You are a meeting planner, and the family matriarch decrees that you will plan the next family reunion. Now what do you do? Here are steps to make the job easier and fun.

  1. Share the Load

    The first thing to do is to get someone to share the work. This is a different kind of planning from your religious meetings, because the job depends on your ability to involve others.

    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.

  2. Get a Head Start

    Time is the enemy. 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. Giving yourself enough time to circumnavigate the “previous commitment” shoals is essential.

  3. Choose a Destination

    If you decide that a Sunday afternoon in a local park is out, you and your planning partner need to look at alternatives.

    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 might think.

  4. Select Dates

    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 knowledge to get your family group the best available prices. 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.

  5. Get Everyone Involved

    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 would like to go, when is the most convenient time, and other details. Offer the best ideas you have dreamed up, and ask for ideas from them. How many people 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. 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.

    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.

  6. Build 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 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 will 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.

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 exist to take your estimates and give you hotel room costs for group bookings (of more than 10 rooms).