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How RootsTech Connect went from 130,000 to 1.1 million

Organizers discuss key lessons and highlights from the largest gathering in the event’s 10-year history

More than one million family history enthusiasts who attended the all-virtual RootsTech Connect 2021 could view the presentations from the comfort of their homes.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Following last week’s first virtual-only RootsTech Connect, organizers have counted more than 1.1 million participants from over 240 countries and territories — by far the largest global gathering in the conference’s 10-year history.

Last year’s event only drew about 130,000 (in person and online attendance).

For Elder Kevin S. Hamilton, a General Authority Seventy and executive director of the Family History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Steve Rockwood, CEO of FamilySearch International, this is only the beginning.

“As Steve said in his remarks last week, that’s the ribbon-cutting for this new learning resource we’ve established,” Elder Hamilton said Tuesday. “We expect there will be many, many more people come in the weeks and months to follow.”

The Deseret News spoke with Elder Hamilton, Rockwood and Jen Allen, the event director, this week about the record-breaking, family history conference, discussing the highlights and what they learned for future events. Here are their thoughts.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Deseret News: What led 1 million people to RootsTech Connect?

Elder Kevin Hamilton: People come to RootsTech because they want to connect. That’s the power of connection, especially the living connecting with the living. We always think of genealogy as the living connecting to their deceased ancestors. But I think the driver on this was the function called “Relatives of RootsTech,” which allowed people to see who of their living relatives was attending. Hundreds of thousands literally, most of the people that came to RootsTech, participated in one way or another with Relatives at RootsTech. It was a very powerful experience. We have stacks of anecdotes of people that found and connected to cousins. I, myself, found many, like 15 or 20 second cousins, meaning we have the same great-grandparents, people I had never met. As we connected and got acquainted, it was a powerful feeling, a remarkable experience. That, I think is what drove people to RootsTech, the desire to connect.

Jen Allen: They wanted to connect, and connect is kind of a broad term. ... It was pretty powerful. Without that drive for connection, I don’t know that (RootsTech Connect) would have been quite as successful.

Melanie Gibby and her daughter, Anna Gibby, use Compare-a-Face to see what famous people and ancestors Anna looks like at the FamilySearch booth during RootsTech at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020.
Melanie Gibby and her daughter, Anna Gibby, use Compare-a-Face to see what famous people and ancestors Anna looks like at the FamilySearch booth during RootsTech at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020. This year’s event was virtual only and drew more than 1.1 million participants worldwide.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

DN: What were your projections for RootsTech attendance before the conference and what was your reaction to surpassing 1 million?

Steve Rockwood: The projections kept changing. When we first announced it we thought, “All right, how do we accommodate up to 40 or 50,000 people.” Then in the first signups, we said, “Oh, we’re talking about 100,000 people.” Then we were looking at 200-250,000 maybe 300,000. Then in the last week, it all of the sudden raced up. We knew there would be a spike in registrations, and it got up to 500,000 people. The big question was, “How many of those 500,000 that registered would actually come?” We made sure we built the system that could accommodate well over 500,000 concurrent attendees. ... The whole time we were thinking, “We just want to make sure we can accommodate these people so that they have a good experience.” It was all about the platform and the customer care, which was all manual, that we wouldn’t have any lines and that we wouldn’t have any failures. It worked out beautifully. So we were super blessed and not only did a million people come, but we accommodated them.

JA: It was almost this feeling of “Oh, I should have had a little more faith and believed that we would have gotten there.” It’s just incredible. I can’t even believe that’s really the number we’re talking about.

DN: While it’s too early to say what will happen in 2022, what did you learn from this year’s conference that you hope to apply in future events?

EKH: Connection is really the key. People just long to connect. It’s in our DNA. It’s deep in our psyche. We want to be part of a family. We want to know where we come from, who we come with, and how we connect.

Global was an experiment that worked. We can do a global conference. We learned a lot. We’ll do some things differently next year. But we can put on a global conference that feels very local to the people participating in it.

One of the things we learned is that we had a little of something for everyone. We had beginners, intermediate, advanced. We had industry, professionals, archivists. Because it was so inclusive that everybody had something they could participate in, it had this broad reach and appeal. That was very helpful as we went out and tried to make this meaningful for all of our attendees.

One of the smart things that our people did early on is decide to use YouTube as the video hosting service. That was a bold move because it’s somewhat out of our control. But YouTube, owned by Google, has the capability of worldwide traffic. That ended up being a very savvy thing to do and was a good move for us.

SR: We always have a big volunteer base to serve and host those at the conference. We were armed with hundreds and hundreds of volunteers. What we found was heartwarming and a bit of surprise. The community answered their questions themselves. They were helping each other. They were connecting to each other to find out they were related and they were helping each other when it came to actually hosting each other at the conference. It ended up being a community-hosted conference and our volunteers were able to do other things versus answering a bunch of questions. ... That was a key learning and it gives us real opportunity to expand in the future as to how can we facilitate the community to help each other.

JA: Global worked and the only reason it could have worked and thrived like it did is because it was a free experience. So I don’t think you’ll see those things go away. Will there be a cost for those who come on site? Where will we be in the world? I think those are decisions that are going to come into play as we look at what RootsTech can do to bring in people from all over the world.

Not as many people used the “Connect and Chat” feature of the site. We thought we were going to be bombarded by that and yet it wasn’t as big of a deal. It was actually pretty simple. About 60% did not log in. They were viewing and watching as if you would go to a YouTube channel or a TED Talk. They were still enjoying it, they just didn’t want to talk to anybody.

Filming the RootsTech Connect keynote address of Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Patricia, in St. George, Utah. The video aired during Family Discovery Day on Saturday, February 27, 2021.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The other one was this model or feeling of inclusivity. We had a few comments about that, that there was something for everybody. Elder (Jeffrey R.) Holland did an excellent job at wrapping that up with this feeling of all are welcome, all have a place in this world. Providing that message was key. So we already have seen ample comments on how impactful Elder Holland’s message was.

DN: This content is available for a year. It’s housed on this online portal and it’s on YouTube. Now that you’ve created this massive learning library, what do you hope to do with it?

EKH: We hope that this will be kind of the kick-starter, the jump-start, for a very powerful YouTube presence. In today’s world, if you want to learn anything about anything, you go to YouTube. If you want to fix your car or do a plumbing repair, you go to YouTube. The same with genealogy and family history. There ought to be hundreds of thousands of user-generated videos and content posted on YouTube that would answer questions in dozens and dozens of languages and cultures around the world. We can’t possibly create that much internally, but our users can, and those that have expertise in this field can. So this will be the jump-start to that with 1,200 video classes that have been prepared, and we will add to that in the coming year and years to come. Ultimately, we see FamilySearch becoming a gathering place for the whole world to find user-generated content that will help them to learn how to do their own family search. This website will be a catalyst to create that event, that presence that we’re hoping for.

SR: What we’ll do is we will hyperlocalize as Elder Hamilton has said. It’s not just a matter of how many courses we have, it’s how many do we have for Thailand? How many do we have for Indonesia and Colombia? We enable people that live in those homelands or who are from those homelands to make that learning library vibrant for their homeland. At the end of the day, the top line number will take care of itself, but we’re really focusing on each individual homeland to make sure people that live or who are from those homelands have what they need to learn how to connect and discover their family. ... The type of content is different. In this discipline, it’s usually a lecture-based, heavily academic study, one-hour presentations minimum. Now they’re going to see content that are one- or two-minute tips and tricks, TED Talk-type 13-minute instruction, so it will be much more consumable for a vast learning audience.

Larry Beardall and Laurie Beardall hold up “I am a cousin” signs during A.J. Jacobs’ keynote speech at RootsTech at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 14, 2015. This year’s virtual-only conference helped more than one million participants to connect with relatives.
Larry Beardall and Laurie Beardall hold up “I am a cousin” signs during A.J. Jacobs’ keynote speech at RootsTech at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 14, 2015. This year’s virtual-only conference helped more than one million participants to connect with relatives.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

DN: Will you share one or two highlights from the conference?

EKH: The 1.1 million participants over the weekend was interesting. But to me, more interesting was the 242 countries that were represented. That just blew me away. I Googled it — there’s only 251 countries and territories officially recognized by the United Nations. We had 242 of the 251 with representatives at RootsTech. We had a large contingent from Oman. We had people from Greenland. So to me, that globalization across the globe was just really heartwarming.

Another thing that was personally very touching for me is I spent five years serving in Africa. I had so many Africans reach out to me over the course of the weekend. They were watching RootsTech or participating in a class, and were so thrilled to be able to participate. It all of the sudden miniaturized the world. This huge global expanse that we call home became a small community. It was fun to be part of that and rewarding to hear from friends that I hadn’t seen for a few years and know they were participating.

SR: My highlights are similar to Elder Hamilton’s. I was taken aback by the individual experiences that people were having. It’s those little individual stories, the interactions that took place, those far exceed the 1.1 million. That’s what this is all about. To think that those one-to-one experiences were happening in over 200 countries and territories, that’s the big, big highlight.

As far as a FamilySearch highlight, we were thrilled that our partners, the exhibitors, the presenters, all of those people with whom we work side by side, were able to share their story, their products, their services, their expertise, to many, many more people in many more countries. We wanted to make sure that they had that platform and stage. Indications are that we helped reach many more people around the globe. That’s a key part of FamilySearch’s role as the “Switzerland of the industry.”

JA: It’s incredible. It’s like the silver-lining of the pandemic. It forced us to think differently. None of us, even when we were making those decisions, could have ever dreamed what would have come out of it. But the opportunity to shift and change by opening it up for people to enjoy and participate all over the world was the defining moment. ... When you start expanding your mind and your vision of what family history might mean, or even family, in your definition here in this world, there is family all over the globe who could literally be rooting for you and whatever you’re working on. ... There was so much light in the world last week because people were joining this experience and learning, but also connecting with people all over the world. Shrinking that world a little bit is a powerful thing that came from this that we would have never, never would have imagined.

For more on RootsTech Connect and its vast library or resources, visit RootsTech.org.