I left the gathering disappointed by the missed opportunity to reconnect with cousins I knew well as a child. I made a solemn promise to never let a reunion shipwreck like this happen again and went a step further. To help other families avoid similar fates, I started a professional reunion planning service. Over the years, I’ve consulted with many families and given them tips to make their annual fests successful, fun and full of relationship-rekindling opportunities.
If you want to make your own reunion a meaningful, memorable occasion, you can’t expect to simply call a few cousins and let the rest fall into place. Organizing a family reunion is challenging — it takes time, diligence, strong organizational skills and a dose of humor. Relatives will inundate you with suggestions ranging from brilliant to bizarre. You, the person at the planning helm, must filter through all the ideas, recruit a crew of volunteers, then pull off a fantastic reunion to remember. Whether your gathering is for a dozen cousins or several hundred relatives from around the world, you can make sure things go swimmingly — and you stay sane — with these survival secrets.
1. Chart a course.
You know you want to gather the clan together, but where, how and when? Family reunions come in all shapes and sizes, from a simple get-together at Grandma’s to a week of festivities at a theme park. No matter what type of reunion you decide to undertake, planning is essential — starting with setting a date and picking a location.
Professional reunion consultants recommend you start planning at least 12 months in advance. Your first step should be sending family members questionnaires to gather input on when and where. Create a small steering committee to research and select three potential dates and locations. Pose the options on your survey and ask each family to select the one that works best.
While you can’t meet everyone’s needs, canvassing your relatives is the best tool for finding out what most members of your family want — and getting them involved will improve the turnout. So keep the lines of communication open throughout the planning. If your family is sufficiently plugged-in, consider e-mail communications to keep your expenses down and give everyone a quick-and-easy way to respond. You also could set up a password-protected family Web site using a low-cost service such as FamilyBuzz.com <www.familybuzz.com>.
2. Gather a crew.
No one person can plan, organize and manage all the aspects of a family reunion. Committees are a must. As the chairperson, you’ll oversee all aspects of the event, handle communications between committees, coordinate and motivate the volunteers — and occasionally play peacemaker when disputes arise. Surround yourself with capable and enthusiastic committee members to make your job easier.
The jobs involved in planning a reunion are as different as the people who attend. For small events with 20 or 30 relatives, you’ll need only a few volunteers. Large parties spanning several days require more volunteers and subcommittees to share the workload. Here’s a brief list of reunion jobs — you may find your event demands additional volunteer positions:
? Finance director: Money is the lifeblood of a reunion — no funding, no party. The finance director sets up the reunion checking account, creates and maintains the budget, and handles bills and purchases.
?Lodging liaison: Your attendees from out-of-town will need places to rest their weary heads after an active day. The lodging liaison finds the best accommodations and negotiates group discounts at hotels, motels, condos or bed and breakfasts.
?Food manager: Eating is an important part of a reunion, whether it’s a five-star catered affair or a bring-a-dish potluck picnic. The food manager decides what will be served or keeps track of what everyone’s bringing to the potluck.
?Mailings and correspondence officer: The phone will start to ring when word gets out that a family reunion’s in the works. To send out mailings and follow up on letters and phone calls, recruit an organized family member who enjoys chatting it up.
?Entertainment director: Activities and games make a reunion memorable. Your volunteer should enjoy socializing and be creative and able to rally the troops come game time.
?Reservations coordinator: You’ll need one person to keep up with who and how many people are attending. This recruit will work closely with the lodging and meals directors to make sure everyone gets to eat and has a place to stay.
?Mementos procurer: Reunions and reminiscing go hand in hand. Select a volunteer or committee to gather mementos such as old photographs, letters and handmade items, and display them at the event.
?Welcome committee leader: To get your reunion off to a great start, you’ll need a welcome committee to make the first impression. This group is responsible for creating name tags and agendas, manning the registration desk, designing banners and signs, and helping relatives meet and mingle.
3. Organize your captain’s quarters.
Planning a family reunion generates mounds of paperwork, so you’ll need a central location to store, file and pile it all. You’ll find yourself with stacks of brochures on the latest, greatest reunion items from name tags to T-shirts. The reunion chairperson should have copies of important information from subcommittees, including contracts with food vendors, updated registration numbers, and lodging and accommodation details.
Create a filing system. You might keep papers in an accordion file, or create separate folders for each committee in a file box or drawer Regardless of the filing method, keep your records organized — you’ll refer to them often as reunion day approaches.
4. Run a tight financial ship.
Money can be a major factor in your relatives’ decisions whether to attend the reunion, says Katy Anderson, former president of the National Association of Reunion Managers <reunions.com>: “Keep your costs down or try to give the family plenty of lead time to budget.” She recommends 12 to 18 months so relatives can save their pennies or plan their annual vacation around the event. Give an idea of the total cost in your first reunion mailing. For spendier get-togethers, such as cruises, Anderson suggests having your finance committee arrange and manage monthly payment options.
You also can use your first mailing to gather seed money for expenses such as printing and postage. Asking each family to pitch in a set amount is a good way to get your reunion finances off the ground. Include financial updates in subsequent mailings to keep the family apprised of where its money is going.
5. Batten down the hatches.
Reunion day dawns and torrential rains dump water all over your outdoor festivities. How to save the day? Have a backup plan for bad weather. If you’re planning to gather the family in a park, make certain you reserve a pavilion that can accommodate everyone who has to huddle underneath it. In case the Softball game and water-balloon toss get rained out, pack a few board games or crafts for the children.
6. Get family on board.
You know your location. You have your date. Now all you need is people to be there. Use your computer to create invitations and send them out as early as possible. You might opt for a simple one-page flyer, an elaborate newsletter or a postcard announcement. If your family is plugged in to the Internet, you could use Evite <www.evite.com>, a free online service that emails invitations and lets relatives RSVP online. If you don’t have everyone’s e-mail address, make a point to collect them for next year’s reunion coordinator.
Use your reunion mailings to communicate all the need-to-know information and keep the excitement brimming. Encourage your family to send in stories, ideas and updates for your mailings. Heighten anticipation by including fun family trivia — you even could offer small prizes to people who respond correctly. This creates involvement, which leads to more interest and better attendance.
7. Set sail with a bang.
First impressions can make the difference between fun and ho-hum. Linda Johnson Hoffman, co-author of The Reunion Planner, 3rd edition (Goodman Lauren Publishing, $49.95 with planning software), says, “Getting everyone involved as they arrive is essential to setting the right tone for a reunion.” Hoffman suggests these ice-breaking ideas to start things off:
?Have a welcoming committee greet all the guests when they get there.
?Create a large, blank family tree chart, and have each member fill in his or her own information.
?Set up a display of memorabilia such as old photos, letters and heirlooms.
?Make banners to set an upbeat mood.
?Give away freebies, such as imprinted pens or notepads, at the registration table.
8. Have a boatload of fun.
Most family reunions are made up of an eclectic mix of people from toddlers to seniors. To guarantee success, offer a wide variety of activities to meet the interests of the group. Besides the usual three-legged races and Softball games, consider optional field trips to play golf, go shopping or tour historic sites. For more ideas, visit the Reunions Magazine Web site <www.reunionsmag.com>.
Don’t forget activities for the kids. After all, says Tom Ninkovich, reunion researcher and co-author of Family Reunion Handbook (Reunion Research), “The children of your reunion are the future reunion planners.” Ninkovich suggests recruiting teenagers to organize younger children’s activities and games, and offering a mix of outdoor and indoor pursuits. Keep the reunion fun for kids and “remember, for a kid, it’s not a reunion — it’s a party.”
9. Keep family heritage on deck.
“The family story is the most important element of the reunion,” Ninkovich says. He encourages reunion planners to help along the story-sharing process with a memorabilia display, ethnic food and favorite family recipes such as Grandma’s oatmeal cookies, nostalgic music and family-oriented decor.
Telling the family story can take many different forms. You could display — or make and distribute copies of — a family tree chart, photo album, family history book, family quilt with squares created by family members, family history video or family recipe book. For more ideas on throwing family history-focused reunions, see the June 2004 Family Tree Magazine.
10. Maintain the momentum.
After a year spent planning, working and agonizing your family reunion is finally history — and what a great success it was. As relatives head back across town or across the country, don’t lose the momentum you worked so hard for. Create a plan to keep in touch until you meet again next year. If you don’t have a family newsletter, get a volunteer to morph your reunion mailing into one. The warm afterglow is also an ideal time to appoint someone to steer next year’s event — someone other than you, that is. After serving as captain of one reunion, you deserve some shore leave.
Your family can seta course for almost any reunion location — whether it’s your own backyard or a major amusement park. Here are a few ideas, from the tried-and-true to the unusual:
?National parks: Call (800) 365-2267 or visit <reservations.nps.gov> for camping and tour reservations at more than 30 national parks. Make lodging reservations directly with the park of your choice.
?State parks: Contact the park for information on activities, places to stay and reservations. Find links to parks departments in all 50 states at <usparks.about.com/cs/stateparks/a/stparklistings.htm>.
?Community center: Contact city hall to ask about these low-cost locales.
?Historical sites: Check with the staff to find out about on-site or nearby lodging and reunion facilities.
?Campgrounds: Search Kampgrounds of America <www.koa.com> for a KOA camp site or to request a directory. You also can write Box30558, Billings, MT 59114; send $5 for shipping and handling.
?Hotels and motels: Call to negotiate group room rates and catering.
?Theme parks: Many offer reunion packages; find a directory of US theme parks at <www.themeparksonline.org>.
?Cruises: Everyone will find something to do on a cruise. Call a travel agent or see <cruises.about.com/od/cruiseplanning> for articles and links to cruise lines.