Families are spread farther apart these days. Creating a reunion by getting everybody together at a park on a Sunday afternoon is not possible for most extended families. Everyone has multiple commitments, and for the out-of-state families, getting to an airport, security checks, flying several hundred miles, finding a family member at the airport, and driving to the reunion takes a day and is just not worth it for an afternoon of saying hello to everyone and telling them you hope you'll see them at next year's reunion!
Alternatives have developed out of necessity and because even the word family has taken on a cachet of goodness and warmth, particularly since 9/11. Increasingly, dispersed people want a chance to get together with those who share their history and the myriad of ties developed over generations. But gathering a far-flung clan takes time, planning, and sweat.
If you're the planner, even if you're a planner by profession, the first thing to do is get someone to share the load. This is a different kind of planning than your, because the job depends more on your ability to involve others than on other 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 with you, and to keep up each other's spirits and enthusiasm. Pool your own best meeting and reunion ideas and use some of the best ones you can garner from the Web. (Check out www.family-reunion.com). That's right, you don't have to reinvent the wheel. Plenty of people have done this, and we'll try to point you to some of the most useful Web sites.
Get a head start. Time is the enemy, because none of us ever has enough of it. Start well in advance, especially for a big reunion.
A year or two out is not too much if your family has not come together in many years. Just the research to locate outlanders can take weeks. And face it, families today are booked months in advance: Hannah will be at tennis camp the third week in July, Josh has Little League every Saturday in August, Aunt Janice will be in her eighth month and won't be able to travel, Grandpa Joe goes fishing with his buddies from work the second week in June, and on and on and on. Giving yourself enough time to circumnavigate the “previous commitment” shoals is essential.
What's Our Destination?
If you have decided that Sunday afternoon in a local park is out, you and your planning partner need to look at alternatives. Where does the greatest concentration of family members live? If you've come from Colorado and some family members have dispersed to Texas, California, and Arizona, maybe a few days on a houseboat on Utah's Lake Powell (www.utah.com) would be the best choice for all. How about a mountain family lodge? The YMCA of the Rockies (www.ymcarockies.org) has furnished vacation homes, a central lodge, and plenty for the kids, winter or summer.
If your family is mostly in the Northeast, Wawbeek Lodge Resort can sleep groups of five to 75 people in rustic family lodges in the Adirondacks overlooking Saranac Lake (www.wawbeek.com).
Would the family enjoy a trip offshore? Several cruise lines make a specialty of family get-togethers; 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. 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 the dearest people in the world. It will also be more expensive than the Sunday picnic, but probably not nearly as much as you may think. More on the money below.
When and How Long?
Here again, there are options. Two days on a weekend with an overnight Saturday and a family brunch on Sunday in a swanky hotel? How about an extended holiday weekend over the 4th of July or Thanksgiving? Look at next year's calendar. What are the long weekends when working folks will be able to add a day or two without using up too much annual leave time?
The traditional skills of the meeting planner should be brought to bear here. You know that destinations and hotels have high and low seasons, and you have the specialized knowledge to get your family group the best available prices. You know some hotels that cater mostly to business executives during the week will welcome a weekend reunion and be willing to negotiate prices for a sizable group. Consider a rolling reunion in a nice hotel near the airport if a lot of family members will be flying in. A rolling reunion has one major all-family event at the midpoint of a long weekend and other activities leading up to and following the major event so that family members who can't come for the whole reunion can be there part of the time.
If your group can stay longer than a few days, how about a week on a dude ranch in Wyoming or a golf and tennis resort in South Carolina? Maybe those who can't be there the entire week can arrive late in the week for most of the fun.
Gathering the Clan
Once you and your planning partner have worked out a few options for family members, it's time to begin involving the clan. This is the unofficial kickoff to your eventual reunion. Engage as many participants as you can.
First, send a simple survey to learn what kind of event your family members are interested in having, where they'd like to go, 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? You'll get more surveys back if you keep them to the size of a large postcard, address them yourselves, and add a stamp.
To find addresses you don't have, there are free Internet databases such as 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 Aunt Ruth who invariably sends Christmas cards to everyone. Chances are she will 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, both ones that 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. 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.
You'll want to do as much of the work as you can by e-mail to save on postage and long-distance calls. It's also quicker. Include a line on the survey to get an e-mail address and provide a central e-mail address and phone number for questions or comments. But don't rely too heavily on e-mail at the risk of turning off those who would prefer a written note or a call. Perhaps that line on the survey to gather e-addresses could be expanded to a question asking how people would like to be contacted. If you don't have unlimited free cell phone minutes coast to coast, you may want to consider buying a prepaid phone card just for this project.
Once the surveys have gone out and you have enough responses to make solid plans, it's time to create committees to share the workload of planning and arrangements. 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, 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 definite 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. You're going to have to estimate some of these 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 only a mouse click away (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.
For a restaurant, a cruise line, a hotel, or a lodge, negotiations are based on the same premise that you use to plan a religious meeting. Maybe there won't be as many attendees (or maybe there will), but you are bringing a sizable chunk of business, 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.
By the time your surveys come back, you should be able to get an estimate of the number of people who probably will be registering. If your family has reunion history, great; 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).
What About Paying for It?
Looking at all the estimated expenses laid out 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. From Emma Wisdom, who writes Family Reunion magazine, come a few ideas particularly suited to family events:
Ask an angel. If the family has someone who has been financially fortunate, approach Uncle Bucks for a special donation to help cover common expenses or 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, ask the family raconteur to do the honors, and 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 (www.party411.com/reunionmoney.html). One tasty plan is to have an ice cream social with all the syrups and toppings. Held midway through a warm afternoon, it will be the day''s most popular activity and will probably make a ton of money.