SALT LAKE CITY — In recent years, RootsTech organizers have grown the world's largest family history conference by focusing more on the heart and less on the chart.
What started out seven years ago as an annual event for bringing genealogy and technology together has evolved into a week of activities that invite the Spirit of Elijah, family stories and heart-turning discovery experiences, said Steve Rockwood, the CEO of FamilySearch International.
"It brought life and vitality to RootsTech. More are engaged and excited. It continues to grow in demand and popularity because of this inherit, universal spirit and interest," Rockwood said. "We'll still get to the charts."
As the 2017 RootsTech Conference convenes Feb. 8-11 at the Salt Palace Convention Center, the main theme will be exploring cultures and traditions that bring families together.
"Music runs in families. Food, with its traditions and settings, brings families together around the kitchen table," Rockwood said. "What runs in your family? Sports, science, doctors, special interest hobbies — these create your family culture and heritage. We'll be highlighting a lot about that."
The "family gathering" theme is reflected in a host of celebrity keynote speakers and activities, including "Property Brothers" stars Jonathan and Drew Scott, "Cake Boss" Buddy Valastro, author and actor LeVar Burton, high-ranking leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and BYU football coach Kalani Sitake, among others.
"It’s open to absolutely everyone — it’s a great gathering of avid, certified, even professional genealogists, down to the curious novice," Rockwood said. "We’ll have people from all 50 states and 30 countries. We have large organizations and companies, societies and archives, down to individuals that all gather together, accompanied by this incredible spirit that is there."
Wednesday, Feb. 8
Rockwood, who has been FamilySearch president and CEO since October 2015, along with Liz Wiseman, one of the top 10 leadership thinkers in the world, will be the keynote speakers Wednesday.
The first day of the conference will also feature a welcome party with '80s-themed music and video games and food.
Thursday, Feb. 9
Television personalities and twin brothers, Jonathan and Drew Scott of HGTV's "The Property Brothers," will be among the keynote speakers Thursday.
For the Scott brothers, who have made their careers buying and renovating homes, family has always been a big deal.
"My parents instilled a great sense of family, and we support and stand up for each other," Drew Scott said in a telephone interview. "We do 60 full-blown renovations a year, helping families get into what they never thought they could enjoy in their lives. That means a lot to us."
The Scott brothers have traced their roots to Scotland and other nearby countries where they love exploring castles and cathedrals. They also collect coins, swords, helmets and medieval battle armor, which they display in their homes. They will share parts of their family story through an interactive presentation, including videos, a large dose of humor and some Q-and-A, Drew Scott said.
"It’s exciting for us to be a part of an event like RootsTech because it’s been a big part of what we are," Drew Scott said.
In the evening at the Conference Center, patrons can attend an event titled, "Music, It Runs in the Family." The performance will music by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, special guest soloist Dallyn Vail Bayles and music and stories by Rodgers and Hammerstein with narration by Oscar "Andy" Hammerstein III. Tickets are available online at lds.org/events.
Friday, Feb. 10
Burton headlines a group of speakers taking part in Friday's African heritage celebration. Burton, known for his roles in "Roots," "Reading Rainbow" and "Star Trek: The Next Generation," will be joined by "Genealogy Roadshow" host Kenyatta Berry, national president of Afro-American Historical Genealogical Society Sherri Camp and author Melvin Collier. Each speaker will speak about their African heritage and experiences that have connected them to their ancestors.
Attendees will learn how to begin their African genealogical journeys, said Berry, who is excited to take part.
"Learning about one’s heritage provides a connection with your ancestors and helps to put things in perspective. You become connected in spirit to those who came before you who survived slavery and the middle passage," Berry said in a telephone interview. "Everyone has a story to tell and by researching your family history you are making sure that your family’s story isn’t lost in history. Through the process of discovery, we learn more about ourselves and gather strength from our ancestors."
Earlier in the day, finalists competing in the Innovator Showdown will present their family history technology products before an audience and judges in hopes of taking home significant prizes.
In the evening, a special cultural performance in the expo hall will feature Latin music and dancing, African drummers, Irish dancing, free giveaways by sponsors and exhibitors.
Saturday, Feb. 11
Perhaps the most attended day of the conference is Saturday because of Family Discovery Day, which has tracks especially for members of the LDS Church. One of the main events will be a devotional with President Russell M. Nelson, president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, his wife, Sister Wendy Watson Nelson, and members of their family. There will also be messages delivered by other LDS Church leaders and classes for those with church callings related to temple and family history work.
Other prominent speakers Saturday include Executive Vice President of Deseret Management Corporation and the CEO of Deseret Book Company Sheri L. Dew; former NFL player and Philadelphia broadcaster Vai Sikahema; Sitake; and Hank Smith, a Brigham Young University professor of religion and popular speaker.
Additionally, genetic genealogist CeCe Moore and Valastro, owner of Carlo's Bakery and star of "Cake Boss," will stand on the stage. In connection with Valastro's visit, there will be a cake decorating competition with prizes. For Valastro, a fourth-generation baker, it will be his first trip to Utah.
"I hear it's scenic, has amazing skiing; I'm excited to check it off my list," he said in a telephone interview with his signature New Jersey accent.
The legacy of the Valastro family is sacrifice for family, hard work for family and charity (giving leftover cake to homeless shelters), and Valastro is looking forward to sharing the story of his Italian heritage and how food brings families together. That's especially true in his home where he recently remodeled the kitchen to add more space for the 20 to 30 people that come each Sunday for dinner. He also delights in an occasional family bake-off with his daughter and three sons.
"I would love for people to come out, hear my story; it’s pretty inspiring," Valastro said. "I want to meet some fans, give hugs, take some pictures, hang out and let them know how much they mean to me, because honestly I really love my fans. It will also be a way for me to learn their history as well."
The closing event Saturday evening will include comedic entertainer Jason Hewlett; BYU's Men's a capella chorus, Vocal Point; and Noteworthy, an a cappella women's chorus.
In addition to the speakers and entertainment, RootsTech attendees can attend classes and breakout sessions, tour a giant expo hall, learn about new technology, tools and products, and engage in interactive displays geared toward helping an individual learn more about his or her family history. Families with teens and younger children can play games such as Family Feud or Twisted Family History.
For those hitting roadblocks in their family research, there will even be a "Coaches' Corner" where people can receive one-on-one help from an expert genealogist.
Elder Bradley D. Foster, executive director of the LDS Church's Family History Department and FamilySearch, said those attending the conference become a studio audience for those who watch it later because RootsTech is a great opportunity to "build content."
Elder Foster estimates about 20,000 attend the conference; about 180,000 view the conference online while it's happening; but organizers hope to reach millions more by distributing content to family discovery centers worldwide after the conference.
"One of our hopes is that you can go online and find a 20-minute segment of RootsTech that you and your children can enjoy as a family as a Sabbath Day activity," Elder Foster said. "Ultimately, it's a family doing their own RootsTech-oriented activities in the ultimate family discovery center — the home."
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