at the events they sponsor. In fact, the two best-known national conferences in North America have had difficulty in recent years attracting attendees. Their numbers bounce up and down a bit from year to year, but neither of them have been able to attract the crowds that they used to attract a decade or so ago.
Sponsors of some local, statewide, and regional events offer many similar reports: some of their conferences are not like “the good old days.” Indeed, I have heard some society officers speculate that interest in genealogy is declining or that there is too much competition from the Internet.
I think we can put those myths to rest.
This week's success in Burbank, along with the recent New England Regional Genealogical Conference (see http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2009/04/nergc-2009-is-a-success.html) show that genealogy conferences can be successful and can attract more attendees than ever before. I wasn't at the recent Ohio Genealogical Society conference or at this year's annual conference of the Ontario Genealogical Society, but I have heard that they attracted large crowds. How can they succeed at the same time that others claim that interest in genealogy is declining or that there is too much competition from the Internet?
I think the basic answers are simple; however, the topic becomes a bit complex when we start examining the details. I think there are two basic answers:
- Like the Nike commercial, the organizers of the successful conferences “Just Do It.” The go forward at full speed.
- The organizers of the successful conferences are not stuck in a rut. They do not do the same things year after year. They experiment and try new things. If successful, they do it again the following year. If the experiment is unsuccessful, they drop it.
To be sure, those two points are simple. The complexity creeps in when you start to examine the details.
While others complain about competition from the Internet, those who organize successful conferences embrace the Internet with open arms. Indeed, they use the strengths of the Internet to reach even more genealogists. The Internet is probably the greatest and most cost-effective advertising medium ever created and the successful organizers see the Internet as a partner, not as a competitor.
Take a look at the Southern California Genealogical Society's Jamboree blog at http://genealogyjamboree.blogspot.com. That blog, or web site, is but one of the advertising vehicles the society uses to promote its annual Jamboree. First, I think you will enjoy reading it. Next, thousands of other genealogists read it. The blog is updated often, sometimes daily. Conference attendees and those who are thinking of attending the conference love information that is relevant, is updated frequently, and tells them what they need to know. The fact that new information is added often keeps the conference fresh in the minds of would-be attendees.
Now look at the New England Regional Genealogical Conference's blog written for their recent conference. You can find that at http://nergc2009.blogspot.com and you will see something similar. That blog is quiet now that the conference is over but it was very active in the weeks and months before the event.
Other successful genealogy conferences usually do something similar: it might be a blog or it might be a mailing list or it might be an on-line newsletter. Whatever the delivery mechanism, the organizers frequently post new information about the event, the presentations, the host hotel(s), where to park, nearby restaurants, local attractions, and more. What does your society do? Print a brochure and then do nothing else? Ever wonder why your attendance is declining?
The successful conferences also embrace the Internet and other technology topics in their presentations. The Blogger Summit at the Southern California Genealogy Jamboree is a perfect example: the conference organizers managed to present information about a leading, state-of-the-art technology that provides benefits to genealogists every day. How many “blogger presentations” did you find at genealogy conferences five years ago? None. It is a new technology, it provides many benefits to genealogists, and the conference organizers wanted to provide the latest tools and techniques to attendees. I know that quite a few attendees made the trip simply because of this and similar presentations.
How many presentations are scheduled at your next conference about blogs? Or wikis? Or DNA? Why would anyone travel and pay the high expenses to sit through presentations about the same old topics that were presented last year and the year before?
Next, the more successful recent conferences have usually been held in lower-cost conference centers, and admission costs have been held to reasonable figures. I am sure there may be a few exceptions, but I believe that the majority of successful conferences have not been held in (expensive) downtown conference centers.
The Southern California Genealogical Society's Jamboree could have been held in downtown Los Angeles in an expensive, state-of-the-art convention center. Of course, that would have cost a lot of money, and those expenses would have been passed on to attendees and to exhibitors. Instead, the conference was held in suburban Burbank at a cheaper facility that does not use union labor to set up the exhibit hall. The adjacent Marriott hotel certainly was not cheap, but prices for a room there were significantly lower than the prices for a similar room in a downtown hotel. Six or eight restaurants were available within a block or so. As an example, I had a delightful dinner Thursday evening at a fast-food Japanese restaurant across the street from the conference center. The bill was under ten dollars, including a soda, for a freshly-prepared meal. Friday evening I jumped into the rental car and drove several miles to a special restaurant that I knew about. Again, the bill was far less than that of a conference center hotel's restaurant. On Saturday evening, I ate at the conference hotel's restaurant and the meal was expensive.
The conference hotel in Burbank was easy to access; there was no need to tip a bellman or a parking valet. The exhibitors were able to load and unload their own display materials without paying exorbitant fees to union workers. At past conferences, I felt that my own equipment was kidnapped and ransomed back to me as I had to pay sixty dollars or more for somebody to move my small amount of material to the exhibit hall, something I can do easily myself in a minute or two. That was not a problem in Burbank or in Manchester, but has been a problem in past years at major conferences held in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and elsewhere.
Parking was ten dollars a day at the Southern California Genealogical Society's Jamboree. I think it was even less than that at the New England Regional Genealogical Conference's event in Manchester, New Hampshire. I would prefer free parking, but ten bucks is still cheaper than the $42 a day I have paid at other conferences in the downtown area of large cities.
Wi-fi connections were free in the hotel lobby in Burbank, and there were still other wi-fi options available in the exhibits hall and at nearby restaurants.
It all adds up. One of the reasons I went to the Jamboree in Burbank is that I felt I could afford it. I won't be attending future conferences in large city downtown locations, simply because the costs involved exceed the benefits.
Finally, I think the biggest single reason for success is that the conferences were held on days when most people could attend. Who can attend a conference on a weekday? Certainly not the working folks! Both the Southern California Genealogical Society's Jamboree and the New England Regional Genealogical Conference attracted large numbers of local, “walk-in” attendees. In fact, most of the attendees at the Jamboree in Burbank lived within 100 or 200 miles.
The Jamboree in Burbank started on Friday afternoon, but most events were held on Friday evening, Saturday, and Sunday. The local working folks could get there and the crowds reflected that; the crowds were certainly bigger on Saturday and Sunday than they were on Friday afternoon. That obviously results in more revenue for the sponsoring organization.
The recent New England Regional Genealogical Conference held in Manchester, New Hampshire, wasn’t quite so daring: that conference was held on Thursday afternoon through Sunday morning. Although obviously I cannot prove it, I suspect they would have had an even larger attendance, had they delayed everything by twenty-four hours.
If you are planning to hold your genealogy event on Wednesday or Thursday through Saturday, don't complain to me that attendance is down! You ignored the best day of the week to attract a crowd: Sunday.
If you want to attract a large crowd, make sure that you hold the event on days when everyone can get there, and also make sure that the total expenses are reasonable. “Total expenses” includes the attendance fee for the conference plus hotel rooms, restaurant meals, parking, and all the other incidentals that drain the pocketbook.
Other societies can offer proof that meeting your customers' needs results in more business.