A beehive-buzz of excitement and anticipation grows the deeper you move into the crowds of RootsTech, a trending international conference held in Utah with up to 30,000 in-person attendees and another 50,000 online. It is hands-down, the largest family history-related event in the world. Very impressive for a nonprofit organization. (RootsTech is hosted by FamilySearch, an international nonprofit subsidiary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).
It's come a long way from its humble roots as a computer genealogy conference in 1998 on the campus of Brigham Young University with 400 attendees. Today, the world-class conference extends over 4 days and encompasses the entire convention center in downtown Salt Lake City. Every corridor of the facility, including the expansive expo hall, are crammed with congenial crowds examining the latest family history-related products, larger-than-life photos towering overhead, or using the show's robust mobile app to check the current status of their daily class schedules or to download electronic copies of a few of the over 300 syllabi for the sessions they will attend.
You can't help but notice the constant roar of enthusiastic chatting that fills the air as the throngs of smiling people—family, friends, colleagues, and total strangers—snap selfies and group photos, engage in discussion over a new family history discovery, or discuss personal goals for the show or where they picked up some cool swag. The instant camaraderie feels as if you’re hanging out with ten thousand of your closest friends, or even family. And that's not an exaggeration. For this crowd, they are really into family connections—and belonging. They resolutely believe that the more we build our family tree—either through DNA or historical sources, in time, we are all connected—literally one big family from the grand perspective of things.
“The atmosphere is electric and vibrant,” expressed Tara Bergeson, program director for RootsTech. “From inspiring speakers to the displays, products, and entertainment, the whole event is amazing!” There is a lot of attention paid to details Bergeson says. She says some attendees have described the energy and ambiance of the show as a hybrid of the Consumer Electronic Show and Disneyland for the family history market.
DNA research is soaring in popularity with the low cost and variety of testing kits and growing online family trees. Large commercial corporations like Ancestry.com, MyHeritage, findmypast.com, 23andMe, and Living DNA are sponsors of the event and all offer DNA services. RootsTech aficionados are accustomed to flocking to these companies' exhibits to snag deep discounts on their DNA kits. They literally line up to purchase them—in some cases, multiple sets for family, friends, or as gifts—before inventory on hand is depleted.
RootsTech is a far cry from the bookish library setting that some might expect of a genealogy and family history crowd. The satellite truck parked behind the convention center, 150-foot main stage, and a 70-foot, high-definition TV screen looming overhead are all additional clues that there is more to this event than meets the eye. In just a few years, RootsTech has arrived, drawing top keynote speakers—the Property Brothers, Drew and Jonathan Scott, Star Trek's Lavar Burton, First Lady Laura Bush, and Dr. Henry Louis Gates, to name a few.
The show usually draws 25,000 + attendees in person and more than 50,000 will view the keynotes and the selection of free sessions streamed daily online. And attendees range in age from children to grandparents, depending on the day and event. Saturday is Family Discovery Day—a free day for families or younger attendees who typically can't peel away from school during the week to attend. The numbers double with up to 20,000 more attendees.
"It's extra magical on Saturday," says Tyler Stahle, RootsTech marketing manager. "You can feel the energy and excitement soar as the crowds of family and youth further fill the event. It's common to see 3 generations, sometimes 4, busily taking in the activities, smiling, laughing, and learning together."
Stahle says the event is a marvel to behold. "People come from all over the country and world to participate." Literally, there are attendees from all 50 of the United States, and 50 countries on average. Stahle says conference goers hail from as far away as Australia, and countries in Africa. Some are demonstrating a new mobile app, online software, or creative new products for preserving and sharing family photos, stories, and memories.
When you're on the ground and caught up in the revel of it all, it makes one wonder, who comes up with the ideas for the show itself and how do they make it happen?