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How going virtual and free could be a ‘game changer’ for RootsTech Connect

Thousands attend RootsTech at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020.
Thousands attend RootsTech at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. This year’s free, virtual RootsTech Connect is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of participants.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Organizers of this year’s RootsTech Connect believe having a free, virtual event during the COVID-19 pandemic will be a “game changer” of epic proportions.

With the world’s largest family history conference less than a week away, Feb. 25-27, more than 315,000 participants from more than 200 countries and territories worldwide have registered with nearly 90% of those participating for the first time.

That’s a dramatic increase from previous years in the Salt Palace Convention Center, with about 30,000 attending in person and an average of 100,000 online viewers, according to Jen Allen, one of RootsTech Connect’s director of events at FamilySearch and one of the event’s main organizers.

“It has been a challenge and a learning curve,” Allen said. “But the fact that so many people can engage in the learning and the inspiration from around the world, it’s been just incredible to watch that grow. ... This is a game changer. The global approach of it will never go away.”

For a long time, organizers weren’t sure what would happen with the pandemic. When they made the decision to go virtual last fall, questions about how to plan and host such a conference and whether to charge a fee weren’t easily resolved. Despite the uncertainty and deadlines, the team created a new website, found 13 international keynote speakers and prepared a library of content, among other preparations, in a matter of months.

RootsTech event director Jen Allen, left, smiles during a conversation with Brandon Beckstead, another RootsTech organizer.
Jen Allen, FamilySearch

“We’re excited to see how this brand of RootsTech can bring people together from all over the world and hopefully, help them feel connected and a sense of belonging in this world,” Allen said.

The 2020 RootsTech conference was one of the last mass gatherings in Utah before the COVID-19 pandemic closed everything down in March. In the months that followed, organizers watched and waited to see what would happen as they eyed the 2021 event.

The decision to host a free, virtual-only conference was made around September. Many were sad to lose the in-person connection, and there were many issues to resolve, but the situation presented some unexpected opportunities as well. At least they could finally move forward.

“It was actually kind of a peaceful decision to finally say we’re just going to focus on a virtual event and not worry about gathering this year next year,” Allen said.

The biggest challenge was building a website to host the global event. Organizers spent three months researching multiple platforms for purchase before deciding to have a team of developers and engineers build their own website.

“In the end, we realized no other platforms had what we needed, and we needed something that would take it to the whole world,” Allen said. “That was extremely challenging, still is, by the way. We’re going to be up and running, but it may only be a couple days before the event.”

Thousands attend RootsTech at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020.
Thousands attend RootsTech at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. This year’s free, virtual RootsTech Connect is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of participants.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Paul Nauta, a public relations manager for FamilySearch, said expanding the RootsTech experience to a more global audience will allow more people to make new family connections.

“We’ve had people worldwide attend RootsTech, but nothing like the possibilities of a being totally virtual would do, and particularly being completely free,” he said. “Knowing the joy that comes from discovering yourself and your family, creating a sense of belonging and how it changes you, it made it really exciting for us to try and figure out how to translate that to a global audience in a new platform, in multiple languages and change the way we help people learn.”

While the website was under construction, the staff lined up 13 internationally-renowned keynote speakers, some of whom will be speaking in their native languages.

“We have Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Japanese, and yet everyone around the world in 11 different languages will be able to watch these keynote speakers and their inspirational messages,” Allen said.

The list of 2021 keynote speakers includes:

  • Erick Avari, an actor from India.
  • Francesco Lotoro, Italian pianist, composer and collector of music composed during the Holocaust.
  • Diego Lugano, former professional soccer player from Uruguay.
  • Sharon Leslie Morgan, author and genealogist dedicated to African American genealogical research.
  • Lorena Ochoa, former top-ranked LPGA golfer from Mexico.
  • Sunetra Sarker, actress with household name in British film and television.
  • Nick Vujicic, motivational speaker and bestselling author from Australia.
  • Astrid Tuminez, president of Utah Valley University who was born in the Philippines.
  • bless4, chorus and dance group from Japan.
  • Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Zulu-style musical group from South Africa.
  • Tita, also known as Milton Queiroz da Paixão, Brazilian soccer player.
  • Will Hopoate, professional rugby league player from Australia.
  • Bruna Benites, soccer Olympian from Brazil.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, along with his wife, Sister Patricia T. Holland, will be the featured speakers at Family Discovery Day.

For those interested in learning about the various aspects of family history work, the website will feature close to 2,000 “video learning opportunities,” (including 1,100 classes) in up to 40 languages. Visitors can access this content all year long using a “guide me” catalog system, which creates a playlist based on a person’s interests.

“What we are creating here is a learning library for people to come back over and over and it’s free,” Allen said.

Allen said organizers debated for months about whether to charge for the content or make it free. The new website wasn’t cheap. They created pricing models for different parts of the world — Peru vs. America vs. England — but it was complicated. Ultimately, simplicity won out.

“It was a hard decision, but in the end, because our No. 1 goal was to make this global, we had to make it free,” she said. “That’s the one argument that continued to resonate with everybody. ... That’s clearly the one decision that’s made this whole needle move way more than we ever could have imagined.”

Thousands attend RootsTech at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020.
Thousands attend RootsTech at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. This year’s free, virtual RootsTech Connect is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of participants.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

In addition to being a virtual-only conference, one of the biggest differentiators between this year and previous years is the website feature “Connect.” It’s essentially a high-functioning chat tool that allows people to connect with others — other participants, exhibitors, speakers, staff or volunteers. As part of their preparations, Allen said the team spent hours watching over virtual events. When there was no ability to communicate, the event felt stale and stagnant.

“That chat feature is going to be I think the magic of the event,” Allen said. “It was one of the biggest things we wanted to have available.”

One part of “Connect” is the popular “Relatives at RootsTech” feature. At past conferences, FamilySearch engineers made it possible for people on the Family Tree Mobile App to see who they are related to within a two-block radius of the Salt Palace. This year engineers expanded from the two-block radius to the entire world.

“Now you might find a cousin in Norway, Ireland or I don’t know, Argentina. We’re widening that scope,” Allen said. “You’ll be able to see who your cousins are and start a chat with them if you want.”

One of the biggest questions people had was how to create a virtual Expo Hall. While participants can’t physically stroll through the vast Expo Hall as before, they can peruse through more than 90 virtual booths of companies and organizations and either chat live with an expert or watch a video to learn about a product. They can also download resources and purchase products.

“We’re trying really hard to mimic that in-person experience,” Nauta said. “I think with the short runway they’ve had, they are doing an amazing job trying to deliver it.”

To learn more and register for RootsTech Connect, go to rootstech.org.