Genealogy 101: Attending a Genealogy Conference

Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega gives tips for making the most out of your next genealogy conference. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.

One of the most exciting times I had as a genealogy newbie was when I went to my first genealogy conference. I remember being so excited to meet my genealogy “heroes” and to hear presentations by experts in the field. Are you ready to go to a conference? If so, there are some things to consider before you register.

Photo: RootsTech genealogy conference
Photo: RootsTech genealogy conference. Credit: mormonnewsroom.org.

What Conference Is Right for You?

What conference will you attend? With options ranging from going in-person to virtual attendance, there is a conference for everyone. To start your selection, search for what conferences are available for the place and time of year you are available. You can see a schedule of conferences on the website ConferenceKeeper.

Some considerations in making the decision to go to a conference include: price, place, and learning opportunities. You also need to consider your own needs, including comfort and family obligations.

Conference registrations range in price from a little over $50 to $200 or more. Other conference costs can include banquets, special events, and tours. Add to that accommodations, food, and travel. And of course, don’t forget that conferences have Exhibit Halls and vendors have products, services, and subscriptions for sale. The benefit of purchasing items at a conference is there can be deep discounts on items you may have been planning to purchase anyway, like DNA kits or subscription websites. It’s not unusual to budget $1000 or more to attend a larger conference.

Which One Will You Attend?

By exploring the Conference Keeper website, you can see that there are various kinds of conferences happening throughout the year. From small events put on by a local genealogy society to the mega event known as RootsTech in Salt Lake City, Utah (Feb. 28-March 3), each conference offering is different. I highly recommend that you consider what you personally want to get from the conference experience, and then make the decision as to which you’ll attend. Some considerations may include:

  • Location of conference
  • Finances
  • Proximity to research repositories
  • Topics covered
  • Conference dates

While it may be a dream to attend a larger national conference, consider starting with attending smaller local events hosted by a Family History Center or genealogy society. These one-day or half-day seminars are a good way to get a feel for a genealogy event and your preferences. Virtual conferences might also be easier if family obligations make travel difficult.

What to Expect

Attending a multi-day event is just like going to a cafeteria. There are numerous options and while there are many you want to sample, you can’t experience everything (and that’s ok). Larger regional, state and national conferences have some of the same offerings, including:

  • Educational 1-hour presentations
  • 5- to 2-hour workshops
  • Luncheons/Banquets
  • Exhibit Hall
  • Field trips to repositories, cemeteries, or sight-seeing

In addition, they may also have:

  • Access to computers with subscription websites, printing, and/or software
  • Scanning
  • 1:1 genealogy help
  • Exhibit Hall mini-presentations
  • Informal meetings and networking opportunities

Once you’ve registered for the conference you’ll attend, start deciding what events/activities you’re interested in – but remember that flexibility is the key. You may choose ahead of time to skip some of the events that require additional payment, but remember that other activities you plan on enjoying may not come to fruition. Depending on the amount of walking required, availability of food, temperature, and travel, the best plans can sometimes be thrown out the door. Add to that, presentation rooms that reach their occupancy limit or presenter no-shows, or other emergencies, and your conference experience may not go exactly as planned. So, consider having a plan A and B for how you’ll spend your time at the conference.

What to Bring

Individual preferences for what to bring to a conference are as diverse as the genealogists themselves. What is a must-have for one person is not even on the list for another. Aside from the essentials you’ll need for an overnight or multi-night stay, consider taking the following:

  • Something to take notes with. What’s your preference? Pen and paper? Mobile device or laptop? If you’re planning on using a laptop or mobile device be aware that it may be impossible to sit near an electrical outlet unless you get to your sessions very early.
  • Portable Cell Phone Power Bank. Perfect for those times your battery is low and you can’t plug in your device.
  • Address labels with email and phone number. This can be a great time-saver. One of the wonderful things about conferences is the ability to register for prize giveaways or discounted services. Give your pen a rest and print up some address labels before you leave home. Include your email and phone number so that you can be contacted while at the conference.
  • Business cards. Whether you have a business or not, business cards are a plus. Provide your name and contact information as well as surnames or places you’re researching. Hand them out to new cousins or others you want to talk to or share information with.
  • Your Family Tree, Pedigree Chart or Family Group Sheet. It doesn’t matter if you bring paper copies or have an app that you can quickly check, your family history will be something you want to refer to when talking with potential cousins or asking for help from subscription website vendors in the Exhibit Hall.
  • Snacks and Water. I know this suggestion might make you laugh, but depending on which conference you go to and its size, getting a drink of water or a quick snack may be challenging at best. Do yourself a favor and bring a bottle of water and a granola bar or two with you so that you aren’t subjected to longer than usual lines at meal time, or the absence of drinking fountains or vending machines.

Start Planning NOW!

Conferences often announce dates a year to two in advance, so start planning now for your conference adventure.

10 thoughts on “Genealogy 101: Attending a Genealogy Conference

  1. Also bring a sweater! Many conferences plan for large attendance and so the temperature is turned down. The coordinators usually can’t accommodate everyone’s temperature needs. If you tend to be a “hot” person, dress in layers.
    Also thank the coordinators or planning committee. It takes a lot of work to put on a conference, and usually they are not getting paid. Try to tell them what you enjoyed about the conference, and try not to complain about factors they cannot do anything about.
    Thanks for a good article. I’ve planned 3 state conferences with a fourth coming up.

    1. Fabulous advice Beth! I will tell you that recently I was in Salt Lake where the temperature is much colder than where I live in Southern California. I found going from the cold outdoors cold to the very heated indoors was difficult. So layers is key.

      And you are right about conference committees, volunteers, and organizers. They typically are not paid and it’s a busy job trying to arrange everything and keep everyone happy. So kindness and gratitude is helpful.

      Thanks for taking the time to read the article and comment. –Gena

    2. That advice on thanking the staff is very good. I have worked on putting on several conferences, and the thanks are appreciated. Sometimes things are done certain ways because they have to be, and nearly all the volunteers I have worked with want a conference to be the best possible experience. Remember, those volunteers are just that and can only do their best. Sometimes a place gets an unexpected heat or cold wave, or heavy rains etc. Especially at smaller venues used by a local society they often are glad to get a free meeting place and can only use what they have been given.

      1. You are so right, Larry. Volunteers provide such an important service to the genealogy community. We need to keep that in mind as we participate in events.

  2. According to what your personal interests are, a smaller conference in the area where your family lived may be more fruitful. In the local arena you may be able to connect to descendants who still live in that area. Also, the surname may be well known with others already contributing to the local genealogy pool.

    1. Absolutely! It might be worthwhile to look for such seminars or workshops that allow you to learn and research in nearby libraries and archives. Don’t forget to also seek out any history tours that might be available through a museum or a society.

      Thanks for your suggestion Gwineth.

  3. You also might want to bring a clip board and notebook so that when you are taking notes you don’t have to worry about trying to find something to write on besides your lap. Especially if the event is in a conference room where there are no tables. And I agree with a jacket or sweater; never know what the room temperature is going to be like. And thank you for such a great article. And one more thing: bring address labels so that you can sign up for the prizes, or for filling out forms for more information on certain items at the conferences. This way you can get in and out without clogging up traffic.

    1. Diane, all wonderful suggestions. I know I tend to forget the importance of something to write on and a clip board takes care of that. Most conferences don’t provide a writing surface, making writing difficult. Thanks for providing those tips!–Gena

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