And while a genealogist could go broke traveling around the United States or even Internationally to attend conferences, it's important to single out those that will benefit you the most and then to make a plan so that you get the maximum benefit from your attendance. While it is fun to travel and meet other genealogists, it is also important that your attendance enables you to become a better researcher and achieve your genealogical goals.
Before the Conference
One of the biggest reasons I hear from researchers about why they don't attend conferences is the expense involved. There's no doubt that after you figure in travel, food, conference registration, expenses at home (childcare, lost hours from work) and other expenses (at a recent event I had to buy a cold weather wardrobe that I didn't have living in a warm climate), it can get costly. That's why I suggest to people to make a plan, even if it's a year or more in advance to meet those expenses so that you can attend.
Take time to check out possible conferences and learning experiences that you may be interested in and plan ahead. Conferences to consider include:
There are also more intensive learning experiences like Institutes that are week-long events you may find interesting:
As I prepare financially to go to a conference I do things like check out whether the hotel has a refrigerator/microwave in the room so I can save on eating out expenses, or I use travel comparison website like Kayak to get the best price on airfare, hotel or a rental car, and look into sharing expenses with a friend or fellow genealogist by sharing a room or a rental car. Consider contacting the local chamber of commerce or visitor's bureau of the conference host city for possible discounts to area restaurants and museums.
Prior to the conference and in the weeks and days leading up to the conference, take time to review the syllabus and schedule. Many times conferences will upload the syllabus for registered participants to download. Use this as a time to plan out what presentations and events you will attend.
At the Conference
Network, Network, Network
When I am at a conference I'm scanning participant's name tags for ancestral surnames and places. I'm talking to other conference goers in between sessions, asking what presentations they went to and what they learned. I'm networking with other genealogists and learning from their experiences.
I even use this chance to speak to my "genealogical heroes." I approach them and express how I love their book or ask a specific question about research that I think they may be able to provide some insight. No, I don't sit there and grill them about my grandfather's land grants. I may ask a quick question but it's important to remember that speakers are busy so you don't want to tie up all of their time as they prepare for presentations, but there's nothing wrong with asking a quick to the point question.
Use your time at the conference to visit genealogy vendors and have them demonstrate their products; ask for help with their search engine; check out the books for sale and purchase resources that are hard to find. During conferences, exhibitors tend to place items on sale as a "conference special." Use this time to get a discount on an item that you have been wanting. This is a great time to compare products and ask questions of staff members who know their product.
Genealogy conferences provide a time to buy those products that you may not have access to otherwise. Before you go, factor in luggage room for any purchases like books and vendor freebies that you may pick up.
Don't Skip Sessions
It can be tempting to go use the hotel pool or see the local sites but don't skip sessions. This is your opportunity to invest in your genealogical education -- use it. Even when you think that you know everything about the subjects being presented. I have sat in on many genealogy lectures, even lectures that I present to groups, and picked up additional ideas or websites. Everyone approaches a topic differently. I would also recommend attending lectures on topics that might stretch your current knowledge.
Many conferences, especially the national ones provide the syllabus and presentation schedule to those who have registered, online prior to the conference. Use this time, pre-conference, to figure out which presentations are your must-sees.
One of the great opportunities a conference provides is sharing what you learn. Consider using social network sites to give a shout out about products you've learned about, to share a new website or a thought from a presentation. By blogging or posting to social network sites like Facebook, Google+, Twitter or GenealogyWise you provide information to those who are unable to attend the conference. Genealogists use social network sites to ask questions about the conference, provide information about late breaking details and to share what they've learned. Most conferences have a Twitter hashtag (a pound sign followed by the name or initials of the conference like #rootstech or #NGS2012). Use the conference experience as a way to reach out to genealogists who are at the conference or who are at home.
Read The Syllabus, All Of It
When you are waiting in between sessions, eating lunch or even relaxing in the hotel at the end of the day, read the handouts from all of the sessions. These handouts provide valuable insights including bibliographies and websites. Even in sessions that have nothing to do with the research you are doing, you may find an approach, a technique or a website that may be of help. I spend time, before during and after the conference reading the entire syllabus. It's a great way to review the presentations you heard and learn from the presentations you couldn't go to.
After the Conference
Besides recuperating from your travel, use the days after the conference to go through your syllabus and check out the websites recommended by the presenters. Write out research plans based on what your learned. Connect with those you met by emailing them or "friending" them on social network sites.
While attending a genealogy conference may seem like something that can be impossible because of timing, finances or family obligations, it is an investment in your genealogical education which will pay you back in breaking down your research brick walls. When you do get the opportunity to attend a conference make sure that you make the most of it, plan what you are going to do and then follow-up on all that you learned.