I have been attending regional and national genealogy conferences for nearly twenty years. In recent years, I have also attended conferences in England and Canada. I have seen some very successful events and a few that were less so. I don't claim to be an expert on genealogy events but I do see a few trends.
In my travels and in e-mail messages, I see and hear comments about how genealogy interest must be declining nationwide because the national conferences are attracting fewer and fewer people every year. More than a decade ago, I attended a National Genealogical Society conference that had 2,800 attendees. Most of the other NGS conferences attracted 2,000 to 2,400 attendees in those days. In the past two or three years, the same conference has struggled to attract 1,500 attendees.
Indeed, lower attendance at national conferences might suggest lower interest in genealogy. However, I also see contradictory evidence.
I attend several regional events every year and hear about still others. The attendance at regional events is variable. Some regional conferences are reporting reduced attendance while others have the opposite experience. The last New England Regional Genealogical Conference held in Portland, Maine, attracted more than 700 people, the largest crowd ever at this event and nearly as many as some of the national events. This was for an event that focuses on genealogy in a small, six-state area.
A first-ever event aimed at genealogy novices held in the small city (56,000 population) of Saint George, Utah, early this year attracted throngs of people. Regional conferences in Ohio, California, Ontario, and elsewhere each attract hundreds of attendees every year. The Ontario (Canada) Genealogical Society typically attracts more than 400 people to its annual conference, not bad for an event that is devoted to genealogy research in only one province.
Genealogy cruises have been around for years but seem to be experiencing recent growth in popularity. The Genealogy Conference and Cruise sponsored by Wholly Genes Software sold out in less than twenty-four hours. The organizers went back to the cruise line and asked for more rooms. Four hundred fifty genealogists eventually made it on board, and more were disappointed when they were unable to obtain rooms on this fully-booked cruise. Had more rooms been available, this cruise might have been as big as some of the national genealogy events.
I don't have attendance figures on the recent Legacy Genealogy Cruise sponsored by Millennia Software, but I know they also had a crowd. Millennia Software has had several cruises in past years, and all have been quite popular. I understand the Millennia folks plan to hold a genealogy-themed cruise every year because of their past successes.
Another fact of interest is that genealogy is reported to be the second or third most popular topic on the web.
Does this sound like interest in genealogy is declining? Or is it simply a symptom of a different problem: the possibility that traditional national genealogy conferences are no longer attracting genealogists like they used to?
I will suggest that the second answer is closer to the truth. The big annual conferences continue to decline in popularity in spite of a demonstrated increase in the number of genealogists who will spend money to attend genealogy events.
Why is this? Based on informal discussions with hundreds of conference and cruise attendees, I believe it boils down to two things: money and enjoyment.
Let's face it: traveling to a four-day conference is becoming very expensive. Hotel rooms near most conference sites are running $125 and up per night in these days. Let's hope the National Genealogical Society can negotiate good prices for the conference hotel at their next conference in Chicago. As I write these words, the O'Hare Hyatt Regency's web site is listing their lowest-priced rooms during the conference at $199 per night for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights with the same rooms available at $119 per night on Friday and Saturday nights. Those are regular rates, not conference rates. At the regular rates, the hotel bill for the five-night stay would be $835 before various city and state taxes are added. The total will probably be well over $900 after taxes. I am sure the conference organizers can obtain a discount rate, but I bet it will still cost $600 or $700 to stay in the hotel for five nights. Now add in conference admission of around $200 or so, and then add in more money for meals. If an attendee wishes to attend the conference banquet and several sponsored lunches, he or she must add in another $40 to perhaps $150.
For anyone planning to travel to the 2006 NGS annual national conference in Chicago, attend the banquet and a few lunches, and stay in a single room, the total expenses could be well over $1,000 plus airfare. Of course, attendees can save money by sharing a hotel room, and I suspect that many people will do just that. Even so, expenses typically will be $700 or more for most people. That calculates out as $175 to perhaps $300 per day.
Compare that to the cruises: the recent Legacy Genealogy Cruise cost each attendee as little as $517 (double occupancy) plus roundtrip airfare to Miami. The Wholly Genes Cruise attendees paid as little as $935 per person (double occupancy) plus roundtrip airfare to Tampa. Both cruises included all meals in those prices, and that was for a seven-day event! Even throwing in the airfare, the expense averages about $100 to $150 per day.
Airfare runs $200 to $500 roundtrip, depending on the distance to be covered. Of course, airfare is required for most attendees of conferences and cruises alike.
Which would you rather attend: an expensive four-day genealogy session in Chicago or a less expensive seven-day genealogy cruise in the Caribbean, stopping at exotic ports of call?
In short, this suggests that genealogy is as popular as ever, but genealogists are spending their money differently. Cruises are becoming much more popular in genealogy and elsewhere. This popularity for one form of genealogy event is cutting into attendance at other, expensive events as genealogists are carefully planning their expenditures for major events.
When looking at regional events, there are similar differentials in prices and material available. These are typically two- or three-day events, held in smaller cities with lower hotel and restaurant expenses.
The admission fees for the regional events are also much cheaper. Attending a three-day regional event typically costs each attendee a few hundred dollars for admission, hotels, meals, and transportation.
Again, I will ask the same questions that I asked earlier: Does this sound like the interest in genealogy is declining? Or is it a symptom of the possibility that traditional genealogy conferences are no longer attracting genealogists like they used to?
The organizers of the national conferences are facing a huge challenge: how to attract attendees in the face of ever-increasing expenses? I do not envy the organizers as their options are limited. However, I will suggest that it is time to focus on reducing expenses more than on adding more seminars and services. If prices continue to rise, attendance certainly will decline still further.
Personally, I am hoping to attend another cruise next year.