09 May 2011

Attending Genealogy Conferences

Earlier this week I wrote about my experiences as a speaker and a vendor at genealogy conferences. Now I will explain why I love attending, how organisers can entice me to continue doing so, and how I find out about conferences, save money, etc.

Genealogy conferences are for everyone, including beginners. I have been to fifteen two-day conferences and ten major conferences of four days or more (six in Australia, two in New Zealand, one in Britain and one conference on a cruise) - and I have lost count of the one-day seminars. I have vivid memories of my first big conference in 1986. I was very shy, but people were friendly and helpful and I was soon having the time of my life! Now I always make a point of speaking to anyone standing alone and looking a bit lost, because I remember how that felt.

Why do I love conferences?
  1. I learn so much from the lectures, the questions afterwards, the trade displays, and my conversations with all and sundry
  2. I make new friends, and I catch up with friends whom I rarely see. No matter how often I am in contact with someone via email or social networking sites, speaking with them in person is so much better.
  3. Most of my favourite conferences are interstate, so they give me an excuse to travel and do local sightseeing or research.
  4. There is always a chance of meeting a 'lost cousin'. I did!
One of the main reasons for going to a conference is to learn. The quality of the lectures is therefore very important. Speakers at the Australasian Congress always include a few 'big names' from overseas, and some (eg, Michael Gandy and Sherry Irvine) are absolutely brilliant (informative, entertaining and approachable). Choosing local and international speakers is a big responsibility for conference organisers, who often use some sort of 'quality control'. For example, prospective lecturers may be asked for a recording of a recent lecture so that the committee can assess their suitability.

As well as being educational, conferences are about meeting people and having fun. Be sure to read Amy Coffin's Rock Star's Guide to Genealogy Conferences. Another 'must-read' is Sue Maxwell's Prepare Before Attending a Genealogy Conference, which has many excellent tips.

What makes a conference more appealing or more enjoyable?
  • Being able to book for the whole event or just one day.
  • Lectures for all levels (beginner to advanced), and (for multi-day events) a range of topics - including social history. I want to learn about sources and techniques, but I am also interested in historical context and the everyday life of my ancestors.
  • Lectures whose content matches the title and description in the programme.
  • A programme that identifies (at the time of booking and on the day) which talks are aimed at beginners.
  • Pin-on name tags in large bold type. (My eyes are not getting any younger.)
  • A brochure (on paper) with lecture details (time, room number, speaker, title, topic summary, 'beginner' if applicable) and a map of the venue.
  • Signs that clearly point to and identify lecture rooms, exhibit hall etc.
  • Lunch/tea breaks that are long enough to allow people to eat, chat and explore the exhibits without feeling rushed.
  • Exhibits halls and tea-break areas that are not cramped.
  • Healthy options for lunch/tea (salad, fruit, sandwiches on multigrain or wholemeal bread, jugs of water).
  • As a member of the audience and as a speaker, I appreciate it when computer users are asked to sit towards the back of the room as a courtesy to those who find them distracting.
  • A large corkboard (with plenty of pins) to leave notes for other attendees.
  • Pre-conference advice about parking and public transport.
  • Lecture rooms where I can put my notebook on something other than my lap (a desk, or a small swing-out table attached to the chair).
  • A conference banquet that is optional and not too expensive.
  • A feedback form in the conference satchel. (We need to praise what was good, give constructive criticism, and be honest in our assessment of speakers.)
  • A 'delegate's surname interests' form to be submitted at the time of registration, so that all data can be combined into one alphabetical list and displayed at the conference.
  • The option to purchase a copy of individual lectures (by download) or the entire conference proceedings (with a choice of book, CD or USB flash drive). (I have a Web page that lists titles of many published conference papers. If the books are out of print and your local Society does not have them, borrow them via interlibrary loan.)
  • Affordable registration, and affordable accommodation on site or nearby.
I particularly look for conferences that are held at a university, college or boarding school while students are on vacation. Registration costs are often lower. Lecture rooms and common rooms are well equipped. Cafeteria-style meals in the student dining hall are a great opportunity to meet people and chat. Attendees can (if they wish) stay in simple but affordable student bedrooms on campus. (At the last Congress I had a modern, comfortable, single ensuite room with lots of desk space.)

In other situations a friend and I sometimes share a two-bedroom apartment and save money by preparing our own breakfast and dinner. For one-day or two-day events away from my home town, I can often keep accommodation costs down by booking through Booking.com or Wotif or staying in a cabin in a caravan park.

Which conferences particularly interest me?
  • Australasian Congress on Genealogy and Heraldry (4 days) - held every third year.  (P.S., Apr 2015:  I have been to ten of the last eleven Congresses. The next two will be in Sydney in 2018 and Brisbane in 2021.)
  • 'Lost In..' conference (2 days) - held by the Society of Australian Genealogists in either Sydney or a country centre, usually the first weekend in November. Themes have included 'Lost in London', 'Lost in a Woman's World', 'Lost in Black Sheep' and 'Lost in the Internet'.
  • NSW & ACT State Conference (2 days) - held every year, usually in September.
  • Victorian State Conference (2 days) - held every third year.
How to find out about conferences?

Sources of information vary from country to country, but examples include the Unlock The Past Web site, the AUS-GEN-EVENTS Rootsweb mailing list (or its overseas counterparts), Geneabloggers calendar, and (for the UK) GENEVA. I also use a Google Alert, and I 'search blog posts' for 'conference' in the Genealogy Blog Finder.

What does the future hold?

I think 'live streaming' sessions by remote/overseas speakers will become more common (especially if that reduces conference costs and registration fees). And I sincerely hope that Australian conferences will introduce lectures and networking opportunities for genealogy bloggers!

Other people's thoughts on attending genealogy conferences?

05 May 2011

Genealogy Conference Vendors

Days 1 and 2 of the current Geneabloggers discussion looked at planning and speaking at genealogy conferences. Today's topic is selling goods and services at conferences.

As a professional genealogist who also self-publishes indexes and research guides, I have had a 'sales table' in three different situations: (1) at small seminars where I am a speaker; (2) at the biennial Local and Family History Fair run by History Queensland; (3) at the NSW & ACT State Conference. Whatever the venue, assembling and packing all the 'vendor gear' takes longer than you might expect, especially if the display includes posters, banners etc.

Here are a few tips based on my own experience.
  • When you agree to do a talk, ask whether you can display and sell your publications or other wares. (I often speak at public libraries, and some do not allow sales.) Unless you are driving and can take a folding table, ask the organisers to supply something suitable. On the day, put the table where you can keep an eye on it.
  • Take a carbonless receipt book, a money belt and lots of change.
  • Take a notepad or A5 pages printed with your name and contact details. When people ask questions, jot down your answer (a book title, Web address etc) and hand it to them. I use a clipboard, and I attach a pen with string so I won't misplace it. I design my own notepads with Vistaprint.
  • Items that may come in handy are a magnifying glass, spare pens, sticky tape, yellow highlighter, paper clips, rubber bands and plastic bags.
  • If possible, keep the items that are for sale separate from the freebies (business cards, handouts, leaflets, bookmarks etc). Use price labels and signs such as 'Free leaflets'.
  • If you are on your own at an all-day event (as I usually am), arrange in advance for someone to come over occasionally and keep an eye on your table while you take a bathroom break.
  • For all-day events, take plenty of water and some food that is easy to handle. (I favour nuts, apples and cubes of cheese.) You do not want to put sticky fingers or sandwich filling on your display!
  • Take Butter Menthols or something similar for when you begin to lose your voice!
  • Many people seem afraid to touch a display or speak to the vendor. Encourage them by smiling and saying, 'Please take a free bookmark' or 'You're welcome to pick up the books and have a closer look' or 'Do you have any questions?'
The thing that I find most difficult is being on the sales table all day on my own. On the rare occasions when a colleague and I shared a table, the job was easier. Vendors at larger events will have a different point of view, and I look forward to reading everyone's comments.

Genealogy Conferences - Delivering the Content

This week's discussion at Geneabloggers is about genealogy conferences. On day 1 Thomas and Helen (and probably others whose posts I did not see) talked about conferences from the perspective of the planners. Thomas has also written a brilliant post about being a speaker.

Later this week I will explain why I love attending genealogy conferences, and the realities of selling goods and services there; but today's topic is Delivering the Content: what does it take to be a speaker at a genealogy conference? One thing it takes is courage! Even after presenting fifty papers to audiences ranging in size from fifteen to over one hundred people, I still get butterflies in my tummy. (Hint: take homeopathics such as Rescue Remedy or Brauer's Nervatona Focus before the talk!)

A wise friend once told me, 'Choose a topic that you know well. Then, as you look out at the sea of expectant faces, remind yourself that they have come to listen because you know more about the topic than they do.'

When I am asked to give a talk, this is what usually happens:
  1. The organisers and I agree on a date, time, venue, number of talks, length of the talk/s (with or without question time), and payment / reimbursement of expenses if applicable.
  2. Sometimes I am asked for a specific talk that I have given elsewhere, but usually I submit a list (titles plus content descriptions) and the host makes a selection.
  3. I ask what equipment will be provided (laptop, projector, microphone etc), and I ask permission to display and sell my books.
  4. I ask whether I need to put a purchase order number on my invoice. (I once waited three months for reimbursement of $600 travel costs because the host forgot to give me a purchase order number.)
  5. Only once have I been asked to sign a contract, but I was happy to do so. Occasionally I draw up an agreement based on the advice in Professional Genealogy: a manual for researchers, writers, editors, lecturers and librarians (Elizabeth Shown Mills; Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, Maryland, 2001). Usually I just send (and require acknowledgment of) an email that clearly states all the arrangements.
  6. I write or update the talk(s); do one or more practice runs to check the timing; prepare handouts; scan documents for use in overheads; and create a Powerpoint presentation. Non-presenters have no concept of how long all that takes!
  7. I save the Powerpoint show on a USB flash drive (or two), in several different formats including HTML. I once found that the host's laptop would not open my Powerpoint slides, so now I play it safe.
It's lucky that I enjoy travelling, because 90% of my talks have been a long way from home. A six-hour drive is not uncommon. If I need to fly, I check airline schedules before agreeing to speak at a certain time. I once had to leave home at 3.30am because I made the mistake of letting the organisers book my flight. After some panic situations due to cancelled flights or vehicle breakdowns, I now aim to arrive in town the previous night.

Many speakers enjoy being billeted in private homes, but I had a very bad experience with that. My hostess insisted on talking (picking my brains?) until midnight - and to make matters worse, I was allergic to her dog.

In Making Money from Genealogy, I talked about payment for speaking engagements. Unless I belong to the host society, I usually charge a speaker's fee and ask to be reimbursed for travel and accommodation expenses. The 2009 Australasian Congress on Genealogy and Heraldry was (to the best of my knowledge) the first Congress to offer speakers a really good deal. The organisers might not want me to publish all the details here, but you can email me if you wish. One of the conditions was that we should be available to delegates at all times (so no skipping social functions or sneaking off to go sightseeing!)

Talks are usually arranged many months in advance, but my most enjoyable 'speaking trip' was an impromptu affair. My sister asked me to relocate her campervan from the Gold Coast to Cairns. I drove 2,000 kilometres in nine days, and along the way (with only three weeks notice) I gave talks at Biloela, Rockhampton, Yeppoon, Mackay, Townsville and two in Cairns. I had contacted Council libraries and genealogical groups, told them what day I would be in town, and offered to do a talk for just $50. (Council libraries in Australia usually expect to pay about $100.) I gave them a choice of three talks, all of which I had done before. The trip was tiring but great fun, and the $50 fees plus sales of my books covered the cost of fuel, caravan parks and my flight home from Cairns to Brisbane.

I would love to do similar trips in the future, especially in rural Queensland, NSW and Victoria. Family historians who live far from a capital city really appreciate the opportunity to learn about sources and research strategies. I can empathise with them, because I grew up in the bush and started researching my family when I lived six hundred miles from Brisbane (with no Internet).

I wonder what other speakers find especially rewarding. For me, the ultimate thrill was having a member of the audience look at one of my overheads and excitedly say, 'That's my great-grandfather!'