On July 4, 1967, my mother’s sister Gerry and brother John, along with their spouses and children, packed a picnic basket and headed to South Park in Pittsburgh for Independence Day. Along the way, they also invited Mom’s other sister, Margie. Despite the unusually cold and rainy summer day, the family had fun just being together—so much so that they did it again the next year. The small gathering grew each year until all seven siblings and their families joined in.
My Uncle John, a commercial artist, designed a logo, and we coined an acronym from the siblings’ last names: ALAFFFA, for Abbott, Lizanov, Alzo, Figlar, Figlar, Figlar, Augenstein. A tradition was born, with the promise to reunite yearly as a tribute to their parents, John and Veronica Figlar, who taught their children the importance of family.
We’re still keeping that promise 46 years later. What’s our secret? Seven strategies that fine-tune our planning process and liven up each event. You too can rock your own reunion—we’ll show you how.
1. Set the stage
“Good planning equals success” says Edith Wagner, editor of Reunions Magazine. “For many families, it is a tradition. The reunion is when you can count on seeing everyone in one place. Members knowing what to expect is key.”
Wagner recommends starting to plan your reunion a year to 18 months in advance. That’ll give you time to select a venue, come up with a guest list, create a budget, arrange food and activities, and give relatives enough notice to schedule vacation time. To help you stay ahead of the game, use our downloadable Family Reunion Planning Checklist.
Organizing a reunion involves a lot of work, and advance planning also gives you time to put together a committee. Enlist as many family members as possible, aiming for a representative from each family unit. Delegate tasks and follow up to make sure people do what they promise. Don’t worry if your committee members are scattered around the globe. You can conference call via Skype or start a Google Hangout. Skype text and voice chats with multiple people are free, but you’ll need a premium account to initiate a multiperson video chat. Google Hangouts are free for up to 10 people. You also can share files and spreadsheets on Google Drive or Dropbox.
This strategy has worked well for my family. “Email and conference calls with members representing each family works best for deciding themes, or any new or different menu items, or games,” says my cousin Jeff Abbott, who heads up the ALAFFFA reunion committee. “This helps us divide up the tasks among several members.”
Sites such as Evite or EventBrite work well for inviting attendees and keeping track of RSVPs. For help organizing to-dos from invitations to finding vendors to designing T-shirts, try the party-planning site Punchbowl.
Are you in a reunion rut? If it’s at the same time in the same place every year, consider a change. For our 45th annual reunion, our family broke the tradition of gathering in Pittsburgh. Instead, we spent a weekend at West Virginia’s Oglebay Resort, celebrating over a banquet dinner instead of our usual picnic fare. Something as simple as a new menu (from a potluck, for example, to a catered meal) and different activities could bring the life back to the party. Whatever you decide, work within your budget and give relatives plenty of notice about the change. We voted at our previous year’s reunion, so everyone had time to make travel plans.
2. Sell tickets
The reality is your reunion will cost money. And unless you’ve hit the Powerball jackpot or have a wealthy and generous relative, you’ll need a budget and you’ll have to ask your family to pitch in. “It’s not written in stone that it must cost a lot of money. But you will need money if you’re doing mailings; and for deposits if you’re planning a banquet or reserving a park pavilion,” Wagner says in her free How to Ask for Money podcast. “If you’re like many reunion organizers, you will be fronting some, if not all, of the money to begin. Others need to know that you expect them to contribute to and/or pay their fair share.”
You could write a letter to each family describing the upcoming reunion and asking for a contribution. Let them know how the money will be used. Or ask individuals to donate a service such as printing as their contribution. At the reunion, you might auction donated items to raise money for next year’s event (Wagner describes her family’s kuchen auction in the box at right). Keeping costs low, perhaps by booking a park shelter or community center and holding potluck meals, will encourage attendance.
3. Add bling with a theme
Themes are an effective way to generate enthusiasm for your reunion and coordinate food, attire, decorations and activities. Our family did an All-American theme in 2003, with red, white and blue attire; picnic classics (hamburgers, hot dogs, potato salad); and musical chairs set to patriotic tunes. Other easy themes include back to school, Christmas in July, country and western, New Year’s Eve, pajama party and toga party. Decade-based themes—’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s—also work well, as do those associated with an anniversary (the 25th annual reunion; your grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary). Themes with an ethnic flair, such as Hawaiian, Irish or Mexican, can help you incorporate your family’s heritage, as would a theme celebrating your Civil War ancestor or Grandpa’s WWII service. Find more theme ideas on Family-Reunion.com.
Announce the theme well in advance so everyone can design their costumes and your committee can coordinate food, decorations and activities. Try to stick with themes that aren’t too elaborate so family members can use what they have around the house or buy cheaply at party stores or the local dollar store.
4. Generate buzz
There’s no point in planning a reunion if nobody shows up. In addition to paper or email invitations, take advantage of technology to get the word out about your event. You can keep everyone informed with a MyHeritage family page (free for up to 250MB of storage), a Google Site (free), or a Weebly site (free to $20 per month). Or use a Facebook group.
Blogging is another route: Start a Blog for free with Blogger or WordPress. Build excitement on Facebook or Twitter with posts and tweets about the venue, food and activities, and remind people about RSVP and other deadlines.
“Social media can increase reunion attendance because members continue the conversation they’re having online,” Wagner says. It’s also a tool for gauging relatives’ preferences. “[You can] get more input so those who do come are more likely to get what they want at the reunion—golf, shopping, lots of stuff for kids, etc. After the reunion there can be discussions about that reunion and the next one. And it’s a great place to share all the pictures taken at reunions.” You don’t have to use all the social networking sites—choose those that will work best for your family and situation.
5. Blast ’em with the past
Keep in mind the reason for your reunion—family. This also means your ancestors, so incorporate some genealogy into your gathering. You’ll certainly want to bring along a printed copy of the family tree to explain connections, but a mile-long chart might not be the best way to capture the attention of your attendees. You’ll likely generate more interest with displays of photos, albums and heirlooms. If fact, a photo guessing game makes a fun activity. At one of our family reunions with a Pajama Party theme, for example, we had a Name that Napper contest: We plastered a poster board with pictures of family members napping at reunions over the years, and attendees had to guess who was in each photograph. The person with the most answers received a prize, and the game became a conversation starter.
Another great project is to convert your old home movies and videotapes of past gatherings to DVD or digital files (you were planning to do that anyway, right?), or use an online service to play at the reunion. Pair up relatives for oral history interviews with questions you’ve provided. Have them record the interviews with a smartphone or tablet app such as Evernote. Or you could have them record their memories by phone for a VoiceQuilt Keepsake.
6. Amp up the activities
It’s likely that the attendees at your reunion will span generations—infants, toddlers, teens, Gen Xers, Gen Yers, Baby Boomers and senior citizens. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with sitting around the picnic table and talking to your relatives, but you’ll want some scheduled activities to get folks moving and mingling. If your reunion spans the weekend, a Friday night ice-breaker is a good idea, with a brunch or picnic the next day. Plan a wide range of activities to hold the attention of younger attendees, and to suit both the active and passive members of the family. Softball, horseshoes, badminton and volleyball are good staples, provided you have the space and the weather cooperates. Also consider a scavenger hunt for all ages, cornhole, or an egg on a spoon relay race.
For quiet times, bring along cards or board games. You even could create your own customized version of Trivial Pursuit with questions such as “Name three family members who play a musical instrument?” or “Which family member scored the winning touchdown in Central High’s state football championship?”). Karaoke is always fun, too. Remember that although activities are important, you should avoid scheduling every minute for every person.
7. Engage with an encore
Just because the party’s over doesn’t mean the fun has to end. Facebook, Google Hangouts, and Skype let you stay in touch with your family throughout the year. You also can share photos with a photo album on Flickr. Use a family email newsletter to share reunion updates, family stories, photos and recipes year-round. Collaborate on family tree research, participate in a fantasy football league, set up an NCAA basketball bracket, or check out other interactive online games. To guide your planning for next year, distribute a survey at the end of the event on paper, or via email a few days after.
Whether it’s your first foray into the reunion arena or your long-running get-together is in need of a recharge, a solid plan blended with a playlist of activities will keep your family in tune for years to come.
Contributing editor Lisa A. Alzo has helped plan the ALAFFFA family reunion for more than a decade, and serves as her family’s official historian.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2013 Family Tree Magazine.