I went to RootsTech! RootsTech is a family history and technology conference that is held every year here in Salt Lake City but somehow it’s always managed to conflict with either a family vacation or a different conference so I haven’t been. I was excited to finally attend and it exceeded my expectations but there was also a pretty steep learning curve so I thought I’d share my experiences and what I learned.
There are some affiliate Amazon links below when I talk about what I took to the conference but there are no sponsored links in this one. I really wanted to have my first time be totally unbiased since I wasn’t sure what to expect.
DISCLAIMER: So, I have a concussion. I fell and hit my head a couple of weeks ago and while I was lucky to not do any really scary damage, I do have a small skull fracture and a concussion that will apparently take more than a few weeks to stop being annoying. Because of this, I’m supposed to be on “brain rest” where I don’t think about anything, exert myself, or take in too much light/noise. Spoiler alert: RootsTech isn’t the best place for brain rest. While I don’t expect you to have my exact experience unless you’re similarly concussed, anyone who gets overwhelmed in crowds or who tires easily might find this recap particularly helpful.
I did as much of the conference as I could so I was there for all four days. As a local, I have a pass for the local train system so I didn’t have to worry about parking downtown and I was able to meet and chat with some fellow attendees on the way in.
I was a little worried about lines even though I’d had my badge mailed to me because I’d seen horror stories in other people’s recaps but it couldn’t have been easier to get a lanyard and pick up my conference bag. For the whole conference there were so many volunteers and different help stations that I never waited for help from anyone. Thanks, RootsTech!
Conference bag was standard and full of advertisements from vendors as well as a printed copy of the schedule:
I checked my conference bag along with my coat at the handy coat check station since I was using the RootsTech app to track the conference schedule. The app was a lifesaver because it let me personalize my schedule and had handouts for 80% of the sessions being presented. I did take the time to download most of the handouts for the whole conference and put them into a PDF so I could look at them later since it’s impossible to be at most of the classes. I haven’t read through them but I think most of them were pretty comprehensive.
Other than this bag, there was no “swag” for this conference, which is probably pretty standard but felt strange to me because I’m so used to going to blogger and influencer conferences where we all stumble out loaded with tote bags stuffed with test products. Not a complaint here because it was fun to just explore without feeling like I was working the conference but I wanted to point that out in case people were worried about missing actual stuff at the expo. Most of the booths were offering significant discounts on their products but nobody was just handing things out (beyond fun size candy bars) to every attendee.
Back to the recap – at this point the Expo Hall wasn’t open yet but there was a session that started at 8 AM. I walked in about five minutes early expecting to be able to easily grab a seat and ended up squishing between people because the seats were almost gone. Most session didn’t let people stand around the edges during the conference so if the seats were taken they kicked people out.
Lesson #1: if you really want to be in a session, get there ASAP to make sure you get a seat!
That session was good but it was mostly inspirational chat on archiving things and little peeks at new technology that might be coming. I think it was an appropriate session to start off the conference but I don’t have any valuable notes from that one because it was more of a “listen and enjoy” session.
I stayed for about 30 minutes for that session and then popped out to grab a seat in a different session that talked about breaking through genealogy roadblocks. I did have to be the awkward person who gets up and leaves while someone is talking but I saw that happen a lot at this conference and as long as people were quiet and quick about it, nobody seemed to mind. For all the sessions I went to at the conference, I probably stepped out and switched about 50% of the time because there were just too many topics I wanted to learn about.
Lesson #2: your body will hurt after this conference.
Little heads up for people who have never been to this one, whether or not you have a concussion: you will be sore. It’s more walking than you think it is and there’s something about those little red conference chairs that make sitting for more than an hour pretty uncomfortable. For this reason, I do really recommend taking conscious time to stretch, not bringing too much stuff to carry, and taking advantage of the limited softer seating out in the common areas when you can. I also can’t stress enough that you need comfortable shoes if you’re doing the whole conference! I made the mistake of wearing my casual boots on the second day and even though I run errands in those all the time, they KILLED my feet after a day of walking the conference.
Also, by the fourth day of the conference I figured out that I really needed some quiet down time if I was going to be able to avoid going home early with a headache. I prioritized which sessions were can’t-miss and I intentionally blocked out part of my schedule for “quiet time” right before those sessions to make sure my brain was ready to learn. And by quiet time, I mean I camped out like a weirdo in empty conference rooms, did some yoga stretches, meditated, charged my phone, and ate snacks I packed from home. No joke, I might haul a yoga mat around with me next year.
Lunch was provided on the first day and it was pretty nice considering how many box lunches they needed to buy, but there was almost no seating available so I saw a lot of frustrated people wandering around with their boxes trying to avoid sitting on the floor. I found a spot on a staircase and was perfectly comfortable. I even made some new friends after I grabbed a selfie. I’m so used to selfie-heavy conferences that it was funny how weird people found it when I grabbed a photo of me doing some random conference thing. Capturing the moment, people!
The afternoon sessions were good but my head started to hurt and I should have (A) grabbed some Tylenol or (B) taken the hint from my body that my brain needed some serious rest. Instead I tried to go to one of the main sessions in the giant ballroom complete with loud music, flashing lights, and lots of clapping. I lasted ten minutes before giving up my seat to a very grateful woman that was wandering around and left disappointed that I couldn’t be in the session. However, it turned out that they have overflow seating in a different ballroom without the loudness and the flashing. Thanks again, RootsTech!
The big conference sessions were good and they made some exciting announcements, including a large donation made by the LDS church to the International African American Museum, but they weren’t my favorite part of the conference and I didn’t go to most of the others. Personally I wanted to use my brain energy on the sessions where I would be doing some intense learning and I used the other sessions to take breaks, get snacks, walk outside, etc.
Despite moving out of the main session, my head was pounding by early evening and I should have just gone home. Instead, I waited around for the expo to open for the two hour “preview” night and I was part of the crowd standing around forever in front of the big doors counting down the minutes.
Lesson #3: you don’t have to rush the Expo Hall.
Judging from the mood of the crowd, I thought there were going to be some sort of exclusive first-come-first-served action inside the expo hall but I didn’t see any benefit in being there for the preview night vs. visiting the Expo Hall at any other point in the conference. It was exciting to see all of the booths but considering the state of my head I really should have just gone home.
The vendors in the Expo Hall run the gamut from home-based businesses to huge offshoot companies that are part of the LDS church. I didn’t talk to everyone but I stopped by most and picked up some good information. If anything, though, it really highlights how monetized genealogy has become and how many different places you can go for the same service. I feel like I need to be a lot more discerning about where I’m putting my genealogy spending.
Lesson #4: the vendor booth have their own sessions.
What I SHOULD have done that first night was go around to the booths to take photos of the presentation schedules so I could have added that to the schedule I had created from the main conference because there were presentations given in the booths that I would have enjoyed but I never remembered to be back at the booth at the right time. I’m definitely doing that next year.
More shots from the Expo Hall:
Lesson #5: do not wait to visit the Expo Hall on the last day.
I don’t know why you would wait, but don’t leave the Expo Hall for Saturday because that’s Family Day and there were so many families with kids that it was impossible to navigate the expo floor. Don’t do it!
My two favorite parts of the Expo Hall were the Coaches Corner and the Heirloom Show and Tell put on by Deseret Industries (the thrift store operation run by the LDS church). They had experts on hand to look at your items or photos of your items and they also had a nice display of historical artifacts that had been donated to the D.I. – so incredible what some people toss out!
The Coaches Corner was a place where you could sit down with a professional genealogist for a 25 minute appointment to get some help with your research. The appointments filled up fast but I was able to get an appt with Aimee, a coach who specializes in Pacific area research so I prepped some questions I had about my California-based family. I was really glad that I had sat down and fleshed out exactly what I wanted help with because the appointment went by so quickly but she gave me some great guidance and I walked about of the session with a whole list of new sources and ideas for next steps. Definitely worth making that appointment!
After the first day, lunch isn’t provided by the conference but there are lots of food vendors inside the convention center and the City Creek mall is right across the street if you don’t mind walking. The lunch hours are a generous amount of time but the tables inside the food court area filled up quickly so that’s another time that ducking out of a session a little early might come in handy. Also, it’s pretty impossible to save more than one seat. I mean, you can try but tons of people are trying to sit down and tables are limited so the people I saw who were trying to reserve whole tables at a time had reality crash down on them.
Lesson #6: take care of breakfast before the conference day starts.
The sessions started at 8 AM but the food vendors weren’t open that early inside the convention center so I ended up in a giant line for coffee and overpriced string cheese between the two morning sessions. I fixed that mistake the next three mornings and got THE BEST conference breakfast by grabbing a hot tea and breakfast burrito to go from Blue Lemon. Blue Lemon is a really short walk because it’s right across from the temple so it was no big deal to carry food back and it was much more reasonably priced ($10 for my whole delicious meal) than the conference food. You can pre-order online if you want to do a really fast pickup but I just ordered in person and never had to wait more than five minutes. It was also never crowded so this would be a good place to meet up with friends for breakfast before heading to the convention center.
As for the sessions themselves, most were good, some were really really really good, and some felt like a waste of time. I’d be prepared with a backup choice in case a session starts and it doesn’t feel like a good fit. Also, be aware of where you’re sitting. In one session that was being recorded, I sat in a place that made it impossible to sneak out without actually stepping in front of the cameras so I ended up being “trapped” even though he said early in the session that all of the material he was going to cover really only applied to people who are members of the LDS church.
(sad trumpet noise)
Lesson #7: pay extra attention to session descriptions if you aren’t LDS.
On the few times I either got bored in a session or was stuck for some reason I was able to actually get a lot of good genealogy work done because I carry all of my family history research on my iPad Pro. I’ve created my genealogy notebook using the Goodnotes app and a series of worksheets that I designed/imported. My iPad has tons of storage space and the digital notebooks are unlimited so I have no problem having each major family book stored on there. At home, I do print out each page and add them to my notebooks (I use a disc bound system – I’ll post more on that soon) just in case my iPad fails someday because I wouldn’t want to lose anything. However, for the purposes of this conference, it was amazing to be able to have every note or document I’ve ever collected right at my fingertips.
I saw a lot of people carrying around really full bags or pulling rolling bags around. Some of those could have been presenters or vendors but I think a lot of people were also carrying their research around. I totally get wanting to have it, especially if you’re going to take a break from the conference and walk over to the Family History Library, but it made my shoulders hurt to watch them. I did make an exception and take one of my scrap research notebooks on the day that I met with Aimee at the Coaches Corner just because I thought it would be faster for her to be able to see it all at once in a normal format.
A short list of what I took to the conference every day:
/// messenger bag (I carry a men’s vintage-inspired one because I like pockets and buckles)
/// charging cord and power bank
/// Tylenol (after the first day)
/// hand sanitizer (I shook a lot of hands and touched a lot of hand rails)
That’s it. They had water available so I didn’t need a water bottle and I didn’t worry about bringing a backup paper notebook because I knew between my iPad and my phone I’d be covered. Also, I had thought about bringing my DSLR just to capture the conference but it would have been totally unnecessary.
Anyway, when I got bored or took breaks I applied whatever I had learned in a previous session to places where my research was stalled out. I found a handful of new records, did a lot of housekeeping (organizing records, making lists), and I was able to match names to some old group photos I had been sitting on. In the one below, you can see that I’ve used the app and my Apple pencil to write the names on the photo – a handy trick when you plan on sharing that photo with your family members!
Some of the sessions were so good that I didn’t feel like I could take notes fast enough so occasionally I used my phone to grab a shot of the presenter’s slides. BIG TIP HERE: be sure the presenter is OK with you taking photos before you do this, especially if you came into a session late. About half of the sessions I went to were presented by people who explicitly stated that they did not want anyone taking photos and official RootsTech statements say not to take photos/video. A lot of these people do this professionally and want to reserve the information to be a privilege to those that paid to be at the conference so just double-check. Also, seeing other people taking photos does not count as double-checking.
/// the conference was both more and less social than I had thought. I went with specific goals to meet specific people and met none of them. There was so much going on that it was hard to be in the same place as someone else at the same time and when I needed quiet time, I couldn’t use that time to chat. I really wanted to connect with people my age and that didn’t happen as much as I’d hoped. However, I met TONS of random people just sitting around because everyone is happy to chat about research strategies or to share their own family stories. I was also able to connect with a lot of people who will be able to help me in a direct and immediate way with my research and left the conference with more contacts than I would have thought I would, as well as new friends scattered across the country (and the U.K.!).
/// I can’t stress how big the conference is, both in attendance and in geographic distance. I underestimated it because (A) I’d been to conventions here and (B) I thought I had an age advantage over the other attendees. I suppose I did but I still ended up sore and sprawled out on the floor in empty conference rooms so there you go.
/// take snacks if you can. It’s great that the food is available but it’s SO expensive.
/// if you’re local, this isn’t the time to go to the Family History Library. They have extra volunteers but it’s still way too busy. Go the next week when it’s emptied out, especially if you need help from the missionaries.
/// know what you’re interested in purchasing ahead of time so you don’t get sucked in by discount offers. I bought DNA tests but I wasn’t looking for art, charts, books, or genealogy-themed clothing so I didn’t give those booths more than a glance.
/// be prepared to accept that you don’t know what you thought you knew. I would have told people that I was an advanced genealogist but after this conference, I’ve learned that I’m intermediate-bordering-on-beginner. It’s exciting to think about how much further I’m going to get this year now that I have all of this knowledge and this list of new resources.
/// pay attention to the speakers and how you can find them later. A lot of the presenters are on social media or are reachable via email. By following them you can learn more from them after the conference or you might see them speaking at a different event near you. You can also see which experts they interact with and which social genealogy groups they support so you can get involved.
And, as always, my personal wish list of changes for the next conference:
/// more official photography! Again, I’m spoiled by blogger and influence conferences but I was hoping for more professional and shareable photos from the actual expo. I like being able to pull and share photos after the event because they help me remember it better and show me what I missed in such a big event.
/// more photo booth or Instagram background options. (I know, I know. Such a blogger thing to ask for.)
/// more sessions on Asian American family history. There were two. I hit them both. They were incredible. I would have paid the full ticket just for those two classes.
/// clearer descriptions for sessions that aren’t helpful if you aren’t LDS
My biggest takeaway from this conference is that the genealogy community is SO much larger than I thought it was. It’s really easy to feel like an island when you’re doing family history research, especially if people in your life are under-enthused with your dusty hobby. It felt really good to talk to people who are as excited about land records as I am and it was amazing to meet people who have the tools to help me break through some of these brick walls.
All in all, I loved it, I think it’s priced well for what you get, and I’ll definitely be back in 2020!