Choosing Wisely: Conference or Institute
At some point, you will need to take your genealogical education to the next level. National level in-person events, that is national conferences or national institutes, may be the best choice for you. Online options are another choice or you may be fortunate enough to find the same quality and quantity of education locally.
You will find yourself stuck, making little to no progress, if you don't obtain this next level of education.
There are more economical ways to obtain this education than a conference or an institute. However, if you really are an Occasional Genealogist, these are the fastest options and if they are at all within your budget (even if it involves serious saving) the "speed" probably makes them worth your money.
You still have to determine which options are best for your personal needs, though.
Conference vs. Institute
The Meat: Education
If you aren't familiar with national conferences and/or institutes, the main difference to be aware of is the depth of education. Conferences consist of a series of unrelated lectures (there will be a theme, though). Institutes have you register for a single course (usually it runs for one week, 4-5 days). An institute will be more in-depth. A conference can be more broad (but that is up to you, based on what you choose to attend).
Options for Beginners
If you are a beginner, either might be appropriate but it depends on what you are looking for. If you feel you have a strong foundation but want to learn about specific topics, a conference might be better. This will allow you to pick and choose a variety of topics even if they aren't closely related.
This can be great if you have a lot of different "types" of ancestors. The "types" could be ethnicities, religions, occupations, regions, countries, anything people offer specific lectures about. All conferences also include more general genealogy topics but exactly what will vary.
If you are a beginner and don't feel you have a good background, a conference might offer enough basic lectures but you should also consider taking a beginner course at one of the national institutes.
You will get a stronger foundation from an institute course because each session (equivalent to a lecture) is designed to go with the others. In this situation, if you do find a conference offers topics you want, your budget and schedule can be the deciding factors---you won't be "wasting" the time or money picking one or the other.
If you're not a beginner, your decision really needs to be based on your educational needs. If you need the in-depth education from an institute, skip an expensive conference and save up to attend the right institute for you.
If you need bits from various topics (maybe you're researching a German family, an Irish family, and a family in New England), what you learn from a conference might be the best bang for your buck, even though you don't get in-depth knowledge on each topic.
In-depth vs. Advanced
One thing to realize, "in-depth" does not automatically mean advanced and just because conferences aren't in-depth, doesn't mean they can't be advanced. You should think of this more like the difference between a novel and the movie version.
A novel and it's movie version tell the same story (just assume they do for this analogy). The movie can not go into the same detail as the novel because of the format.
The same is true for a lecture (at a conference) vs. an institute (where you'll take a course). A lecture needs a beginning, middle, and end and those have to fit into the allotted time (usually 50 minutes plus time for questions). A course at an institute also needs a beginning, middle, and end but the time frame is the full 4-5 days.
A lecture and an institute course can actually have the same exact topic. A course can also be made up of what are essentially conference lectures. The difference is the instructor(s) know(s) everyone has heard the preceding information so the beginning (introduction) can often be skipped allowing to expand the "middle."
Whether the topic is advanced is not related to the format (lecture or multi-day course). The depth of knowledge is what is affected by the format.
Options When You Want "Advanced"
You might need an introduction to several intermediate or advanced topics. There are institute courses designed to provide this but you can also select relevant lectures at a conference.
The design of an institute course is what makes it a better choice if what it offers is exactly what you need. Cobbling together your own institute course from conference lectures won't be quite the same, most likely involving a good bit of repetition (if for no other reason, the same introductory information will be covered in each lecture because they are not intended to be strung together).
This is important for Occasional Genealogists to understand. You may be thinking you'll create your own budget version of an institute course by using online lectures. When you start to compare cost, realize, 10 hours of lectures probably does not include the same 10 hours of material from an institute. This is an option but it doesn't mean they will be educationally equivalent.
When deciding on a conference or an institute, you need to consider what depth of knowledge you want. Whether you want beginner, intermediate, or advanced doesn't automatically exclude a conference or an institute. The level is like choosing a topic, it might not be offered at a particular conference or institute but the format doesn't exclude it from being offered. You have to look at the specifics when considering topics.
The Vegetables: Other Perks of In-person National Events
Briefly, there are perks of a national conference or national institute you won't get from local or virtual events. If we were talking about a hotel, these would be the amenities.
In-person events, of any type, offer the chance to socialize and network with other genealogists. It can also be easier to ask questions after a session. You might also be traveling to an area where you can do research. This is often a feature of national conferences and conferences and institutes in Salt Lake City (where you can use the Family History Library for research for so many locations).
National conferences offer an expansive vendor hall. This offers book vendors, software vendors, societies, groups, all sorts of options. Free lectures will also be held in the vendor hall.
Conferences usually also offer additional pre-conference events (for a fee) that include site-seeing and maybe research. Social events can be a convenient way to experience some local food and maybe culture without having to worry about your own transportation. These are the reasons people repeatedly attend an in-person national conference instead of just sticking with virtual education or just reading a book.
It's much harder to quantify the advantages of an in-person institute. Because you are with a small class, and the same class, for a week, that can add to the value. The small size can't be replicated virtually. Even with a small online group, it takes much longer to get the same kind of bond (and any advantages of that bond). If you end up with a great group of classmates, they add to what you get from the institute.
Institutes usually involve some homework. Virtual options may also offer or require this but it is easier to focus and learn from any self-directed activities when you are staying somewhere for a week. There are infinitely fewer distractions than at home. The short time-frame also makes it easier to focus (especially if you're dreading a particular piece of homework, you have to get it out of the way quickly).
Even the social aspects of an institute can have benefits but they aren't concrete. This is different than at a conference, perhaps because it's a smaller group. Meals with your classmates or other attendees can add to what you learn, enhance your experience, but also keep an intense learning situation from being too intense.
I always come back from an institute inspired. It would be easy to come back exhausted. Camaraderie can make an institute feel more like a vacation (albeit a vacation where you work hard) than an intense week back in school.
The Filler: Time, Travel, Lodging
National conferences and institutes require multi-day time commitments. They have the associated expenses such as travel, lodging, and food in addition to the registration cost. Choosing to spend the extra money is a major consideration for most genealogists. Future posts will discuss the non-genealogy aspects that often force our choices (i.e. the expenses).
Choosing in-person events is easy if you have the time and money. You should still consider them even if you have to plan and save. They might not be the right choice for you (if crowds petrify you, an in-person conference is not for you; you might need some pre-education before a particular institute course is worth the money). You should consider if you an intense three to five days of education might be just what your genealogy needs, though.