Behind the Scenes at RootsTech
By Jan Mayer
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?
Glad you asked.
What Does It Take to Launch RootsTech Year After Year?
If RootsTech appears to come off without a hitch, it’s thanks to an incredibly small, dedicated team of 10 employees and nearly 1,000 volunteers. Yes, 1,000 volunteers—as in, they donate their time for free. Salt Lake City is still laureled for running the first profitable winter Olympics in ages (see 2002 Winter Olympics 10 Years Later). The success was accredited to the tremendous outpouring of quality local volunteer support—an organic character trait of Utah residents. Well that spirit of community service is alive and well today and helps make RootsTech the affordable, world-class experience it is.
Come “showtime,” you will see volunteers canvassing the convention center, from the registration area to ushers, help centers, booths, room monitors, etc. They do it because they love to serve and believe deeply in the purpose of RootsTech—to help strengthen individuals and families through connections; to create a sense of belonging to a greater family society. Karen Hanna, a volunteer from Lehi, Utah, about 45 minutes south of Salt Lake City, has been serving as a RootsTech volunteer for 3 years. She helps things run smoothly in the show’s media hub—a center of activity for 100 news media and trade and social media ambassadors in attendance. She says, “Interacting with so many people who have the same interests and goals makes everyone feel like a friend or relative. Plus, we are able to see the celebrities and enjoy the fun entertainment.” You will never find or see a more smiling, happy bunch of volunteers as they go cheerfully about their assignments.
RootsTech Core Team
The RootsTech core staff team of 10 works year around. They conceive, organize and delegate every detail from beginning to end. They meet weekly—sometimes more—in the “War Room,” a converted conference room in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building just up the street from the Salt Palace Convention Center, to hash out ideas. They start planning the next year's show a week following the close of the previous RootsTech—while the experience and memories are still fresh.
“Every year, the team is encouraged to look at EVERYTHING they are planning and to put it to the test,” said event director, Jen Allen. “We want to keep it fresh. We watch and observe whether the experience is successful and then have the courage to change it up the next year,” she said.
For example, for the first time this year, several new features include a one-day workshop, Light-Keepers: A Family Experience for Women, and Heirloom Show and Tell, which will give conference-goers a chance to show an expert their antique or heirloom item or photo.
“When choosing the keynote speakers, presenters and exhibitors, we try to think outside the box, try new things and pursue new ideas,” Allen said. This is no small task with over 200 presenters and 2 keynotes each of the 4 days, plus performers.
The team also thoroughly reviews attendee survey results and feedback for every session to see what worked and what didn’t.
“The favorite part of my job is the process of creating an experience that thousands of people flock to each year,” said Brandon Beckstead, logistics manager. “After each RootsTech, we sit down and ask ourselves, ‘How can we make it any better?’ Year after year we manage to find a way. It takes thousands of hours and many sleepless nights, but the end-product is so amazing that we keep coming back for more.”
Tyler Stahle, marketing manager, agrees. “As a team, we’re very focused on providing the best experience possible for our attendees. We really try to think about who they are, what they want, and then we build our conferences accordingly,” he said.
“It takes commitment, collaboration, and trust,” added Libby Lewis, special events manager. “It also requires support from our FamilySearch and creative teams to get everything accomplished. Staying organized is a team effort. We leverage many tools to keep us on track. We each have assignments but don't hesitate to help one another.”
“This (RootsTech) team is a family, and like family we laugh together, fight together, and cry together,” explained Bergeson. “We work together as a council. Major decisions are brought before the team, and we counsel to determine the best solution for the conference. We may not always agree, but we always listen and learn from each other."
“We know each other so well, that we sometimes say the same thing at the same time," quips Bergeson. "We have a lot of fun together, throwing things at each other over cubicle walls to reduce stress, teasing each other through text messages, comforting each other during trials and ultimately supporting each other in every aspect of our lives. This team is more than just coworkers—we are FAMILY,” Bergeson emphasized.
Being part of such a solid team encourages each member to face their specific responsibilities head-on. But at the end of the day, their truest motivation comes from their personal experiences at the event itself.
Bergeson says that talking to people and hearing their personal stories makes the hard work worthwhile. “It’s a large crowd, but each person comes with his or her own goals and stories. One year I talked to a cute older couple about moving into the digital age. Every year since then, they find me and report their progress,” she recounted.
David Green, production manager, said that he enjoys his job of garnering the keynote and performing talent for the show because he knows so many people look forward to attending the RootsTech conference each year. Thousands are repeat attenders, and one of them is a teenager out of California who said RootsTech registration is her Christmas present from her parents.
“It’s rewarding to see all the planning and hard work pay off. It’s such a positive experience for attendees as they make connections with others and their roots,” he said. He mused that sometimes it's a challenge to describe to celebrity keynote candidates what RootsTech is all about and how big and dynamic it is. He says once they show up, see the crowds, the world-class production, and feel the unique spirit and vibrant energy of it all, they can't get enough.
“What makes RootsTech such a great event isn’t us," said Stahle, "but all of our attendees who join us each year. There’s so much passion and enthusiasm that it becomes contagious,” Stahle expressed.
Learn more at RootsTech.org.
RootsTech Fun Facts
Thousands of production parts must move in-sync for RootsTech to be a smooth-running, easy-to-navigate, top-notch event. This is no small-town operation. RootsTech is massive in scope, physical footprint, instructive impact, and technological muscle.
You may be amazed at the following behind-the-scenes details:
- RootsTech is the world’s largest family history event—over 70,000 attendees in-person and through live streams online.
- Physical setup officially begins before RootsTech starts, but the planning never ends. Plans for 2019 are already underway.
- The Salt Palace covers a city block—an area larger than 8 football fields for contiguous exhibition, so don’t forget your comfy shoes and step-trackers.
- The main auditorium alone is set up with 10,000 chairs. a 150 foot main stage, and a 70-foot-wide high definition screen.
- An additional 12,230 chairs are set up throughout the building.
- 480 synced computers, 10,000 feet of network cable, and 200 power strips.
- Miles of wires to enable 10,000 concurrently-running devices of high-speed internet and computer connections—including satellite uplink capability.
- Over 350 classes for beginners to professionals.
- 200+ class instructors.
- 457 exhibition booths.
- 190 vendors from book sellers, crafters, DNA service providers, to mobile app and software developers.
- 1000+ volunteers provide the man-power to fill in all the gaps. They will stuff bags, run check-in, scan badges, assist presenters—or anything that is needed. They can be identified by the t-shirts they wear.
- 100+ news media and trade and social media ambassadors—including 2 youth.
- 24 live streamed sessions online.
- 2 broadcast and 1 film crew.
- 70 hours of video and audio production for education, online content, and thought leadership.
- 140,000 live Facebook posts.
- Attendees from all 50 states and 50 countries.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jan Mayer, who spent most of her life in Colorado, graduated from BYU in Child Development/ Family Relations. Being a parent and grandparent has been the joy of her life, but she has also been a weekly writer for the Denver Post, an elementary school teacher, an editor for DISH Network, and a publisher of The LDS Community Journal, a monthly tabloid newspaper in the Denver area. In addition to serving in leadership positions in church and community, she is currently a volunteer writer for FamilySearch and a freelance writer. She and her husband, Richard, live in Cedar Hills, Utah, and have 5 children and 11 grand-children.
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RootsTech, hosted by FamilySearch, is a global conference celebrating families across generations, where people of all ages are inspired to discover and share their memories and connections. This annual event has become the largest of its kind in the world, attracting tens of thousands of participants worldwide.