“Build a Show and they will come” (or something like that). Those were the words of Steve Rockwood, President and CEO of FamilySearch during his keynote speech, opening the RootsTech London 2019. He was, naturally, paraphrasing the famous line from Field of Dreams and, just like in the movie, they came.
This show was the first time that the US genealogical show behemoth was to be run outside of the US and, as I walked across a wet and deserted ExCeL London car park, I must admit I wasn’t sure if I was the only person attended. Fortunately I wasn’t. The show was an unarguable success, with an expected attendance of around 6,000 during the weekdays and a bumper crowd of 10,000 expected for the Saturday.
On top of the impressive attendee numbers there was significant commercial presence, with most of the major genealogical (and DNA companies) featuring prominently. Importantly the attendees were not only there just for the exhibitors (and keynote-speaker Donny Osmand), they were also there from the lectures. I’ll be honest, I’ve never seen such good attendance for the lectures. As an example, the bellwether “DNA Testing Panel Discussion” had an attendance of (in my estimate) around 200 people, compared to the more typical 30 hardy souls that I’ve seen at some versions of the same panel discussion. Clearly Rootstech managed to engage a lot of people.
This success was despite the crowded genealogical show calendar. This year has already seen the Family Tree Live show and The Genealogy Show trying to step into the void left by the demise of “Who Do You Think You Are Live!”
Having had a couple of days to reflect on things I thought it worthwhile recording what made the show so successful, and pleasurable for attendees like myself.
Success Factors for RootsTech
The show was flooded with volunteers of all ages, it felt like there were thousands, although I guess a more realistic number would have been a couple of hundred. The volunteers were friendly, knowledgeable and helpful, all that bewildered attendees like myself could ask for. They were the real oil of the show, directing folks to the right locations, making sure visitors could find a seat, a coffee or the toilets, as required. The logistics in assembling such a crowd (done through the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter-Day Saints) is in reality one of the unique selling points of RootsTech.
There were more talks available than I could possibly have fit in to my schedule. More importantly the quality and range of the talks was impressive. One of my big fears before the event was that the organisers would bring a range of US speakers across the pond who would not connect with the mostly British audience. This was almost overwhelmingly not the case. The US speakers that did come across came with a relevant set of skills. As someone based in Germany I always listen out on the ability of non-native speakers to pronounce German words and places correctly, I was therefore much relieved to hear clearly-fluent German speakers (Das freut mich!)
One feature that stood out among the presentations was the number of lectures about researching ancestors in other countries Worldwide. Looking through the schedule there were multiple presentations about genealogical research in Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Poland, Portugal, Israel, China and the Caribbean. Just as importantly these lectures were well attended, clearly there is an interest in this type of research.
Lastly on this theme – did I mention I LOVE talks in quiet rooms off the main exhibition floor. It made a very pleasant change to have all the talks in dedicated rooms away from the main Exhibition Hall. There’s nothing more appealing to the slightly elderly genealogists than having somewhere where you can actually hear the presenter. Other shows please take note.
The Exhibition Space
The Exhibition Hall as buzzing, almost literally. The sound of excited genealogists was almost deafening at times, but in a good way. This noise was due to the visitors and also the many “mini” talks and demonstrations scattered around the hall. Personally I loved these more intimate talks, it gave people a real chance to interact with the speakers in a less-daunting environment – again, other shows please take note.
The front of the exhibition space was occupied by FindMyPast, Ancestry and Familysearch (who had two booths, one was a DNA Basics stand, presenting yet more talks on DNA). These were clearly the main investors in the exhibition. The “second-row” was occupied by LivingDNA, Family Tree DNA, Family Tree Maker, 23andMe and My Heritage. This probably also represents a good metaphor for where these firms are in the genealogy market at the moment.
The rest of the hall was made up of many of the usual suspects; the magazine, product, archives, printer and educational vendors. The only disappointment was that the exhibition space missed a number fair number of local history societies as well as the traditional genealogy supplies (the guys who sell you plastic binders for your certificates etc).
Everything has an app attached to it these day. RootsTech was no exception, and indeed they could “leverage” their existing RootsTech infrastructure by re-using the App that was working at the US Salt Lake City RootsTech. This app was a great boon in organising my schedule agenda (although I’m sure I could have handled pen and paper). More importantly, the app allowed the lectures to provide electronic handouts. As far as I can see, even if you missed RootsTech you can still grab the hand-outs via the app. Finally, on this theme, I thought it was great that the app allowed you to rate the lectures. It feels bad not given all the lectures 100% positive feedback, but for both the lecturer and the organisation it is important to know what worked and what didn’t work.
Having been through the highlights of the event, it’s time for some personal thoughts on the event.
I’ve already mentioned the lectures, but I just wanted to highlight a couple of my personal favourites, just in case anyone finds themselves bewildered by such a choice of lectures at a future event.
The standout technical lecture was from Ruth Tennen, a product scientist at 23andMe. Her topic covered much of the science and issues behind the health side of the 23andMe DNA test. Not only is the topic immensely interesting, but Ruth breezed through the subject at a suitably snappy pace. I’m still unsure about the utility of such testing, but that’s for another day.
The second highlight was John Boeren’s talk about “Tracing Your Ancestors in the Netherlands”. I have a minor, related lines, interest in the region, but I found John’s talk helped me understand the genealogical landscape of the Netherlands (and all in 45 minutes)
Finally on to the Keynote speakers. I can only imagine how demanding it is do any part of the keynote speeches, especially if you face a typically reserved British audience. Thankfully the presenters all took this slight coolness in their stride. Naturally, Donny Osmand showed his stage-skills and experience from over 50 years in show-business. Admittedly I was a little disappointed when I turned round during his talk and saw the large auto-prompt that had every line and every joke written in. The best presentation came from Dan Snow, whose talk included a piece on his WW1-general ancestor, Thomas Snow. He talked specifically about the guilt of the descendants of someone whose planning, or lack of, resulted in the deaths of many thousands of men. It’s not an easy topic, with easy answers, and I thought Jon’s presentation captured the nuances and complications of the issue.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that RootsTech is also a fair, bringing together vendors and customers. Importantly, most of the vendors had their RootsTech pricing to tempt the crowds. As I’m always curious what other people spend their money on I thought I should cover what I spent my money on.
The big money items for me were a 37STR marker yDNA test ($99 from FamilyTreeDNA), an ancestry.com DNA test (£49.99) and an annual subscription to FindMyPast (£96 thanks to a 20% show discount). I should mention the FindMyPast discount code RTLDN19 is valid until 30th November for those who missed the show and want to save 20% on any annual subscription. Lastly I had to buy a RootsTech tee-shirt, and kudos to the designers who came up with several rather good-looking designs.
The DNA tests will eventually end up with extended family members, whilst the FindMyPast subscription allows me access to this incredible archive of North Yorkshire records from the Borthwick Institute for Archives.
Finally, I can wholeheartedly recommend the hotel I booked for the event, the Point A Hotel at Canary Wharf. It’s a cheap (for London) modern hotel just 7 stops on the Docklands Light Railway from the ExCeL Centre and about 50 yards away from the fantastic Dockland Diner “One of the Last True Working Man’s Cafe in the Old Docks“.
The show was a success, indeed much better than I was expecting. I can only assume it will be back next year. The only nagging question is will it eventually crowd out the other shows. It looks like “Family Tree Live” show will be returning next year on the 17th/18th April, as will “The Genealogy Show” at the NEC on the 26th/27th June. At least for next year, things are looking rosy.
It would be amiss for me to finish this report without mentioning ComicCon London, the second and considerably larger show that was running at the ExCeL centre, alongside Rootstech. Firstly ComicCon was a good reminder of the challenge we, as genealogists face, in engaging the younger audience that was thronging to ComicCon. Having ComicCon there added both colour and a vibrancy to both the ExCel and the commute to the venue. I was impressed with whoever at RooteTech came up with the displays showing the family trees of various cult shows/stories (Harry Potter/Star Wars etc.). The challenge for genealogists is to get this audience to care as much about the stories in their own families as they do for the stories from galaxies far, far away.