Caution: This article contains personal opinions.
The Who Do You Think You Are? Live! conference in London, England, drew to a close this afternoon. I was sad to leave, although I must admit that three days at this event left me exhausted. It was fun.
I don't have the final headcount as I left before the count was made. However, I am guessing it was about the same as last year or maybe a bit less, probably in the range of 12,000 to 14,000 people. That's a good crowd for a genealogy convention!
The vendors I spoke with late today reported good sales although several said that sales were down just a bit from last year. Maybe attendance was less or maybe that's a sign of a tough economy. Nobody seemed certain as to the exact cause.
I have attended every Who Do You Think You Are? Live! conference ever held except for one year when I had a family conflict. Every year, I see more and more interest and presentations on DNA. This year, the booths of Family Tree DNA (an American firm) and of the International Society of Genetic Genealogists (an international non-profit organization) were constantly crowded. Across the aisle, a dedicated lecture area featured nothing but DNA lectures all day long. I saw presenters there from England and the U.S. and there may have been others as I didn't recognize every one of them. Most of the time, the lecture area was packed and a few times people were standing in the back and along the side, listening to DNA lectures.
I am always amazed by the number of Americans and Canadians seen at this show. This year was no exception. I haven't been keeping count every year but I think I saw more people from North America this year than ever before. I also met people from Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, and New Zealand. I suspect there were still others in the hall that I didn't meet.
I have always written that this conference is "the largest in the English-speaking world" as I have heard of another, very large conference held every other year in Paris. However, the focus of the Paris conference is a bit different so it is difficult to perform a side-by-side comparison. I noticed this year's Who Do You Think You Are? Live! was advertised as "the world's largest genealogy conference" and I suspect that is a true statement. This show's organizers probably have better access to statistics than I do so I tend to believe them.
Whatever the size of the crowd, the London conferences are by far the largest I have ever attended.
How can the organizers attract this many attendees? I think there are a number of reasons but I would suggest the biggest reason of all can be summed up in a single word: simplicity.
The formula for Who Do You Think You Are? Live! is simple: the organizers stripped out most of the fluff and focused on holding a simple event that is offered at a reasonable price at convenient times. More is not always better. In this case, it strikes me that perhaps “less is often better.” This conference is most notable for what it doesn't have:
1. There are no official banquets or special dinners held by the organizers. To be sure, there are informal dinners sponsored by different vendors, societies, and many "pick-up" dinners and lunches in nearby restaurants during the weekend but none of them are even listed in the conference brochures and the organizers typically are not involved in the planning.
2. The entire show is focused on attracting beginner to immediate-level genealogists. Advanced topics are left for other conferences, typically the smaller, local events held in smaller cities. The national show was aimed at the masses.
3. LOW PRICES! The base admission was £15 (roughly $23 U.S.) for a one-day ticket although there were some discounts available for multi-day tickets as well as for tickets purchased in advance. Compare that to the bigger events in the U.S. where tickets often cost $200 or even more.
4. It is a WEEKEND EVENT. The show was held Friday, Saturday, and Sunday although the bigger crowds obviously appeared on Saturday and Sunday when many working people were free to attend. I continue to be amazed that organizers of many U.S. conferences will not hold events on Sundays and then they wonder why attendance is so low. They blame the Internet and the economy and the weather and everything else except the most obvious problem: the show isn't held at the same time the would-be attendees are available.
5. This is primarily a vendors' event. To be sure, there were lectures held about a wide variety of topics and many "ask the experts" sessions where attendees could bring along family heirlooms or photos or genealogy research problems and then obtain advice from experts in the appropriate field. However, the vendors hall was by far the biggest area of all and it was dead center in the Olympia Center.
When you walked in the front door and presented your ticket, you immediately entered the vendors hall. All the other events were held to the side of the vendors hall or on the balcony above. To get to any of the other events, you had to walk through the vendors hall. In effect, there was no escaping the vendors. I am sure that hundreds of pounds were spent in that hall this weekend. I know that almost all the vendors I saw were smiling.
Many of the attendees came for the primary purpose of talking with the vendors and seeing their goods and services. For many, attending lectures was a secondary interest.
6. Expenses were held to a minimum: most lecturers were not compensated nor were they given hotel rooms. Despite this, I saw many top-notch lecturers giving presentations. Most of them are involved in the genealogy "business" in other ways than giving lectures. They realize the publicity generated by speaking at a huge national show allows them to sell more books and other products, services, or to book more paid lectures at other events.
7. England has an excellent public transportation network. Millions of people live within easy train and subway commuting distance of the convention location. Driving into London is inconvenient and expensive. Parking an automobile near the convention center is especially expensive. Most people take the (low cost) trains and subways.
8. Advance publicity was excellent. Of course, being affiliated with one of the more popular television programs in the country didn't hurt the publicity efforts!
9. Multiple television personalities were in attendance, especially on Saturday and Sunday. Let's face it, personalities generate interest and interest generates attendees. For instance, I had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Nick Barratt for some time. Nick is not well known in North America but is famous amongst U.K. genealogists after being a television host on Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC) and Hidden House Histories (History Channel). He is a historian and a genealogist and has hosted several other British television programs devoted to genealogy topics.
For those who are not familiar with Nick's many accomplishments, look at his web site at http://www.nickbarratt.co.uk/ and also look at some of my past articles that mention him by starting at http://goo.gl/r23yk. You can even see his latest television show on the Internet with details available at http://goo.gl/t5Rej. You also can see his speaking schedule at http://www.nickbarratt.co.uk/speaking.html.
I can report that Nick is as polite and gracious in person as he is on television. I also met his wife and four young children, including their set of twins. I believe all four children are pre-schoolers. This is one busy family!
All in all, this year's Who Do You Think You Are? Live! was a major success. Thousands of attendees, including many from overseas locations, all seemed to have a great time. I bet most of them learned a lot as well. I know that I did.
I would to share some more photos that I took at this year's Who Do You Think You Are? Live!
A new section this year focused on the working lives of our ancestors.