A Review of RootsTech
London 2019
Michelle Hunter
29 October 2019
What a fantastic three days! I absolutely loved RootsTech and am so glad they brought this conference over to the UK. It was exhausting for sure, but to be locked in a genealogical bubble with hundreds of like-minded other people made for a fabulous experience. Amongst my highlights of the whole event was meeting so many #AncestryHour Twitter friends and other students and staff from my University of Strathclyde course. There weren’t too many local family history societies there so I was delighted when I saw that my very own Lincolnshire branch was one of them.

For those who were unable to attend this time (or those who were and who like reading reviews!) here are a few of my thoughts about the event.

The Venue

On the whole, I thought the Excel was an excellent venue. It was very clean and spacious with ample toilets and plenty of (presumably their own branded) E16 coffee stands, so there were never any huge queues for those human essentials!! There were lots of large classrooms or meeting rooms for the talks, of varying sizes, but all had comfy seats, excellent acoustics and were neither too cold nor overly hot. Some talks proved more popular than others and after reading tweets on the first day that people had been turned away when rooms were full, I made sure I was waiting at the door for each talk at least 15 minutes before the start. I might have thought that by the numbers of people bookmarking talks on the app, that the organisers could have shifted the more popular ones to the bigger rooms. But then again, perhaps not everyone was using the app, and others may have made a decision at the last minute! Difficult to control.

The conference was split over four levels. The exhibition hall and auditorium in the basement. The check-in and most of the food venues, stretching the entire length of the concourse on the ground floor. The first floor was just like a mezzanine level with the speakers’ lounge, then all the meeting rooms were on the second floor. There was a fair bit of to-ing and fro-ing up and down escalators, but after you’ve been sitting for a while, it was a welcome stretch for the legs!

RootsTech meets Comic Con!

On the first day we were spoilt by being able to walk through the whole venue. There was a Costa Coffee in the centre, which many people were favouring over the E16 coffee despite Costa’s lose-the-will-to-live slow queue. There were all sorts of other food outlets and restaurants, as advertised on Excel’s website, and I identified the places I thought I might like to have lunch on other days. However, on day 2 and 3, we were sharing the venue with Comic Con and despite getting into the swing of things with sci-fi family trees and superhero DNA stickers on arrival, Excel or RootsTech made the decision to barrier off the main concourse so we were left with just a handful of E16 stands with a small range of sandwiches and few places to sit. We couldn’t even get to Costa!! This caused some complaint and Excel hastily opened an aircraft hanger-sized additional hall, filled it with seats and added another E16 coffee stand, an ice-cream van (!!) and a ‘chicken and waffles’ stall (new to me!)

The Exhibition Hall

This was corporate city! All the big branded names were there. Those I was hoping to see at Family Tree Live: Ancestry, FindMyPast, Family Search, MyHeritage and all the big DNA names offering reduced prices for testing kits. The main players in family tree software were there too, plus many other familiar companies and societies. Several had huge stands and were running talks about their product or related topics throughout the day. This would have been amazing had it been situated in the huge hall they opened for the food tables, or in the auditorium with the seating removed. But it was quite a small space and so it was not only cramped, but the acoustics were terrible! The stands were too close to each other so it was a struggle to hear what was being said in the talks as you could hear the other all speakers around you! During peak changeover periods and especially on Saturday, the whole hall was rammed and it was difficult to get anywhere in a hurry.

There were also a couple of demo theatres – one for DNA and a larger one at the back covering all manner of topics. Both of these were running talks throughout the three days, which meant that anyone who just came to visit the exhibition hall (for free) could still enjoy plenty of lectures. I accidentally sat through one on the tv show Relative Race (and have written a separate blog on that one!)

The meet and greet area, which I’d understood to be an area where visitors could meet each other (like Family Tree Live’s village green) was actually for people to have a meet and greet with the key speakers. The queue to meet Donny Osmond stretched right around the hall! So it would have been good to have an area for visitors to meet and relax. I would also like to have seen many more of the smaller family history societies and smaller businesses represented there. I had bought funds for copious book-buying (having bought stacks at Family Tree Live from second-hand sales from various local FHS stands) but apart from the Pen and Sword stand, and a small table at the Society of Genealogists, there weren’t really many to buy! In fact, it was quite disappointing from a retail point of view. There were the RootsTech own branded products – on the whole pretty expensive – but little else to buy and little in the way of freebies either (though I did get a lovely Ancestry notebook and a Family Search badge!)

The Sessions

I cannot fault the range of talks RootsTech provided! What a fantastic choice. There were 5 slots a day, plus an 11am keynote address. For each slot, there were at least 10 (yes 10!!) choices of talk on a vast range of topics to go to. There were sessions suitable for every level of genealogist – from the beginner to the hobbyist to the professional. I had a three-day pass, attended something in most slots and clung right on to the bitter end at 5pm on Saturday. It was exhausting!! I had brought university reading with me to do in the evenings and on the train, but it stayed in my bag the entire time!

The quality of the talks was excellent, with only varying degrees of excellence! Nothing I saw did I judge to be substandard. My only criticism would be that virtually every speaker made the comment that there wasn’t a lot of time. I don’t know what guidelines they had been given beforehand, but I got the impression that they may have all written 45 minute talks (or were cutting down an already-prepared hour long talk) and perhaps then on arrival were then told to leave 5-6 minutes at the end for questions. A couple of the talks felt really rushed, and on many occasions I was halfway through writing a line or a word, then the slide vanished! My favourite two sessions were the panel talk with the Ancestry Pro-Genealogists and David Annal’s ‘My Ancestor Was A Liar: Ignorance, Half-truths & Wilful Deceit’ which was fascinating and flawlessly delivered!
One thing I particularly appreciated was that not in one single talk were we told to ‘turn to the person next to you’ and say hello or discuss something. Who else hates that? Self-confessed introverted nerds like me (and probably the vast number of genealogists!) don’t do social niceties like this, so that lack of it was a great relief.

I attended two of the three keynote speeches and found them more entertaining than I expected. I’m not really into celebrities, so my expectation bar was low, however both the sessions I sat in were a lot of fun. The volume of the video clips and especially the music was too loud for me, so I had to block my ears for most of that, but it was entertaining, nevertheless.

The one and only Donny Osmond!

I did feel hugely sorry for RootsTech on the first day in the auditorium. There was a huge build up to the start of the first keynote session and they showed an emotive video about why we all matter. It was so good and I agreed with every word. It was a highly professional and slick video, almost like a big budget movie trailer, whose music and images gradually reached a crescendo at the end, designed to provoke an audience into wild whoops and screams of delight and roof-lifting applause when it went off – as I have no doubt it would do in Salt Lake City! Sadly, it was being shown to a largely British crowd, from whom it elicited a polite ripple of applause. I could only imagine the sinking feeling in the organisers – was it a good idea to bring this to London?! Yes, yes it was!!!
Family history clearly means a great deal to RootsTech and the LDS. It is part of their mission and for that, we are extremely grateful. There was no expense spared with this event. It obviously had been meticulously planned and thought through, with the attention to detail clear at every turn from the amazing app (which I’d quite like to have run my entire life – it was the best free app I’ve ever used) to the quality of the speakers and the venue, to the army of smiling volunteers. For me, despite a few niggles and teething troubles, it was a total success and I really hope they bring it back to London next year!

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