A week ago, I traveled to London to attend the Who Do You Think You Are? LIVE genealogy event, at Olympia National Hall, in London. It was a great event, and I hope to return in the future.
I have managed exhibiting at conferences for a long time, both for ShipIndex.org and for my previous company. And I have attended conferences at Olympia before, for the previous company – but I’d never managed putting on an exhibit overseas. There were a lot of challenges, from trying to find out how to get the appropriate unnecessary insurance before attending, to restructuring the website so people could pay in foreign currencies. I had to figure out a way to get internet access, when paying about £300 is absolutely out of the question. I had to figure out how many handouts to take with me, and ensure I kept them under the airline’s weight limit. (The limit is 50 lbs; my bag weighed in at 50.5. The overweight fee is $200! They let my bag through, though I was ready to take out a batch of postcards, if needed.) There are always a million little issues to deal with when preparing for a conference, and adding international travel to it certainly seems to double the number.
I left the US on Wednesday evening, via Newark. I arrived early Thursday morning, spent nearly an hour and a half waiting to go through UK Immigration (this was pretty appalling – at one point, when there were NO UK or EU citizens waiting to go through, five different booths were open, with UK Border Agency staff sitting there doing nothing, and they didn’t invite any of the non-EU or UK citizens who’d been in line for an hour to go through), and eventually got to the place where I was staying, in central London. I spent Thursday walking around London, past Buckingham Palace, through Trafalgar Square, around Covent Garden, and lots more, getting gifts for family and the cell-network dongle I was to use for internet access.
On Friday, I was ready to head to the show early – long before its opening at 1pm. I had an 11:30am appointment with a colleague, and figured all was set. When I did show up, with my very heavy suitcase, at about quarter to 10am, I started to get worried: the signs said the show opened at 10am, and when I got in, I discovered that it did, in fact, open at 10! I have no idea how I made the mistake, but I did. Anyway, it doesn’t take me too long to get set up, and I was up and operating by 10:15 at the latest.
Then, it was hard work, all day long. I talked with folks constantly, from 10:15 to about 5pm. Exhibits closed at 6:30 on Friday (which seemed to fit fairly well with a 1pm opening, on a Friday, I thought), and I was busy talking with folks all day long. I had grabbed a sandwich at Pret a Manger on my way in, and I took bites, when time allowed. Saturday and Sunday were similar: the show was just incredibly busy, and basically constant, until an hour or 90 minutes before it closed for the day. There was no lack of people in those last 60 to 90 minutes; it just wasn’t absolutely constant talking. My voice was pretty much gone at the end of Friday and Saturday, but had recovered on Saturday morning. Sunday morning, when it hadn’t recovered, I was worried what the day would be like, since I just didn’t know how long it would last!
One highlight of the show was how many people told me that my product was “brilliant”. My comments were “brilliant”. My assistance was “brilliant”. The cost of the database was “brilliant”. The fact that it existed was “brilliant”. The database in action was “brilliant”. My coming from America was “brilliant”. They even said “brilliant” as they left! I quickly realized that the exchange rate from British English to American English for “brilliant” is about 20:1, or maybe even more. But it was fun to hear so many people tell me ShipIndex.org is “brilliant!”, even if the word means different things to each of us.
One thing that often drives me crazy is when exhibitors start packing up early. There may be situations when that’s necessary – to catch a train or a plane, for instance – but most of the time, they’re just tired and want to get out of there. I think packing up early is almost rude, especially when it impacts other exhibitors.
It’s also kind of dumb. At a previous company, we quickly learned that the folks who show up in the last few minutes are the ones who are making a definite point of getting to your booth, and they care a lot about what you’re doing. There’s a very high likelihood that the folks who come up in the last few minutes really want to buy your product. So I always stick it out. This show, actually, wasn’t as bad as the library conferences I’ve attended, and I heard much less of the loud “brrr-aaapppp” of strapping tape being applied well before the show closes.
About ten or fifteen minutes before the show shut down at 5pm, a woman came up to the booth, said “Oh, I’m so glad you’re still here!” and gave me the best experience of the show.
She explained that her father had been in the Royal Navy, and her mother had been a WAVES officer in the US Navy. She had a number of images of ships that she wanted to learn more about, and told me about another image, which unfortunately she didn’t have with her. One image was of a minesweeper with the hull number “J463” on its side, but no vessel name visible. I knew that a number of entries in the ShipIndex.org database have hull numbers in it, so a quick search of “J463” returned HMS Ossory. She was quite impressed at my finding this so quickly, as was another woman who was watching nearby – I think the other woman almost thought it was a setup! This was almost certainly one of the ships her father had served on.
The photos she hadn’t brought were of her mother launching a ship in Mobile, Alabama, late in World War II. (Her parents had met in Mobile when her father had been sent there to oversee construction of several ships destined for the Royal Navy, via the Lend-Lease Program, she explained.) We talked a bit about them and I said I’d try to help her learn more about the ship in question after she sends me a copy of the image. I do hope she’ll do that; I know it will be a while before she does, but I hope I’m able to help her discover more about her family, and particularly something about this remarkable event, of her mother being sponsor of a warship!
We talked for quite a while, and I didn’t start breaking down my stuff until about 5:15, at which point of course many people were well on their way to being done, but it was very much worth the long conversation with her.
I had many other similar interactions. One time, a person explained she was looking for a ship called “Maid of Sussex”. We didn’t find any ship with that name in the database, so I did a search just for “Sussex”, and found a ship named Sussex Maid. We figured that was probably the ship, and then the website took us to this incredible image of the ship.
Another man had heard family stories about an ancestor who had been aboard a ship called “Madge Doubtfire”. Again, we didn’t find any ships by that name, but when I did a search just for “Madge”, we found Madge Wildfire, which was pretty clearly the actual ship he’d been looking for. Making connections like that for folks was truly fantastic for me.
While I was at the show I learned about another genealogy conference in Dublin, and I may consider going to that show. These shows are expensive, especially when one is coming from the US, but it was a great experience. I’d like to see if I can attend WDYTYA?Live in the future; sometimes just the experiences like those above make the travel worth the costs and challenges.