Hello, London — RootsTech takes its first international step with 3-day event in UK

LONDON — With Thursday’s start of the three-day RootsTech London, the world’s largest annual family history and technology conference has taken its first full step into an international setting. And even the city’s signature fog and drizzle couldn’t dampen the first-day spirits inside the London ExCel International Convention Center.

“It feels like a rock concert for people who like family history,” said Dan Snow, a British historian and TV personality who was Thursday’s keynote speaker, underscoring both the event’s energy and professionalism.

The “rock concert” label might be a little extreme for the midweek crowd tending to be on the senior side of the age spectrum, given the good share of seasoned genealogists from the United Kingdom.

Still, an enthusiastic Snow continued: “There’s a great feeling of camaraderie — a feeling here that everyone’s united by a common desire to learn about their families’ past and to share that with like-minded people.”

British historian and TV personality Dan Snow speaks during RootsTech London's General Keynote event Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019, in the London ExCel auditorium.
British historian and TV personality Dan Snow speaks during RootsTech London’s General Keynote event Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019, in the London ExCel auditorium. Credit: Scott Taylor

Steve Rockwood, the CEO of event-hosting FamilySearch, highlighted London — RootsTech’s first effort outside of Salt Lake City and the United States — as a special location and gateway to the rest of the world.

“We have the purpose to create inspiring experiences for all people as they discover their families, gather their families and connect their families past, present and future — and ‘all’ means all,” he said. “So we’re thrilled of this being well-established — in the U.S., the U.K. and in Europe — and London will be our gateway to Asia, our gateway to the Middle East and our gateway to Africa.”

But future international endeavors may not look much like RootsTech London or the original Salt Lake City versions.

The first RootsTech in Salt Lake City sought to mesh genealogy and family history with technology — hence, the convention’s name. The inaugural effort drew only 1,500 attendees — that’s less than a quarter of those who registered for the first RootsTech London 10 years later.

“We are expecting this to unfold and to bloom as the days go on,” Rockwood said Thursday, Oct. 24. “We’re actually thrilled — we thought this would be reminiscent of RootsTech in Salt Lake 10 years ago.”

RootsTech London has about 6,000 attendees registered — the first 1,000 soon after it was announced in Rockwood’s keynote address at RootsTech in Salt Lake City last February. Besides most participants hailing primarily from London and the U.K., 400 have come from the United States, 300 from Australia and 150 each from France and Germany, with most European nations represented among the attendees.

FamilySearch CEO Steve Rockwood speaks with media representatives and bloggers in the London ExCel exhibition hall at RootsTech London on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019.
FamilySearch CEO Steve Rockwood speaks with media representatives and bloggers in the London ExCel exhibition hall at RootsTech London on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. Credit: Scott Taylor

Participation should increase through Friday, Oct. 25, and then reach a total of upwards of 10,000 expected by Saturday afternoon, Oct. 26. That’s when the local Latter-day Saints are expected to flood the convention to use free resources and access enabling them to discover, gather and connect family relationships. Also, Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Susan Bednar, will host a pair of member events that afternoon and evening.

The London ExCel provides ample space to host RootsTech London, which is filling only the east end of the 100-acre property that was home to several 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics events and is big enough to have a Formula E race next summer mapped around it. In fact, starting Friday, RootsTech will share ExCel with the larger MCM Comic Con, expected to draw more than 50,000.

London seemed to be a logical location for a first international RootsTech, given the Church’s extensive history first in Great Britain in the mid-1800s and then throughout much of Europe. Testing the international waters in London was much easier, given the shared English language for signage, materials and presentations with Utah-based RootsTechs. And the city, country and continent provided a new fertile ground not only for attendees but future partner relationships as well as the chance to reach more archivists and records officials.

The three-day convention, which runs through Saturday, features 150 breakout sessions on topics ranging from DNA testing and preserving photos to organizational tips and technological tools. Nearly 200 partners, vendors and exhibitors have filled the exhibition hall, along with a Discovery Zone similar to those used in Salt Lake City in past years.

In addition to the some of the same RootsTech sponsors from Salt Lake City — FamilySearch, Ancestry, Trace, 23andMe and more — the London convention has brought on a half-dozen first-time British and European sponsors, including France’s Coutot-Roehrig, the British Library, Great Britain’s Society of Genealogists and Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine.

A Ancestry presenter leads a group presentation during RootsTech London on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019, in the London Excel exhibition hall.
A Ancestry presenter leads a group presentation during RootsTech London on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019, in the London Excel exhibition hall. Credit: Scott Taylor

The latter is part of a of “Who Do You Think You Are” franchise that includes the still-going-strong BBC television program showing celebrities and their family histories, the TLC show by the same title in the United States and another 16 international versions of the TV show. It also fostered a popular decade-long family history convention — “Who Do you Think You Are Live” — that ended two years ago, with RootsTech London helping fill the convention niche left by that annual event.

After its simple start 10 years ago, RootsTech in Salt Lake has since ballooned to annual crowds of upwards of 30,000, busting at the Salt Palace Convention Center’s seams. And while some 80 percent of the RootsTech attendees in Salt Lake City are Latter-day Saints, that same percentage of this year’s London’s attendees are not Church members.

Steve Manning wears not only two hats but two name badges — as chairman of the London-based Family History Foundation and a Church-service family history missionary. He sees RootsTech London as not only an opportunity for FamilySearch to puts its purpose, partnerships and shared resources on display for local family historians but also for local Latter-day Saints to step up and contribute to the cause.

Steve Manning's two name badges — one as chairman of the Family History Federation and the other as a Church-service family history missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Photo taken during RootsTech London on Oct. 24, 2019.
Steve Manning’s two name badges — one as chairman of the Family History Federation and the other as a Church-service family history missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Photo taken during RootsTech London on Oct. 24, 2019. Credit: Scott Taylor

“We’re suffering from a lack of volunteers,” said Manning of local genealogy and family history efforts, “and Church members are so well-prepared — they know how to work in committees and selflessly. We need them to help the family history work go forward, and the skills they’ve got will be invaluable in the family history community.”

Through his foundation work, the 70-year-old Manning said he enjoys his associations with the many non-member genealogists “who obviously feel the same way I do but don’t know why. … We can work together to achieve great things.”

FamilySearch and the Church’s Europe Area have been working on putting together RootsTech London well before February’s announcement of the inaugural move “across the pond.”

“For years, we’ve been asked to expand. We’ve wanted to, but we have to be very measured in our response,” Rockwood said. “There’s something very special about London, the U.K. and Europe. At least 95 percent of our members at FamilySearch have at least one of their bloodlines here in the UK or Europe.”

FamilySearch could replicate similar RootsTech conferences across the globe in the future — or it could take a simplified approach. Borrowing from the new “home-centered, Church-supported” emphasis, future family history conventions may not be full-blown, FamilySearch-hosted RootsTech offerings but rather “Church area-centered, Family History Department-supported” events.

That’s what is being done this weekend in Mexico City with the Mexico Area’s second-annual ExpoGenealogía, a two-day family history event held in the city’s World Trade Center. The event’s home page even states “con el apoyo de FamilySearch,” Spanish for “with the help/support of FamilySearch.”

The ExpoGenealogía may be more geared to exhibitions and demonstrations rather than class-laden like RootsTech London, but an area-centered approach would allow a customization for local needs, interests and opportunities.

RootsTech London attendees and FamilySearch assistants gather at the FamilySearch booth in the London ExCel exhibition hall on Thursday, Oct. 24. 2019.
RootsTech London attendees and FamilySearch assistants gather at the FamilySearch booth in the London ExCel exhibition hall on Thursday, Oct. 24. 2019. Credit: Scott Taylor

For Snow, much of the world’s history is of the past lives, dealings and experiences of prominent families, reigning families and royal families. Today, technology is the great equalizer for the everyday family.

“Technology has given us all the power that previously was reserved for just a handful of very wealthy and powerful families — we each carry around in our pocket a supercomputer capable of searching the entire written records human history, if they’re digitized,” Snow said.

“What was just the exclusive reserve of the royal family — charting their ancestors and finding pictures of them and hanging them on the wall — is now an option that every single one of us has. … There’s never been a better time to access our history as individuals.”