Tuesday, July 3, 2012

How Do Y'all Manage to go to Conferences All the Time?!

Sunday was the early bird deadline for the Federation of Genealogical Society (FGS) annual genealogy conference which is being held at the end of August this year in Birmingham, Alabama.  That was my drop deadline for deciding whether to go or not.

This time I was really inclined to take the leap and head to my first national conference. But as usual I wavered.  Finally with the deadline looming I had to gather all the information I needed to make an informed decision.

I guess I have been living with rose-tinted glasses when it comes to conferences. After pricing out the conference, the cost to me would be $1,000 minimum just for registration, airfare and hotel. After that I would need to budget for food and incidentals (yes, shopping!). I was easily looking at $1,500 for the trip.

I admit I was caught off guard by the total cost.  Perhaps I shouldn't have been.  I reeled from sticker shock!  I considered all the other things I could do with that money and all the other ways I could spend four days of my time.

I posed this question to my Facebook friends:

How Do You all Manage to go to Conferences All the Time?!

There was quite a lively discussion on facebook with over 65 comments. Several people asked me to take the question to my blog and address it with a wider audience.

So I pose it to you here.  How do you feel about the cost of national conferences? Is it worth your time and money?

I would love to attend but I question the return on investment.

Here are some loose anonymous paraphrases of comments shared:
  • Several of the commenters mentioned about using speaking at the conference as a way to cut down on costs.  (of course, this has to be planned well in advance when the call for proposals come out.)
  • Others countered that the cost of creating a lecture is never really realized, regardless of the venue never mind throwing in travel costs.
  • Some people felt the networking was the driving force.
  • Others said just accept that your going as fun or vacation and don't try to justify it.
  • Others talked about getting roommates and volunteering as a way to cut down costs.
  • A few people felt that genealogy institutes were a better investment.
  • Some felt that the cost wasn't worth it and it was better to focus on local or regional conferences.
Let me know how you feel about the cost of conferences.  Is the benefit of attending greater than the cost?  And for professionals, what business justifications do you take into account?

Let's hear what you have to say!


  1. If it were held in a place that I really wanted to see, then I'd turn it into a vacation, but as was said on Facebook, FGS is bound to come back to New England and at the least, airfare and travel time would be reduced. So far I've been perfectly happy with NERGC which is every two years.

  2. I was only able to go to NGS 2011 because it was in my hometown of Charleston, SC and I didn't have to worry about hotels, most food and local transportation. I'd love to go to another one for the networking aspect as well as topics but until I win the lottery I'll be going when it's closer to my current home. So Richmond NGS 2014 here I come!!

  3. I will never get to a national conference, and I am okay with that. I attend conferences that are local and I can drive to in a reasonable amount of time. So I would ask the same question! Unless genealogy is your business and you can use it as a business expense, I don't know how the average researcher can afford to go. I enjoyed watching the broadcasts from RootTech and SCGS this year. I catch the free webinars whenever I can. But I prefer to invest my $$ in doing the actual research.

    1. I would like to add, I have been attending a local conference in western Pennsylvania for the past several years. It is one day, a 30 minute drive from my home, one nationally recognized speaker who presents 4 sessions, $20 for the day if you are a member of one of the sponsoring societies ($30 if not), and that price includes a hot lunch! It is a fantastic bargain! I get to lunch and network with local researchers on local brickwalls. It is certainly not a moneymaking venture, but rather a learning experience for everyone who attends.

  4. Marian,

    I have been following your discussion on Facebook. Really interesting comments and things to think about.

    I am not a professional, as you know, and don't play one on TV. But I have attended a couple conferences and will continue to do so. I have my 2013 list already. It WILL be revised as I go.

    For me, it's the "networking" that has become important to me. Meeting people who Blog (mostly), Speakers on Webinars, and the chance to visit the Vendors at these conferences. The "classes" almost have become secondary, but they are important. So, the Speaker list is important to me. Who haven't I heard before, Who HAVE I heard or seen in a Webinar, Who do I want to hear in person, and have a chance to chat with the person or ask questions of, in person.

    So far, I have only flown to one conference, but that was to Utah, where my grandkids live. One of my 2013 conferences will have air fare, but there are folks there, who I want to meet in person (a cousin). Its still on my list, but that airfare 'thing' is large.

    I will drive to a conference. Have done so from Massachusetts to Maryland.

    The other issue is, What is going to be streamed to the virtual audience. In two cases, virtually attending a conference, has put "that" conference on my list. Watching the awesome presentations virtually, just didn't make it. Two of my 2013 conferences are there because of what is streamed.

    It's really down to the networking with some great folk that has gotten me to a real conference. Oh, I am not a real people person. But the ability to chat with, and listen too other family historians, sharing ideas over a cup of coffee (or tea), is a drawing point for me.

    The Geneablogging community is the drawing point for me.


  5. If I were a professional genealogist and making money at it I could justify going to national conferences. But I'm not, so I haven't been to many. The only way I've attended conferences besides NERGC was rather sneaky. For Jamboree I won the conference fee, and used frequent flyer and Marriott points to attend. I went to FGS about 12 years ago when it was in Boston and my daughter was an intern for NEHGS so I got in the backdoor. I'm saving up frequent flyers and Marriott points again to go to RootsTech 2013, but that is because it is a long awaited vacation to see Salt Lake City with RootsTech thrown in as the icing on the cake. So, you can see there are some rather sneaky ways to do this.

  6. Great discussion, Marian. Living in the Pacific Northwest, it is always outrageously expensive to attend either of the two big national conferences, as they're almost always held in the eastern half of the country. I have attended both an NGS and an FGS conference. I attended NGS in Kansas City by tacking it onto a long-planned research trip to MO-ARK-OK, using a free flight on Southwest, and staying with a relative. I spent $1500+ to attend FGS in Little Rock and was sorely disappointed. As a new genealogy society president, I thought I'd learn a lot at the "society day" before the regular sessions, but got zilch. I understand that since then, FGS has beefed up society day. But since they continue to schedule their meetings close to the Labor Day weekend, flight costs are outrageous. From what I've heard from friends who've attended various institutes, they seem to be a much better investment if your goal is getting educated about specific genealogy research topics.

  7. As a retiree on very limited income, I have had to make the decision that conferences need to be close enough that I can carpool and stay at someone's house. The cost is prohibitive - yet I know that putting on a conference is quite expensive, and breaking even is an iffy proposition for some. In the meantime, our local conferences and various workshops throughout the year keep my buckets filled. And virtual streaming workshops help as well. Bluntly - while I'd love to meet all the wonderful genealogy community on G+ and other places, in person, I'm quite resigned to the online relationships. Perhaps because I'm actually an introvert (I can fake some extrovert behaviour if need be) - and prefer to watch people and listen to them. I can do those people-watching activities very easily/comfortably online.
    I do like Heather's sneaky ways to get to conferences, however. And of course, I'm sure your US tax rules help figure out what is/isn't acceptable business expenses, giving you another way to reduce total cost at the end of the year. Fascinating topic, Marian.

  8. The bottom line is that, as a college student, I would never be able to afford going to a big conference unless it was in my backyard (like Jamboree is - no flight for me!) or working a booth in some aspect.

    Working for WikiTree has opened up some doors for me in the world of conferences. I'm able to get the majority of expenses paid for and in return, I'm able to go to the conference, network with my friends and colleagues (which, in my opinion, is where the REAL value of conferences lies), and attend classes. I get to talk to the vendors, learn something new, and explore a new city.

    Going to RootsTech earlier this year was an awesome experience for me, even though I didn't get to go to many of the classes because our booth was so busy. It was my very first "big girl trip" where I planned and paid for the whole thing. I loved going to the family history library for the first time, meeting new people, and enjoying the city as a whole.

    To me, you have to take a lot of things into consideration when going to a conference: Is the location near a repository that you want to visit? Are there ways you can reduce expenses by speaking or working a booth? What about getting a roommate (which, I've found to be a wonderful experience - a person to share the excitement with, bounce ideas off of, etc), or splitting a taxi? Or flying a cheaper airline (I'm in love with JetBlue)?

    The biggest decision factor for me (before I even consider money) is whether the conference will have the right "vibe" for me. I ask around A LOT beforehand and really look at past schedules to see if the classes even match what I'm looking for. If I don't feel like the classes interest me, like the vibe is open to technology, or like I'll be respected as a young non-LDS in the community, then I'll choose not to go. The price, no matter how small, isn't worth it for me.

  9. Can I also just say that most of the time, I learn the most through eating a meal with people at the conference? A couple years ago, I had breakfast with Steve Morse at Jamboree and since then, I've been determined to get a DNA test done. Or at RootsTech, I had an amazing dinner and conversation with a bunch of geneablogging ladies and Russ. These sorts of casual conversations over a meal or a drink is where I truly learn and grow.

    Could this be done virtually? Of course, but it sure isn't the same. There is something AMAZING and so rewarding to sit with people in person - the same people I consider to be family and friends and colleagues, and just talk. You can't do it all virtual - no matter how hard you try.

  10. It helps if you marry a genealogist!  :)

    Seriously though, Marian, I am glad you brought this topic out in the open. Perhaps NGS and FGS will listen.

    For years I didn't attend conferences or institutes because I was teaching, and found the administration sorta expects you to show up for class. It was a higher priority to spend time with family when I did get time off.

    Here are more of my thoughts on the subject:

    Conferences, Institutes and the bottom line

  11. Once again, dear Marian, you have launched a thought-provoking subject. The bottom line is that as retirees, most conferences are out of range for me. Those dollars that can be spent in airfare, food, lodging, etc. can be better spent in the wonderful area I live in - just down the road from the Ohio Genealogical Society. Their conferences are wonderful, and I frequently speak at the annual one.

    I'm covetous of those that are able to attend, but at this point in my life, I have to pick and choose.

  12. I'm cheating and copying & pasting from my Facebook comment to your Facebook comment (and I edited it):

    Marian, the best thing anyone can do is to analyze the Return On Investment. If you decide to go despite the ROI being unfavorable, then don't say you're going for business reasons. [Sure, there's a chance something might develop from the networking, but if you're trying to run your business lean & mean, then this kind of expenditure is great.] Depending on the physical size of the exhibit hall, it can be very difficult to talk to vendors, if indeed that's part of your business. Genealogy vendors seem to be concentrating on end users of their services at conferences which is their prerogative. They are in "selling mode" (as well they should be). They aren't in "let's talk marketing" mode unless they already know you and/or have already planned to talk to you. Conferences are not a good place to "cold call" in my opinion, and paying $1000+ (just my hotel bill for SCGS was a wee over $700) to just meet with a vendor is not how I plan to make my business succeed.

    Also, I've found the presentations lacking in current technology principles and most of the time very basic even at RootsTech (non-developer classes). I will not be attending RootsTech for business reasons. They don't pay for lectures/presentations. At very best, they'll pay for registration and the hotel. My plane ticket would cost about $450-500. A very favorable vendor meeting(s) would have to occur to justify that.

    Or I could take what I was going to offer to present at the conferences and create tutorials/webinars online. As well as do local presentations that help to advertise my services (some of which are online).

    As far as vendors are concerned, I'm better off cold calling through email and social networking. But that's just me.

    And that's the key. You have to do what's best for you and your business.

    [And then I wrote:]

    And this is why I'm not going [to FGS] and instead concentrating on my business. It's also why I'm adding a freemium based subscription and pay-per-view video genealogy/tech tutorial & webinar service to my offerings.


  13. I am with you, Marian. I don't understand how some people are able to attend every single conference (or so it seems). I guess everyone has a different financial situation, but I also find the cost to be quite steep. The only national conference I have been to is the FGS when it was in Knoxville, which was about a 6 hour drive from my home in Raleigh. Even without a plane ticket, it was probably close to $700-800. The hotels for the conferences are usually pretty costly. I looked into staying further away from the conference at a cheaper hotel and driving to the conference everyday, but then I was worried about missing out on the social networking in the evenings and worrying about finding a parking spot in downtown Knoxville. I have wanted to attend another another national conference ever since, but I have other financial obligations right now, and I just started a new job. It's now always about the money either. For me, sometimes it's about the time off.

  14. From reading Randy Seaver's comments on Geneamusings (http://www.geneamusings.com/2012/07/i-dont-go-to-conferences-all-time.html ) it sounds to me like reducing cost can be more manageable *if* planning is done in advance. Plan/try to be a speaker by submitting proposals. Then let people know you are attending and arrange to be an official blogger or other to get reduced/no registration cost. That would make the conference more manageable. Obviously making a decision right before the early bird deadline is too late in the game to be effective.

    Something to think about. Perhaps I should plan ahead for a future conference.

  15. I attended my first national conferences (both FGS and NGS) when I was just a beginning research, about 24 years ago. I was amazed to see so many people in one place who shared a love of what I do and enjoy. To be able to attend lectures and study sessions, visit with the speakers, and make new friends was thrilling. My list of things to do in my research just kept growing with all the new things I was learning.

    I went home with renewed excitement and enthusiasm that has never worn off. I don't get to go to every conference, but try to make one about every third year. Additionally, I attend as many "local" genealogy conferences, seminars, and workshops as I possibly can. This is where my friends will be found. We can then keep in touch via email and even Facebook, but the personal contact is what really counts. Seeing friends made at previous conferences and continuing the networking is great and I still learn more about my passion in the lectures and workshops.

    I love seeing other parts of the country, and usually have research to do in that area, so the added bonus of visiting libraries and archives in the area is a draw for me. Sometimes, I have friends or family in the area and that is another plus.

    I have always driven so I have fewer expenses than flying and renting a car, and I am not limited in my baggage. Combining the conference with vacation makes a lot of sense if you are planning a separate trip anyway.

    For value received, that will depend entirely on your attitude when you go to the conference. If you start out worrying about cost, you will never get the value of the experience. If you start out looking for the experience, education and fun, you will probably get many times your moneys worth.

    Just my thoughts as a non-professional genealogist.

  16. To date I have only attended conferences which are close enough to drive. This is in part due to the financial cost; it is also because I put a high priority on being home with my family at night. I am fortunate that there is a two day bi-annual conference in my city that usually has a couple of the national speakers. This May I attended my first NGS conference as it was only a couple of hours away. My supportive husband agreed to go to Cincinnati as well where we camped. He relaxed during the day, while I went to the conference. I did not pay for any of the lunches, taking my own food instead. Registration was $175 (early bird, member rate.); camping was $200. I did buy 3 books but I also saved money by renewing memberships at discounted conference rates. I greatly enjoyed myself. Some of the lectures I attended were inspirational; others taught me about record groups I seldom use. The vendor fair gave me a chance to learn about organizations and browse through books I might want to purchase. Was it a good use of my money? In my mind I categorized it as a vacation; the cost per day is not excessive compared to spending a week at Disney or Gettysburg. Was it a good use of my time? I found it relaxing, energizing, and I learned some to boot. Do I think I will go again? Absolutely. Would I go every year. No way. Do I hope more groups try webcasting some of their sessions like RootsTech? Certainly.

  17. Love this conversation. I have a budget line for professional development 5% of annual budget is allotted for conferences and training. I'm picky on what I choose and where I go, but manage to attend 1 national, at least 1 local and 1 state conference every year. I don't typically speak at these conferences because it's for my professional development and I think the pay is often ridiculous. I'm doing an upcoming speaking engagement, because hotel and plane was paid in full plus the speaker fee for 2 classes. Plus it's in SLC so it made the stipend worth it. I take the opportunity to meet social networking friends, but learning is my true goal. I learn at each conference, but noticed lately the speakers and presentations are often quite repetitive and stale. I don't typically add research to my conference Professional Development trips.

  18. Even being only a 3 hour drive from Birmingham and having tried to save up months in advance, I won't be able to make it to FGS. I ended up cracking open my piggy bank for other necessary expenses (darn you economy!). Going to a conference costs more than my usual vacations and just costs so much when you factor in travel, hotel, food and registration. I just don't make enough money after paying my regular bills. I'm really grateful for Family History Expos, which have been in my backyard the last two years.

  19. I've only attended one national level conference, and that was because it was held in my hometown of Kansas City. I was able to save on hotel rooms, meals, and airfare, and spend those savings with the vendors. I would probably consider attending another national conference in either St. Louis or Houston, but only because I have either family or friends in both cities that I could stay with and who would feed me. With the proliferation of free webinars and podcasts, there is, in my opinion, little to no value in attending a national conference. It's typically the same speakers who appear to be recycling presentations, and while I do recognize the value of "networking," I feel very connected to my online universe of fellow genealogists through Twitter, Facebook, and on-line forums such as blogs. Unless there is a national conference in KC, Houston, or St. Louis, I probably won't be attending.

  20. Marian, great topic. I budget for one genealogy conference or institute per year. I attended NGS in South Carolina year before last and will probably not attend it again. Large, lecture-style conferences are not my preferred way of learning. It was interesting to do once, but I don't need to do it again; as Russ said above, hanging out with specific people in the vendor hall was far more valuable, but I'm not willing to pay the costs associated for that. This year, I attended IGHR in Alabama. MUCH more worth the cost. For five days, I was imbedded in a topic with experts. Somewhere in my near future is one of those guided trips to SLC. In summary, identify what your desired outcome is for attending, what your preferred learning style is, and select one event per year to attend. (Or more if you've got the $$.) I hope to get to the New England conference at some point. Oh, and I want to echo what someone else said: look locally-- smaller, cheaper and more local might very well generate more value than a big national conference. IMHO. -- Jillaine

  21. Great topic, Marian. I think it's important to both identify your desired outcomes for attending an event, and know your preferred learning style. Because I felt I had to experience it at least once, I attended NGS year before last. I'm glad I experienced it once, but gigantic, lecture-style conferences are not my cup of tea, and I'll not likely return. Like Russ, I found the most valuable engagement in the vendor hall, but I'm not willing to spend $1500 (full cost) to hang out in a vendor hall. My desired outcome is to build my skills; my learning style requires immediate applicability. This last year (I budget one event a year), I attended IGHR which was MUCH more to my liking-- five days with leading experts diving deeply into a topic. Somewhere in my not-too-distant future is that consultant-guided trip to SLC. And I'll likely try out GRIP. I also resonate with those who recommend smaller, local events. There are many good local historical and genealogy societies that offer good programming.