Psssst….RootsTech is back, Y’all…in a BIG way – so spread the word! Not that it was ever really gone – but the bad reports from last year had me worried. Despite my inclination to be a wordy blogger – I must admit I am almost speechless where RootsTech 2019 is concerned. This year’s conference surpassed my grandest expectations – and I can safely declare that this was (by far) the best one I’ve experienced yet.
To be clear, there was never a point when I could not get into a class, nor felt overwhelmed by crowds, nor had to stand in line for anything – except at the concession stand for lunch one day – which is to be expected, and even that was only about 10 minutes. The attendance totals have been in for about a week, and the general conference numbers hit over the 15,000 mark (with over 23K for Family Day) – signaling a rousing success, as usual.
For those of you who did not get to attend this year, here are a few changes that I think made a significant impact:
- Conference badges by mail: This meant many of us walked into the Salt Palace ready to hit sessions, instead of standing in line to pick up packets. Lanyards, badge cases, and conference bags were in multiple places throughout the Palace, making pick-up a breeze.
- Spreading out – By placing check-in over on the far side of the Salt Palace, along with a few of the sessions, there was more breathing room. Heading over in that area brought back memories from the early years when RootsTech was only on the north side of the Palace. Look how far it has grown!
- No badge scanning, except for lunches and labs. No session lines, and no one chased you out if your next session was in the same room.
- Opening sessions at 11am – Some folks grumbled about this, but not me – I loved this change! This allowed folks to wonder over there to find a seat in their own good time – instead of everyone running over to find a seat first thing in the morning. I am not a morning person, and getting to the 8am sessions is hard enough – but with a half hour to get over there after the earlier morning sessions, I didn’t feel rushed. Besides, once the lights go dark and you’re enjoying the festivities, you have no idea what time it is. Plus, after the program is over, folks are in a festive mood, and enjoy talking with each other – they can go to lunch, hit the exhibit hall, engage with fellow attendees, or plan for the afternoon sessions – instead of rushing off to the next session. This change also means the livestream opening sessions were hitting the central/eastern time zones around lunch time – making contiguous enjoyment (and social media engagement) more possible.
- Easy to identify, helpful staff – perfect number ratio of helpers to attendees. If I needed help, they were always just a few steps away – and very attentive.
- Great signage! Vertical and horizontal signage everywhere – even under your feet!
One of RootsTech’s greatest strengths has been the electric atmosphere of inspiration that builds each year and leaves you with the impression that you serve a great purpose – and that with the right knowledge, skills, and tools, you can achieve your genealogy goals. Obviously, the inspirational opening sessions always provide highlights, and become some of the best memories of the conference. And the sessions are amazing! But here are a few others:
The Find Relatives at RootsTech Game – If you had ever entered even a small amount of generational information in the Family Search Family Tree, you were connected to the cousin three ring circus. But what a hoot it was! As the conference grew, there were over 9,000 people participating, and I matched as a cousin to over 2,500 of them – including David Rencher and Crista Cowan! One of the funniest moments was when I connected to a local Kentucky genealogist whom I’ve known for years, and live within 10 miles of, and who comes to RootsTech every year – Here we are – our cousin selfie! :
The SLVGS Board trying to wrangle new members at the Unconferencing Table – It was so much fun to work with these dedicated folks whom I’ve only met previously as virtual avatars. We connected with several potential new members at the Unconferencing area.:
Giving My Presentation on Consumable Genealogy – Such a great engaged crowd – they seemed to really have fun with the examples of packaging genealogy bites into consumable portions for print or social media. My largest crowd ever, at about 400 – and the tech staff/room monitors were wonderful. This was my second time speaking at RootsTech, and it was a fantastic experience, as usual!:
The Discovery Zone Heritage Toys (Also in the library) – These toys were also active if you participate in the Family Search Family Tree – I felt like a kid again with all of these cool discovery tools. Sometimes, it’s very revealing to step back and look at your family data to see the worldwide connections. My only gripe, was that I spent a couple of hours playing in the library Discovery Center with the same toys, and my fun elements produced that day were never emailed to me – huge bummer! I was only sent the location images.:
The DNA Learning Center – Introductory DNA sessions to help with this topic: Always crowded, with loads of mini-sessions, various speakers, with helpful videos and knowledgeable staff.
The RootsTech Store: I LOVE swag! And even when it’s not free swag – I am very willing to purchase more! It was a nice open store, easy to shop with so many cool options! My suggestion for next year – Please produce a sweatshirt or hoodie! It’s cold in SLC in late February! I would have snapped that up! Hey, RootsTech officials – you might want to create an online store of RootsTech swag – I’d seriously send my family members there to fill up my Christmas wish list!
The Demo Theater: Smaller than previous years, and hidden towards the back – but always crowded. I always learn a lot in this space while I’m taking a breather in a very comfortable environment. They also have door prizes, BTW.
The Ancestry Photo Booth – and their wonderful cookies!: Confession: At first, I kinda rolled my eyes at this – but then thought, hey, I’m kinda dressed up and I had a new find to share, so I gave it a try. The result, in this glamorous backdrop, was pretty awesome! They not only sent me the digital image they took with their beautiful professional camera, but also a lovely print to take with me – topped off with an amazingly tasty cookie! Well played, Ancestry! Well played!
Meeting up with genie friends, as usual: I always love meeting old and new friends!
Added Bonus: Researching in the library!: We flew in a few days early to research for hours and hours – and I regret nothing!! Always a fantastic time – and so much brought back to add to my tree. Some serious brick walls damaged in that library! I’m still processing all that I brought home.
Hiccups – I didn’t encounter too many hiccups this year – and have declared this to be the best RootsTech yet – but if pressed, Id have to identify the following as my least favorite elements:
Unconferencing Sessions: I had not been to RootsTech in a few years, and my memory of the Unconferencing area was drastically different than I encountered this year. Gone were the small curtained off areas where you could talk to a group or even present something on the provided board, or diagram ideas. This concept has now been relegated to 8 tables crammed into the space of about two booth footprints. Really didn’t like this shrinkage, and while I did see groups using it – it was also placed in the very back of the exhibit hall instead of in the front where it used to be. Most people I talked to never found its location, and with very little signage – I would say this looks like the last year for the Unconferencing area – as I’m pretty sure we were witnessing the death knell. Some of the presenters mentioned their disappointment with the size and location in our Facebook group – but also complained about the name – saying it was unfriendly, and not appealing. Perhaps it could be resurrected as something slightly different? Break-out sessions perhaps? Obviously, the large exhibitors enjoy great success with their own areas of demos and discussions – so the concept is not a bad one. But it would be nice to have a more tailored area for folks to discuss genealogy issues – or meet up with speakers after their sessions, or programmers to discuss concepts with users (as was its initial purpose.) Conversely, I also understand usage and statistics – if people weren’t using them in the previous years, I can understand the reduction.
Access and Preservation Track on Wednesday: While this was a nice set of small, targeted sessions, I think many people misunderstood its purpose. As a librarian with special collections/archival training, I was going to attend this, no matter the purpose – but after squeezing in to the last couple of seats at 8am, and then watching the attendance bleed out like a trauma victim – until there was only about a third of them left – was a red flag that most people didn’t understand the intended focus. As a whole – I would say this was RootsTech’s version of “Librarians Day” – or “Digital Archivist’s Day” – etc. Which makes all of this more intriguing. With the huge crowd coming in to learn about “Access and Preservation” – regular folks who were not information professionals – doesn’t that indicate that the general genealogy crowd is very interested in preservation and access – for their own collections? Perhaps? Or were they wanting to learn more about the efforts being made to place more unique material online? Or did they want to learn more about digitization best practices? This is an area RootsTech should investigate. It sure caught my attention when thinking about this after the event.
Demo Stage: Thank heavens it hasn’t changed too much – but again, it’s been shrunk, and placed in the back, instead of being a focal point of festivity for the Exhibit Hall. Gone is the soda fountain bar and popcorn – and gone is the concept of walking around and hearing some of what was being demoed. I’m guessing that was the problem. As the Exhibitors have adopted their own demo areas and engagement clusters with microphone and large screens, their sound would be in competition with the Demo Stage instructors, and that would not be pleasant for the big sponsors. At least the comfy chairs and couches were still there – along with some really nice door prizes for those who sat through the individual demos.
Daily Sheets: They announced that there would be daily handouts with the general session info, as well as a list of the most popular classes that day. Ummm, first of all, I never found any of these sheets, until I stumbled upon a small pile on the very last day for Family Day. To be fair, I didn’t look super hard for them during the regular conference days. However, I’m not sure about plucking out a handful of sessions to highlight as “popular”. That could go one of two ways – either it drives a ton of people to these sessions, resulting in overcrowding, or it drives people away since they want to avoid the large crowds if possible. Plus, as a speaker, the speaker liaisons, kept trying to avoid giving us room capacity and info on popular sessions because they said they didn’t want to make other speakers feel less worthy by identifying popular sessions based on topic, speaker and/or room size. But then each day, they were highlighting popular sessions to hand out to everyone. Since we all have the app and the conference booklet outlining the offerings of each day – I don’t think they need these daily sheets – and I’m sure they could save a little money in printing.
RootsTech is not really over – you have several options to take in more of this conference over the next several months: Watch the canned livestream videos; Download the Syllabus Material; Explore the Exhibitor List – and prepare to watch more when the international version of RootsTech premiers in London in October!
This type of experience is unparalleled, and should be experienced in person at least once. Obviously, for continued inspiration and exposure to the most current genealogy tech tools, it is encouraged to attend as frequently as possible. However, as a tech conference, RootsTech has ensured that there are multiple remote methods for attending virtually. Not only can you sit at home and watch several of the videos for free, but this year they also offered a virtual pass that allowed you to enjoy 18 sessions from the comfort of your own home. Coupled with the exhibit hall list for traversing via websites at your leisure, and syllabus material you can download, #notatrootstech folks have a buffet of learning opportunities available.
BTW, Next year is RootsTech’s 10th anniversary! Theme: The Story of You! Make plans to attend – I’m sure this will be a grand and unforgettable party!
For those of you new to RootsTech, I am going to outline some of my favorite bits of advice to get the most of out this conference.
So buckle up, Buttercup – it’s time to dive into RootsTech 2019!
- Adjust Your Expectations: This is NOT NGS or FGS – this is RootsTech. It will be a different experience overall, and many of the sessions will be different. Some would say, not different enough, which is a good point – but go in with your eyes wide open, and your expector antenna set to tech overload! In other words, go with the flow and have fun with the offerings – you will learn new things, and come away with renewed inspiration. This is the pep rally of genealogy, and its message is family, connections, and inspiration. The energy alone is worth the trip.
- Use the App!! So much information in one little space – this is how you get to the syllabus material, schedule your session attendance, learn more about speakers/vendors, and keep updated on conference announcements. And don’t forget – they really want you to rate the sessions you attend through the app – it helps with next year’s planning, and determines whether your speaker receives any bonuses based on your rating. As a bonus, you can also make friends in the app, and learn about great places to eat.
- Introvert Alert: This is the largest genealogy conference on the continent – so it will be crowded – really crowded. Pace yourself, try to make some new friends, and go take a break if you need to – like, in the big comfy demo stage chairs, with some popcorn, and a soda. There are some places to break away and take a breather – and if necessary, sneak back to the hotel for a nap.
- So Many Sessions, So Little Time: You may not get to attend every session you have your heart set on – as I said above, it is crowded, and while they plan as best as they can for attendance numbers per room, some may hit capacity, and you may be forced to move to another session. This is where the app can be a lifesaver! As you review the session descriptions, and pick (star) your favs, be sure to pick a few per time slot. The app lets you pick more than one per hour for your personal schedule. It will warn you that you’ve picked more than one, but if you can pick your top three each hour, you will be able to attend the alternates at a moments notice, instead of scrolling through everything while the seats continue to fill up.
- Make the Exhibit Hall a Top Priority! This is by far the largest exhibit hall you will encounter in genealogy conference land – so many new companies and tools, tips on how to use your favorite tech tools, and demos all day long! It is so important to examine the exhibit hall map as closely as you do the session list. Besides, the hub of the RootsTech party is in the exhibit hall – with an energy that does not sleep. BTW, for those of you attending a virtual pass, or staying home to watch a few of the live streaming, the exhibit hall is always open to you virtually. Take the exhibitor list, and visit all of their websites to tour their products or offerings = another great way to be a part of the action!
- Don’t Forget the Unconferencing Sessions in the Exhibit Hall! I have mentioned thisaspect of RootsTech in the past, and some have given me a side eye, because they didn’t know what I was talking about – which is such a shame! From the very first year, these unconferencing sessions were implemented to encourage conversations – tech, genealogy, or both – programmers, genealogists, or hopefully both – all in rooms/booths they could schedule to talk about anything in the industry they wanted to cover. And this tradition has not wavered. In fact, this is one of my favorite things to do at RootsTech. The unconferencing sessions are along the North side of the Expo Hall. I will be hosting a session as a follow-up to my class on Consumable Genealogy – giving a live demo on using Canva and Pixabay – and there will be a couple of chat sessions about Genealogy in Second Life, hosted by the Second Life Virtual Genealogical Society – so be sure to check in at the unconferencing boards to plan out your participation.
- THE Place to Bring Out Your Social Media ‘A’ Game! With all of the of the great tools at your fingertips, now is the time to hashtag it and post it – or storyboard it. You will connect with attendees and those attending from home. #rootstech #notatrootstech
- Don’t Over Do It. You cannot experience everything there is to offer, and it’s important to understand your own limitations. So prioritize your time within reason – and if you get overwhelmed, head over to the library for some research – they are open until 9pm just about every evening – and you won’t want to miss the opportunity of researching in the nation’s most comprehensive genealogy library.
- The Common Sense Stuff: As with any conference, this is a marathon, not a sprint – you need to stay hydrated, get plenty of sleep, dress in layers, eat healthy, and wear your walking shoes. I noticed from the most recent ‘behind the scenes’ video – a tour of the Salt Palace – that the on-site check-in is on the opposite end of the building – back where the very first conference took place. In other words – seriously – wear comfortable shoes!!!
Smile, have fun, be nice, and soak up the energy that will inspire long after we get home to digest all we have learned.