The Australasian Federation of Family History Organisations (AFFHO) is pleased to provide the Congress report from the Society of Australian Genealogists. They hosted the 15th Australasian Congress on Genealogy & Heraldry (Congress 2018) from 9-12 March 2018 at the International Convention Centre, Darling Harbour.
Conscious of the financial challenges faced by recent hosts of Congress, the SAG was determined to offer delegates a great conference while making the event as affordable as possible for delegates. The SAG Board had resolved that it would only run this Congress on behalf of AFFHO if it was cost neutral to the Society, and from the beginning tight budgetary controls and changes to some practices from previous Congresses were made to make this goal achievable. Planning was also streamlined to reduce administration costs.
Congress attracted 621 full delegates, drawn from Australia, New Zealand and overseas. Earlybird registrations were set at $475 with full registration $575 (both GST inclusive). To keep the registration fee down morning teas were included on 3 days but all other meals and drinks were at their own cost. This worked well and many delegates appreciated the opportunity to go out of the venue during breaks to enjoy some fresh air and network at a venue of their choice. We also chose not to provide delegates with the usual ‘Congress satchel’ replacing this instead with a good-quality Congress bag.
We were overwhelmed with offers of papers when our Call for Speakers went out. 62 sessions were offered. Four overseas speakers – Paul Blake (UK), Lisa Louise Cooke (USA), Paul Milner (USA) and Judy Russell (USA) were selected to headline the program. We were especially keen to give new speakers the opportunity to present at Congress and did this by restricting Australian/NZ speakers to a maximum of two papers each to ensure a good range of old favourites and new faces.
Speakers were not required to provide a formal paper, but were encouraged to prepare a hand-out to accompany their session which they had to provide in a set template. These were collated and made available free of charge to delegates as a downloadable PDF document of 301 pages. This reduced preparation for speakers and encouraged them not to simply read a formal paper, removed the need for time-consuming editing by organisers and gave delegates access to handouts without charge. We also offered a simple USB copy if required and sold about 100 of these during Congress.
We ran a ‘registration drop in’ near the SAG’s headquarters in the Rocks on the two days before Congress which provided an informal and friendly opportunity for visitors to meet Society representatives and other delegates before Congress began.
We broke with the tradition of hosting a ‘Welcome Function’ on the eve of Congress, instead holding this at the end of the first day. 292 attended at $45 per head. A traditional Congress dinner was held at Rydges World Square on the Saturday evening, with ‘build your own harbour bridge’ entertainment and Mark Tedeschi, AM, QC, former Senior NSW Crown Prosecutor, as the guest speaker. 325 delegates, partners and friends attended this event.
We were delighted to have the support of two major sponsors, Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org, as well as good support from MyHeritage. Institutional sponsors included the Australian War Memorial, National Archives of Australia, National Library of Australia (Trove), NSW Registry of BDM, NSW State Archives and the State Library of NSW. Each provided a speaker and was given exhibition space as part of its sponsorship package.
We knew previous Congresses had found it difficult to attract societies and small exhibitors to attend Congress as the cost can be prohibitive. We addressed this by deliberately only offering tables rather than booths, and this helped us attract 47 exhibitors in total. Marilyn Rowan (NSW Transcription Services) was particularly helpful in offering cash support to allow us to subsidise the cost of small not-for-profit exhibitors and to recognise the work of volunteers with small gifts while Joy Murrin offered in kind support with the supply of lanyards. Other in-kind commercial support was provided by UnlockThePast and Traces Magazine.
We offered a Family Finder Day on the first day of Congress, where for $35 non-delegates could come along and browse the exhibits and attend three special lectures. 141 people purchased tickets to this event, slightly below our expectations. The purpose of Family Finder Day was to encourage people new family history to come along and to offer an economical alternative for those who could not afford to attend a four-day event.
We spent very little on marketing and promotion, relying instead on social media to get word out and to keep delegates in touch with each other. Our Congress mascot, Bernhardt Doppelganger, who first appeared at the closing ceremony in Canberra, periodically appeared on social media. In addition to our own Facebook page and website, Jill Ball offered to run a ‘Genimates’ Facebook group which proved very popular. All AFFHO member societies and NSW groups were asked to promote the event through their membership on our behalf.
Our overall aim was to provide a welcoming and friendly Congress at an affordable cost. We believe we achieved this. Around half of all delegates completed our follow-up survey, and of these 95% gave Congress 4/5 and 76% saying they would definitely or probably attend another one. 80% gave the event 4/5 for value for money.
SAG was in the fortunate position of being able to rely on paid staff to undertake much of the planning and organisation of the event; although this had the obvious drawback of taking them away from their usual roles for some months. They were assisted by a small Committee, and a number of key volunteers. Given our initial reservations about hosting Congress, I am pleased to report that we achieved a small profit to the Society; the result of careful budgeting and tight monetary control. This is an excellent result and we would encourage other societies to consider stepping forward and hosting Congress in the future. Kerrie Gray from HAGSOC was extremely helpful in sharing her experiences of hosting Congress 2015 with us during our early planning and we are more than willing to do the same with potential hosts for 2021.
It is obvious that the Australasian family history community enjoys getting together for an event of this kind and we hope that Congress 2018 is not the last.
Congress 2018 Convenor & SAG President