Family reunions aren't what they used to be. Most extended families really are extended — living in multiple states or cities, and not willing to travel far for a day of horseshoes, hot dogs, and hamburgers by Cousin Louie's pool or in Grandma's back yard.
Yet, thanks in large part to our fast-paced, market-driven culture, families increasingly crave an opportunity to get together to share their history and stories in order to feel connected to the past and the future. They're looking for meaningful connection with each other, and oftentimes, a vacation. Not surprisingly, then, families are getting together at resorts, offshore destinations, downtown hotels, and even on cruise ships. And putting these events together is no longer a picnic in the park, so to speak.
Gathering a far-flung clan takes time and planning. If you're the planner, even if you're a professional planner, the first thing to do is get someone to share the load. This job depends more on your ability to involve others than on specific planning skills. For initial planning, you need that partner, preferably from another branch of the family, to provide access to a wider group, to bounce ideas around, and to keep you motivated.
Be sure to start well in advance, especially for a big reunion. A year or 18 months out is not too much if your family has not come together in many years. Just the research to locate everyone can take weeks. And face it, families today are booked months in advance.
The ideal reunion site is accessible to the majority of potential attendees — and affordable, as well (although fund raising to cover reunion expenses is common. More on that later.) The more attractions and recreational options available at the site, the more likely people will attend. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
If most family members are located in the West, a few days on a houseboat on Utah's Lake Powell might be a great option. If your family is mostly in the Northeast, there are dozens of mountain resorts catering to families in the Catskills, Adirondacks, and Poconos. In the Southeast, Disney has extensive facilities for family reunions.
Would the family enjoy a trip offshore? Several cruise lines make a specialty of family get-togethers (see sidebar at right). A short Caribbean cruise offers great shopping in exciting ports of call, and an “at sea” day can be turned into a private family celebration in a ballroom.
Another idea: A “rolling reunion” has one major all-family event at the midpoint of a long weekend as well as pre- and post-event activities. Family members who can't come for the whole reunion can be there for part of it. If your group can stay longer than a few days, how about a week on a dude ranch in Wyoming or ar a golf and tennis resort in South Carolina? Again, maybe those who can't be there the whole week can arrive late in the week for most of the fun.
Conceptualizing a destination reunion takes it out of the picnic-in-a-park category, makes it a more important event where your family may spend several days, and adds the cachet of a family vacation with some of your closest (and not-so-close) relatives.
Gathering the Clan
Once you and your planning partner have worked out a few options, it's time to begin involving the clan. This is the unofficial kickoff to your reunion. Engage as many participants as you can. First, send out a simple survey to learn what kind of event your family members are interested in, where they'd like to go, and when is the most convenient time.
Offer the best ideas you have dreamed up and ask for ideas from them. How many do they think would attend from their household? Include a line on the survey to get contact information, and provide a central e-mail address and phone number for questions or comments about the reunion. You'll get more surveys back if you limit them to the size of a large postcard, address them, and add a stamp.
To track down addresses, there are free Internet databases like the White Pages (www.whitepages.com). Many people-search Web sites will offer a week's free access to their databases if you sign up for a trial membership. (Just don't forget to cancel within a week.) Some families have an relative who invariably sends Christmas cards to everyone. Chances are she'll have the most up-to-date addresses and phone numbers for her branch of the family.
While you have her on the phone, ask for photographs, those she's had tucked away for years and the more recent ones that have come in holiday cards. Ask her to bring them to the event for a photo wall and to identify the people in her pictures. Does she know others in the family with old photos? Ask her to contact them for you. Unlike planning for a corporate or association event, with a family reunion it is important to draw in as many people as early as you can.
Once the surveys have gone out and you have enough responses to make solid plans for the event, it's time to create committees to share the workload. At a minimum, these should include an invitation and registration committee, finance, program planning, children's program, and welcoming committee. Depending on the size of your family, a committee of two or three people, or even one, should be able to carry out most of the important jobs. And every time another family member accepts a committee job, chalk up a couple more confirmed attendees.
Planning a Budget
The size of your reunion budget will depend on the size of your family, the length of the event, and, to a large degree, what you decide to put in it as shared expenses — as opposed to what families pay on their own. Certainly all the communication expenses (surveys, invitations, phone charges, mailings); some special shared meals; party-room rental; decorations, name tags, and goodie bags; registration and activity materials, including prizes, should be shared. You're going to have to estimate some of these expenses and multiply by the number of registrations you expect, and then add some in for contingencies. Write down every expense. You know someone is going to ask what you are doing with all that money. Here again, help is a mouse click away (http://family-reunion.com/finances.htm).
But, wait a minute. You knew there was a reason you got this gig, didn't you? It's time to wield your negotiating expertise. You are bringing a sizable chunk of business to the table, and vendors will make concessions, saving your family money on rooms, meals, and expenses, perhaps even airfares if enough people are flying to the reunion. Web sites now exist to take your estimates and give you hotel room costs for group bookings (of more than 10 rooms) in a variety of cities (www.hotelplanner.com). A similar site for discount airline bookings for small groups is www.groople.com.
By the time your surveys come back, you should be able to get an estimate of the number of people who will attend. If your family has a reunion history, use those numbers. Otherwise, plan as you would for a new meeting, using your best information and a good fudge factor. You know that tune. Web sites now exist to take your estimates and give you hotel room costs for group bookings (of more than 10 rooms) in a variety of cities (www.hotelplanner.com).
Looking at all the estimated expenses in your budget can be daunting, especially when you consider that the cost divided among all must not be more than any individual can afford. The common costs will need to be covered in the registration fee — or the group planners and finance committee will need to get creative with fund raising. Here are a few ideas from Edith Wagner, editor of Reunions magazine, and Emma Wisdom, who wrote The Family Reunion Organizer and Family Reunion Resource Directory (Post Oak Publications):
Ask an angel. If the family has someone who has been financially fortunate, approach Uncle Got Bucks for a special donation to help cover common expenses — or for a special treat for all.
Pass the hat. If a shortfall develops, family members tend to be generous. If you're going to do this, get a funny hat and ask the family raconteur to do the honors. Make it a fun activity.
Ask each family group attending to bring a family heirloom they can (gladly or sadly) part with, and auction these off to cover group costs.
Raffles, craft sales, games of chance, all are potential sources of funding for family reunions (www.party411.com/reunion-money.html). One tasty plan is an ice cream social with all the syrups and toppings available. Held midway through a warm afternoon, it will be the day's most popular activity and probably make a nice profit.
What About Programming?
To get your program committee started, ask the members to plan a multigenerational ice-breaker to help people get acquainted the first day. There are books and lists of games to consult, some particularly appropriate to family reunions. Or try www.party411.com/reuniongames.html for starters.
Neither the program committee nor children's program committee needs to plan for every minute. You need just a few activities in addition to what the destination offers (or in case a monsoon sets in). Also, don't let them forget that they'll be planning for three or more generations and should schedule some alternate activities for those under 7 or over 70 when everyone else is playing touch football.
Be prepared for guests who require special consideration. Everyone has different needs and it is important to the success of your event to be aware of those needs and have adequate time to plan accordingly. Disabled guests may require special equipment or accommodations. Others may need to arrange for pet care. Whatever the circumstances, leave yourself enough time to ensure suitable arrangements can be made to accommodate everyone.
A few interesting ideas for onsite family reunion activities include swapping old family photos; making “memory” T-shirts; putting together a family cookbook, a genealogy tree, or a memorabilia table; and making a family video in which family members tell stories and share memories.
Don't forget that you're part of the family. If you and your planning partner have delegated wisely, you'll be able to step out of your planner roles and have fun at the event itself. And when you get all those pats on the back for a job well done, be sure to heap thanks on everyone who helped you. You'll need them for the next reunion.
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