So Who Do We Think We Are? The Future of Genealogy Events in the UK. Part 2

This is a continuation of my post Who Do We Think We Are? I fully expect some feathers to be ruffled by the following but also truly believe that without some harsh comments and discussions, true progress (in any field) cannot be made. I also want to preempt this all by underlining that the work of people and organisations in the previous WDYTYA? Live shows was really wonderful and everyone should be proud.



Shows like WDYTYA? Live and RootsTech need to be “shows” (to an extent). The life-blood of such events is not those of us who are already in the industry. While it is a great opportunity for us to network and meet up with friends and colleagues, in order for it to be a success, there needs to be some “layman” bums on seats and so the appeal needs to be broad.

What this means is that it needs to draw a crowd and how do you do that? By having fun and appealing things at the event. WDYTYA? Live attempted this by having “stars” from the show appear, but this year was really disappointing and the crew from the Danny Dyer episode is not enough of a draw for 99% of people.

Sir Tony Robinson was there, and he’s a popular figure – if you’re a fan of Time Team or Blackadder – but when the bit he’s doing is basically an advertisement for Ancestry DNA it really does make you wonder if he’s there out of a genuine interest in what he’s talking about or purely because he got a nice appearance fee and script.

If we’re going to appeal to the next generation (and let’s face it, we have to do this at some point), then it all needs to be brought forward to the 21st century. As I wandered around the hall and spoke with people on various stalls I realised just how behind the times a lot of the people, companies and organisations find themselves. The number of CDs I was offered for sale was astounding. I know, I know – there are people who use this technology but when you offer a CD and the potential customer replies “I don’t have a CD drive on my computer, what can I access online?” turning your nose up and sneering “Not everything is online you know” is not really going to ingratiate yourself with that potential customer. Also, looking down your nose at someone younger than you asking a question about genealogy and assuming they are a beginner and don’t know what they’re doing is not going to win you many friends. (That’s a different topic that I’ll gripe about on another day).

So, 21st century. It’s where we are and it’s where we need to be. But, do we need to jazz things up completely in order to draw a crowd, make it relevant and interest people in what we’re doing?

Quite simply, yes.

Attention spans are shorter. There’s a constant stream of distraction around us at all times. In order to break through the colours and noise, you need to do something amazing.

As we all know, first impressions really count, and these days your website needs to be amazing, intuitive, easy to use and informative. The WDYTYA? Live website was/is, quite frankly, shockingly bad. It’s unattractive, busy, doesn’t provide good information and the ticket/workshop booking process was a complete shambles. If I was someone just having a look and thinking I might attend… well I’d have given up and gone to the Mrs Brown show in the other hall.*

RootsTech website
First impressions matter and set the tone for your event

Compare it to the RootsTech website. Clean, crisp, good information and oh, what’s this? STREAMING OF TALKS, YOU SAY? Yeah, the number one question I got from my friends and family when I told them I was talking at the show this was “Where can I watch it online?” People are willing to pay for this kind of content and all big trade shows do it. Heck, even Blizzcon, the annual convention hosted by Blizzard Entertainment which celebrates their computer games, offers a livestream package for people to purchase so that if they cannot attend in person they can still be involved.

Speaking of being involved – social media. Okay, so we saw some tweets and Facebook posts from the WDYTYA? Live crew but there did not seem to be a centralised or organised effort on the part of the organisers to get conversations going. Use of hashtags came down to whatever people came up with and so it was a bit muddled, we had #wdytyalive #wdytya #wdytyalive2017, but nothing obviously official or being driven by the organisers. One person, at the show, with a laptop and phone taking photographs and replying to people talking about the show would have boosted the conversation and would have promoted it even more. If you’re hosting a major event and you’re not trending on social media – you’re not a success. It’s as simple and brutal as that.

A lot of the shortcomings are clearly due to budgetary constraints. That was obvious this year. But if you’re going to organise a show like this, at the scale that WDYTYA? Live was purporting to be, you need to inject cash into it.

So, my original question – does the gap need filling?

The Secret Lives – Hidden Voices conferences promises to be very interesting

Maybe. From a purely selfish point of view, I of course say yes. I love attending and meeting up with people and going to talks and giving talks. From an objective point of view, I’m not sure this format and scale works here anymore. If the gap is filled, it needs a complete revamp, rethink, rework, re…everything. Cloning WDYTYA? Live and going with the same format is just going to keep it dry and dusty and it will not grow the way it needs to grow.

What needs to be decided early on is what it is.

This means a re-examining of what genealogy in the UK is and that means accepting a few things that perhaps we don’t really want to accept.

Genealogy is big business. Genealogy is DNA testing to find out if you’re 26% French. Genealogy is accepting all hints without really double checking. Genealogy is going back as far as you can and discovering you’re descended from not one, but two royal families.

But that’s not all it is. Genealogy is also research. Real, proper, historical and scientific research. Genealogy is communication. Genealogy is sharing. Genealogy is telling stories.

Genealogy is telling stories

So, how do we marry these and create an event that is not only worthy of those of us in the genealogical community who are endeavouring to maintain and grow the academic and “serious” side of research, but which also appeals to the general public and provides them with an incentive to get off their bums, go to an exhibition hall and walk around?

I think we need to start with two things:

1. Accept that what we’ve been doing no longer works and we need to do a major overhaul.
2. Look to the Americans. Now, now, before you turn up your nose and think “ugh, it’s going to be SO GAUDY”, it doesn’t need to be a flashy, flag waving, big band even (although that would be awesome) but we can learn a lot from them and what they’re doing. Quite simply, they’re excellent at this kind of thing and what’s the first thing we as genealogists do when we’re faced with a problem we can’t resolve? We go to an expert. This is no different.

So, let’s not be afraid to look to RootsTech for some real inspiration and just some darn good ideas. It can be really simple – hastags, webcasts, nice website, conversations and involving people. I have a million ideas about how to improve things and what we should be doing and how we can make it more fun and engaging and… I could go on for days.

And I’m sure I will, because this is a conversation that’s going to continue. As we talk more and more about what on earth we’re going to do now that WDYTYA? Live is gone, I’m looking forward to hopefully building up some strong ideas with the rest of the British genealogical community and seeing it grow into something that we’ll be able to touch and experience. Who knows? Maybe I’ll see you in 2018?

* I wouldn’t have. I loathe that show. Bleh.

So, Who Do We Think We Are? The future of genealogy events in the UK.

It’s now been a month since Who Do You Think You are? Live was held at the NEC in Birmingham. I attended all three days and got to see and experience the event from a number of perspectives – as an attendee, as a student/professional genealogist and as a speaker.

My biggest take aways from the show this year were that attendance was clearly down, some big names were missing (The National Archives, for example) and local genealogical societies were a bit thin (where was Sussex and Kent, and also Scotland was not very well represented).

As Steve mentioned on his blog and Jane mentioned on hers, there was a high number of non-genealogical stands at the show and I felt quite sorry for the women trying to give away free wine samples at 10am. Also, while the free massage was nice, the number of orthopedic and life insurance stands was a bit of a concern. As someone who’s recently turned 40 I don’t like being reminded of such things.

As a genealogy nerd I loved wandering around and having a nose at things and networking and all that. But, putting my objective hat on, it really was lacking this year and could have been quite a disappointment for people attending who didn’t have friends and colleagues to meet up with and pass the time.

The Good

  • The Society of Genealogists. I love the SOG and the effort and energy put in by them to keep this show going and to keep it relevant and fresh and to get new people doing talks and presenting is something that is just so incredible and something for which we should all be thankful. Without them and their efforts (huuuuuuuge shoutout to Else Churchill here) it wouldn’t have been as organised or interesting as it was.
  • Local societies, new societies and universities. The people volunteering on these stands took time out of their lives to be there to answer questions and provide information. Now, I did have a couple of small issues, which I discuss in a later post, but on the whole, the effort by these groups and the fact that they were there made the show all the more interesting and more than just advertising space for the big companies. Shoutouts to Jeanette Rosenburg from the JGSGB for being good fun; the RQG and my dear University of Strathclyde.

The Bad

  • Communication. One thing I noticed during the event was the lack of really knowing what was going on. There were some boards at the entrance giving an overview of what was happening but there was a lot of stuff going on that simply wasn’t centrally publicised. Even something as simple as some announcements giving details of talks coming up next would have been good. Or bigger boards with more information on talks, events, who’s there, what’s going on, etc.
  • Refreshments and relaxation. The food choices were woeful and expensive and the lack of more seating and just places to chill and talk was an issue.

With the recent news that Who Do You Think You Are? Live will not be returning, there is a rather large gap in the genealogy trade show market in the UK. The question is – does this need filling?

In my previous life I worked in the computer game industry. Each year, there would be a number of trade shows/exhibitions that the company for which I worked would attend. These would happen all over the globe, but primarily in the US, UK and Germany (aka, “The Big Three”).

As time went on the big UK-based trade show got a bit smaller and ended up moving locations a few times. This year it will also be held at the NEC, but the lack of attendance by certain companies signals that perhaps it’s not going the way people hope it would.

In the US and Germany, on the other hand, things are a bit different. There are a number of big computer game/comic/sci-fi conventions that get bigger and better every year (some even have branched out to have East-Coast/West-Coast versions).

If we look at the situation in our own industry and the continued growth of RootsTech each year (to the point that UK-based companies and Universities offering genealogy courses have people and stalls at this convention) one must ask the question – Why can’t we get ourselves together here in the UK and have the same?

I will attempt to answer that question however, will do so in a completely subjective way that may, or may not, actually be accurate. Who knows, what follows in the next post may be the biggest pile of drivel I’ve ever written.