Discover your family story at RootsTech this October

By Editor, 3 September 2019 - 3:08pm

Sarah Williams talks to FamilySearch CEO Steve Rockwood and RootsTech director Jen Allen about the world's largest family history gathering coming to London

RootsTech expo hall
The busy Expo Hall at RootsTech in Salt Lake City 

RootsTech is coming to London. For most people in the UK that won’t mean much but for genealogists it’s big news and with DNA kits flying off the shelves at the moment it feels like the right time for an event that will help all kinds of people discover their ancestral roots.

Originally a small conference aimed at genealogists interested in technology, RootsTech, run by FamilySearch, is now the star show in the American genealogical calendar, with over 27,000 people attending the event in Salt Lake City in 2018.

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Recently I caught up with FamilySearch CEO Steve Rockwood and RootsTech Director Jen Allen and asked them why they decided to bring this iconic event to London.

“RootsTech in Salt Lake City has grown, we’re celebrating our tenth conference in February, and it felt like a good time to try out a new location,” Jen explains. “For many years people were asking us if we could try RootsTech somewhere else and London felt like an easy place to get to for most of Europe.”

“95% of the people attending RootsTech can claim the UK or Europe as their homelands,” Steve adds. “We’ve been meeting here in the States but most of the time we are talking about the other side of the pond. As we were looking at how to spread the incredible benefits of not just RootsTech but of family history it was natural for us to go to the homelands. As an industry, western genealogy started in the UK so it’s the perfect part of the world for us to venture to.”

Having been to RootsTech in the States I can testify to its size. The conference offers a huge number of talks, or classes as RootsTech calls them, so you can put together your own itinerary as well as a large, buzzing Expo Hall where you can discover what’s available for family historians and get one-on-one help. 

RootsTech kids
Families are welcome to join in the discovery at RootsTech on the Saturday

The cost of attending RootsTech however is higher than a British audience is used to paying for a family history fair, with prices starting at £49 for a day pass.

Jen explains the pricing, “When you come to RootsTech, everything you see is included. A lot of other conferences you pay a base price but you still have to pay for every class you want to go to. At RootsTech you pay for a three-day pass and you get to go to all of the keynote speakers and classes and it’s just a much richer learning experience. You are able to pick and choose and cater to your own needs and create the learning experience you want.”

Steve adds, “We are not in this to make money. RootsTech is one very expensive way to support the industry. The fee simply offsets some of the costs. We have never looked at RootsTech as just another genealogy conference. It started with bringing genealogists and technologists together but then we realised we needed to bring in family historians and the curious and then we wanted to bring in record custodians and archivists and now we are looking to attract young people with thousands of teenagers and children coming to RootsTech on our family days. Having all of these different groups coming together is unprecedented around the world. And now, for Europeans, we have eliminated the air fare to Salt Lake City. You don’t want to miss this global gathering.”

I ask whether talks would be tailored to a British audience and Jen is keen to show they have considered the ethnic diversity of their potential attendees.

“We wanted to make sure this was a global conference, not just focussing on UK records. We have made room for classes on Caribbean, African, Asian and Indian genealogy so you can learn how to start or tackle your existing family history research in those areas.”

Looking at the RootsTech London schedule the global theme really shines through with talks on Canadian, Australian, Irish, German, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Chinese genealogy amongst others.

Visitors with global roots will also get help in the Expo Hall as Jen explains, “You will see stands representing different parts of the world, offering advice on the different records and family history methodology. There will be experts answering questions, pointing people in the right direction whatever question they are trying to tackle. The conference will feel very global.”

It’s not just those with international queries who will get help in the Expo Hall, there will be a number of opportunities for one-to-one help from genealogists on stands including the Society of Genealogists, Trace, Findmypast, Ancestry and of course FamilySearch.

This level of personalised help is something that Steve feels makes RootsTech so special, “The exhibitors aren’t there just to sell their wares. They are there to provide help. When you approach any of our exhibitors they are there to help you discover your family.”

RootsTech DNA offers

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DNA advice and special offers

The rise of DNA testing is transforming family history and Steve recognises that that will attract visitors.

“DNA is a very powerful and popular discovery tool now, but that’s just a start and RootsTech is where you can continue on with that journey of discovery.”

As well as a range of talks covering different aspects of DNA research, the Expo Hall is going to include a DNA Basics Learning Centre where visitors can ask about any of the companies or kits on offer as well as the various tools and features that will help you get more out of your DNA test.

“We will have experts who can help point you in the right direction based on your needs, what you want to find out and maybe your own family history,” Jen promises.

My experience of RootsTech in the States is that visitors can also get some pretty good deals with DNA testing kits making it a good opportunity to pick up a bargain along with the personalised advice.

Although many of the talks look like they are aimed at experienced genealogists, there are some targeted more towards beginners. I ask Steve what there would be for those new to family history.

“We have always been keen to attract those who might just be onlookers, people thinking about taking their first steps on this incredible journey. We sum it all up in one word, ‘Discovery’. So we provide places where people can discover very simple things like where their family name comes from or where their ancestral homeland might be and this can lead to further discoveries helped by expert genealogists.” .

Donny_Osmond_RootsTech
Donny Osmond will be coming to London in October to share his family story at RootsTech
 

Keynote speakers

There are also inspirational general talks given by the keynote speakers including TV historian Dan Snow on the Thursday, British parasport athlete Kadeena Cox on the Friday and pop icon Donny Osmond on the Saturday with genealogist Nick Barratt as host and emcee for the event. 

“A lot of people ask ‘Why have speakers like Donny Osmond or Kadeena Cox, they have nothing to do with genealogy?’” Jen admits, “But that’s actually kind of the RootsTech model. We love to bring in people who maybe don’t fit the standard genealogist model but they are inspiring and broaden our thoughts about what genealogy is.”

As well as a chance to hear Donny Osmond speak, Saturday is also offering activities for families in the Expo Hall. “There will be some additional fun things we will be adding on Saturday specifically for children using smart phones as well as more traditional painting and balloon animals and lots more. We encourage people to bring their family on that day.”

“This is a gathering and not just a family history fair,” Steve adds, “you can bring your children or your spouse and come and discover as a family.”

And for those who cannot make it to London?

“Well we hope everyone can make it to our gathering,” Steve says, “That’s why we chose ExCeL. We could have chosen a much less expensive venue but in order to accommodate the gathering and to bring the motion and the spirit that is so unique to this industry we chose this venue. But for those who cannot come we want them still to gather virtually and that’s why for years we have made sure people can come to RootsTech online and the same will apply to London.”

“We will be broadcasting many of our sessions,” Jen explains. “There will be a small fee for that which we will be announcing in the next few weeks. For those who cannot attend this will be an opportunity to watch the keynote sessions and some of the other class sessions.”

I ask whether RootsTech London will become a regular event but they tell me it’s too early to say.

“If people come to the gathering then we hope this will be the beginning of some wonderful things. This will truly be an unmissable event,” Steve promises, “As you discover your family, you discover yourself. It’s all about connection.”

Get 25% off a 3-day pass at RootsTech London with exclusive code JS25

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