12 January 2014

Prepare Before Attending a Genealogy Conference

It's time again to resurrect my blog post about being prepared to attend conferences... RootsTech is almost here!

It’s that time of year – genealogy conferences are springing up all over. I remember the very first time I attended a conference and felt like I was the only person in the world who did not know what was going on! I had not done a very good job of preparing myself for the experience. What I have learned over time is that there are some simple steps you can take to make your experience a great one.  It doesn’t matter whether this is your first conference or 20th conference, whether it’s a big conference or a little one, whether it’s about genealogy or any other subject, planning ahead will make a difference in how much value you get and how enjoyable the experience is for you.

First, decide what conference is best suited to your particular needs and skill levels.

There are many different genealogy conferences throughout the year that you can choose to attend, but pick according to you current skills level and interests.  In other words, don’t pick a conference or a track that teaches how to become an accredited genealogist before you have learned how to get started.  Most all conferences have classes that are fairly generic, others geared towards beginners, intermediates or advanced genealogists and family historians. There are very small local half day workshops all the way to week-long national conferences and each of them can be a wise choice.

Review flyers or other media prepared for a conference. Look online for reviews of prior year’s workshops. Check out the presenters and audit reviews from other presentations they have given.  Some presenters are easier to learn from than others and, as your experience grows you will identify with certain ones and find yourself a follower of their classes.
Finally, pick your conference and register as early as possible and when you arrive, check in at registration as early as possible to minimize your time in line.

Select which sessions or classes you want to attend.

Once you are registered for your conference of choice, download the schedule and review the workshop requirements. Many classes are geared to all level of skills and a few will require a prerequisite level of knowledge.  A few will require a separate registration for the class because it has room only for a limited number of people.  Try to stick to classes that fit your level of comfort and skill.

Make notes on the schedule and on the presenters. Determine which classes you most want to attend but, always choose a backup or two for any given time slot. Sometimes classes fill up quickly and there is no room left for you, requiring you to find another class to slip into. Or, maybe you attend a class for the first 3 minutes and determine that this just isn’t the class for you. With a backup class you can quickly slip into the room.

Don’t overlook a subject just because it’s something you know nothing about or it covers a locale that you have no interest in – you will learn new methodologies and tips in every class you attend.

Larger conferences now provide registered attendees access to syllabus material weeks before the conference begins. Take the time to review the presenter’s handouts. You can usually read through them and determine whether you will be overwhelmed with the class or find it too boring. Unless you are paying extra for a paper syllabus, plan on printing out the syllabus pages for the classes you plan to attend, or load them on your digital tablet or phone. You can then make notes during class using these handouts. Some times you will have a CD copy of the syllabus provided to you at registration.

Prepare yourself before attending the conference.

Get yourself ready to go starting with planning your trip. If this is a local conference, determine what you need to take with you each day and how you are going to get there. Are you driving? If so, you need to plan your parking in advance. On-site parking may be much more expensive than a smaller lot a block away. Taking public transportation may be less of a hassle than parking. Plan your strategy. Review the time of day you would need to be on the roads, the part of town where the conference is held and be prepared for the unexpected.

If you are flying to the conference then create a travel list of things to pack. Plan and prepare your flight plan, transportation to and from the airport, and don’t forget your list of meds, insurance cards, cell phones and any other items you may need. Don’t forget that extra carry on bag to get your conference materials home. If you have gathered too many, check with the hotel and have your extra’s shipped home. It may be cheaper than paying for that extra baggage on the plane.

Plan your attire. Workshops are not a formal affair so dress accordingly. Usually these conferences are quite casual and require very comfy clothing and good walking shoes. You will cover a lot of ground during each day. The last thing you want to do is end the day with blisters on both feet and still need to walk to your car or your room. Conference center rooms are often drafty or way too warm. Don’t dress for the outside, dress for a variety of temps inside. Bring a jacket or sweater and dress in layers.  If you have a problem with sweaty feet, bring an extra pair of socks to change midday. You want to be very comfortable.

Take a bag with you. If you don’t like to carry things or you get a headache from carrying a bag then get one on rollers.  The more things you pick up during the day the heavier that bag becomes.  (Larger conferences give you a carry bag at registration with a conference program, papers, and miscellaneous “stuff”.  I stuff the whole thing in my roller bag. Besides, roller bags make a great footrest!) Here is a list of items that you may find beneficial to carry with you. 
  • ·      Address labels or business cards. You can label items you pick up (even your conference booklet) or purchase and, exchange info with other attendees and vendors.  You will make friends throughout the conference that you meet in classes or over lunch that you want to contact with later.
  • ·       Pens, pencils, highlighters, paper, a clipboard or folder.
  • ·      Take a digital camera. You can take pictures of some presentation pages if allowed by the presenter. You might want to remember something specific about a vendor. Or, you might want to take pictures of friends or presenters you meet.
  • ·      You may be one of those people who love to take notes on your PC or you want your genealogy files with you. You can take your PC, handheld, or smartphone, but don’t expect to plug it in to an electrical socket from every room. It may not be available. Consider others when you bring these tools. Turn off the sound and beeps.
  • ·      Take snacks and a water bottle with you in your bag. There are food vendors at most large conferences but nothing may be available at others.  If you are in classes for several hours before a lunch break you will appreciate a snack and you may not be able to find a drinking fountain between each class.
  •         Take tissues and any meds you may need throughout the day.
  •         Remember, you can even roll up the jacket or sweater and stuff it in your bag when you don’t need it.

The workshops finally begin!

Be prompt. Don’t show up one minute before or ten minutes after a class starts and expect to get the best seat in the room. Don’t come in late and walk in front of a projector or stumble over everyone’s feet trying to get to the center of a room. Be early for the class whenever possible. Classes will start on time because they are on a tight schedule.

Take notes. Use your paper syllabus, your printed handouts, or a notepad. At the end of a class or while you are waiting for the next class to begin, summarize your key points and reread them.

Make the most of lectures and workshops. If you take the time before hand to prepare any questions you may have you will get better answers from those questions you ask. There is no such thing as a dumb question, so don’t be afraid to ask. However, classes need to be geared to generalizations, not your specific ancestor. So don’t waste other attendees time by asking the presenter a question geared to a specific circumstance or person. Most presenters will give an email address, or are available in the vendor area to ask specific questions later.

Make connections everywhere you go. Network, talk to people, introduce yourself. Establish research interests.  Exchange those address stickers or business cards.

Prepare for the VENDOR experience! Find the vendor map in your conference packet or locate it online before you go. Then plan your attack! Mark on your map the vendors you are most interesting in visiting. Make those your first priority. That way you can spend quality time with those vendors and visit the others as time permits.

Maintain a conference log. List friends, contacts, vendors, speakers to suggest to a group you belong to, and important points from lectures. Chart your progress and new skills you have acquired.  Make notes for your future research.  At the end of conference make sure your notes are understandable.

Participate in special events whenever you can. These provide extra opportunities to ask questions, network, and learn more.

The conference is over!
  If you can spend an extra day before or after a conference make sure to familiarize yourself with local research facilities, local points of interest and good places to eat. Enjoy the opportunity of visiting a new area of the country.

When you get home remember to review your notes, file important materials away and contact those new genealogy friends! Take a rest and then you’ll be ready to start planning your next conference!  



  1. Nice advice - except, I wouldn't promote the concept of snapping pics of the presentation slides. I know you have cautioned that they only do this with permission, but many would read that and forget the permission part. I remember NGS a year ago - sitting behind a woman who was lifting her iPad to snap a pic of EVERY slide during a presentation. It's just not a nice thing to do. It's why the speakers work very hard to give out nice syllabus material. As a speaker, I sign a contract allowing audio recording, or in RootsTech's case, allowing them to record and tape my session....in other words, there is a system in place to protect the interests of the speakers, while organizing respectful sharing via conference admins. And while one snap of a pic from the audience wouldn't be horrible, just imagine everyone snapping a pic or two. I would prefer we discourage that practice!

  2. Thanks for you thoughts, Cheri. You are correct that no one should take pictures on a regular basis. Personally, there are times when I have been taking notes and a presenter is moving too fast. I will quickly snap a picture (no sound and no flash), update my notes and delete the image. We always need to follow rules and be cognizant of copyright laws.