How To Be a Reunion Survivor

By Mary Snyder Premium

I was 30 years old when I attended my first family reunion. When I received word of the upcoming event, I envisioned reminiscing about childhood adventures and catching up on the years since I’d last seen my aunts, uncles and cousins. Unfortunately, my hopes were dashed — the reunion planning consisted of merely calling a few relatives and buying stick-on name tags. Many of my closest cousins weren’t even notified.

I left the reunion downcast at the missed opportunity to reconnect with the cousins I played with as a child. I made a solemn promise to never let this fiasco happen again and went a step further. To help other families avoid reunion disaster, I started a professional reunion planning service. Over the years, I’ve consulted with many families and given them tips to make their reunion a successful, fun event. I didn’t want anyone else to miss the chance to reconnect with far-flung families.

You have the opportunity to make your own reunion a meaningful, memorable occasion. But you can’t expect to simply call a few cousins and let the rest fall into place. Planning a family reunion is a challenge — it takes time, diligence, strong organizational skills, and a dose of humor is always helpful. As the head reunion planner, you’ll be inundated with ideas from your family ranging from brilliant to bizarre. Your job is to filter through the ideas, recruit a host of volunteers, then pull off a fabulous, fun and fantastic reunion to remember.

Whether you’re planning a reunion for a dozen cousins or several hundred relatives from around the world, these survival secrets will help make your reunion a success and keep you sane in the process.

1. Make a plan.

You know you want to gather the whole clan together, but where, how and when? And how do you decide what will work best for your particular family reunion?

Family reunions come in all shapes and sizes, from the simple get-together at Grandma’s house to a full week of festivities at a local theme park. No matter what type of reunion you decide to undertake, planning is essential — starting with setting a date and picking a location.

Bill Gunkel, owner of Reunions Unlimited and a professional reunion planner for more than 15 years, recommends that you begin to plan at least 12 months in advance. Your best first step, Gunkel says, is sending out questionnaires to family members to get their input on when, where and what they want.

Create a small steering committee to research and select three dates and possible locations. Send out questionnaires with the three options and ask family members to select the best date and location for them.

While you can’t meet every one’s needs, canvassing the family is the best tool for finding out what works best for most of the members of your family.

“Getting the whole family involved is the key to a great turnout,” Gunkel says.

2. Recruit and delegate.

No one person can plan, organize and manage all aspects of a family reunion; committees are a must. As the chairperson, you will 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 volunteer committee members to make your job easier.

The jobs in a reunion are as different as the people who attend. For small events with 20 or 30 people, you’ll need only a small number of volunteers. Large events spanning several days require more volunteers and subcommittees to pitch in and share the workload.

Here’s a brief list of reunion jobs to get you started:

Finance Director: Money and money handling are the lifeblood of a reunion — no money, no reunion. The finance director sets up the reunion checking account, creates and maintains the budget, and handles reunion bills and purchases.

Lodging Liaison: People travel from near and far to attend family reunions and they need a place to rest their weary heads after a full day of fun and activities. The lodging liaison finds the best accommodations and negotiates group discounts at hotels, motels, condos or bed and breakfasts.

Meals and Food Director: Food is an important part of a reunion, whether it’s a catered affair from a five-star restaurant or a bring-a-dish potluck picnic. The food director makes decisions on what will be served or keeps track of what everyone is bringing to the potluck.

Mailings and Correspondence Officer: When the word gets out that a family reunion is in the works, the phone will start to ring. Recruit a family member who enjoys chatting it up and is very organized with correspondence and follow-up to handle this position.

Games and Entertainment Director: Activities and games make a reunion memorable. Recruit a volunteer who embodies creativity, enjoys socializing and can rally the troops come game time.

Reservations Officer: One person is needed to keep up with who and how many are coming. This recruit will work closely with the lodging and meals directors to report the number of guests.

Mementos Procurement: Reminiscing is the foundation of a family reunion. Select a I volunteer or a committee to oversee gathering mementos, such as old photographs, letters and handmade items, and displaying them at the event.

Welcoming Committee: To get your event off to a great start, you’ll need a welcoming committee to make the first impression. This group is responsible for creating name tags and agendas, manning the registration room or desk, creating banners and signs, and making sure that everyone meets and mingles.

3. Create a command center.

A family reunion generates mounds of paperwork requiring a central location to store, file and pile. You’ll find yourself with stacks of brochures on the latest, greatest reunion items from name tags to T-shirts. Even when working with separate subcommittees, the reunion chairperson needs to have copies of all the pertinent reunion information, such as contracts with food vendors, updated registration information, and lodging and accommodation information.

Create a file system for your reunion. You might keep everything in a simple file folder, or you may want to create separate folders for each committee and house all the material in a file box or drawer. Regardless of the method you select, keep your records organized — you’ll refer to them many times during the planning process.

4. Build a budget.

A reunion, whether for 20 or 200 people can be costly endeavor. Katy Anderson, president of the National Association of Reunion Managers and owner of Reunion Masters in San Jose, Calif., says cost can be a big factor in attendance: “Keep your costs down or try to give the family plenty of lead time to budget.” Anderson recommends 12 to 18 months to give everyone plenty of time to save money for the reunion. Give the family an idea of what the price will be in the first mailing. For more expensive get-togethers such as cruises, she suggests offering monthly payment options. If you have a dedicated finance committee to create and manage the payments, you may consider adding this option.

Many reunions start with seed money, which is gathered from family members through the first questionnaire mailings. Asking each family to pitch in a set amount to get the ball rolling is a good way to get your reunion finances off the ground. These early donations can be used to offset your event’s start-up costs, such as printing and mailing. Include financial updates in all reunion mailings to keep the family apprised of where its money is being spent.

5. Prepare a back-up plan.

Family reunion day dawns and a torrential rainstorm dumps water all over your outdoor event and festivities. What can you do to save the day? Have a back-up plan. While you’re in the midst of planning your reunion, consider how you’ll handle an unexpected weather event. If your reunion is scheduled to be outside, make certain you have a pavilion reserved that can accommodate all the family members who might have to huddle underneath it. If you’re planning outdoor games and activities, make certain to pack a few board games or fun crafts the children can do in case bad weather forces them indoors.

6. Get the word out early and often.

You know your location. You have your date. Now all you need to do is get the word out. Create simple and fun invitations on your computer and send them out as early as possible. You might opt for a simple one-page flyer, an elaborate newsletter or a postcard announcement. Use your mailings to communicate information and incite interest in the upcoming event. Try to opt for an e-mail version of communications when it’s available and if your family is sufficiently plugged-in. This keeps your mailing costs down and gives the family a quick and easy method of contacting the reunion committee. (You can also use family-centered Web sites such as <> as the hub of your reunion communications.)

Keep the excitement brimming and the anticipation high by including fun and interesting family trivia in your reunion information. Encourage your family to send in stories, ideas and updates to include in the reunion mailings. This creates involvement, which leads to more interest and better attendance.

7. Offer something for everyone.

Family reunions are often made up of a broad and eclectic mix of people with ages ranging from toddlers to seniors. To guarantee success, offer a wide variety of activities to meet the interests of the group. Offer optional activities such as golf outings, mall trips or excursions to local historical sites.

Don’t forget activities for the kids. After all, says Tom Ninkovich, author of Family Reunion Handbook (Reunion Research) and a family reunion researcher since 1985, “Children of your reunion are the future reunion planners.” Try to offer a good mix of outdoor and indoor activities. Ninkovich suggests recruiting teenage family members to organize the younger children’s activities and games. Keep the reunion fun for kids and “remember, for a kid, it’s not a reunion — it’s a party.”

8. Start with a bang.

First impressions can make the difference between fun and ho-hum. Linda Johnson Hoffman, author of The Reunion Planner book (Goodman Lauren Publishing) and software, encourages reunion planners to have icebreaker activities to kick off the reunion. “Getting everyone involved as they arrive is essential to setting the right tone for At a reunion,” she says. Hoffman suggests these ideas to get your reunion off on the right foot:

• Have a welcoming committee to greet all the guests as they arrive.

• Create a blank family tree and have each member fill in individual information.

• Have old photos and memorabilia set up for all to see and enjoy.

• Create fun banners and signs to set the tone.

• Give away freebies, such as imprinted pens or notepads, at the registration table.

9. Share stories.

“The family story is the most important element of the reunion,” says Ninkovich. He encourages reunion planners to help this process along with memorabilia such as old photos and scrapbooks, ethnic food, music and decorations.

Telling the family story can take many different forms. Some of the more popular and successful are:

• A family photo album.

• A family history book with stories from each branch of the family.

• A family quilt with each square created by family members.

• A family history video.

• A family recipe book with stories about each dish.

10. Keep up the momentum.

After a year of planning, working and agonizing, your reunion is finally history — and what a great success it was. As the family heads back across town or across the country, don’t lose the momentum you worked so hard to achieve. Create a plan to keep in touch until you meet again at the next reunion. Family newsletters are great for keeping everyone up to date and involved. Recruit one or two volunteers to gather family updates and send out a quarterly newsletter. (For more on family newsletters, see the August 2000 issue of Family Tree Magazine and <>.)

The warm afterglow of your family reunion is also an ideal time to recruit someone to be in charge of organizing the next event — someone other than you, that is. After surviving one reunion, you deserve a break. 


Family Reunion Handbook by Tom Ninkovich (Reunion Research)

Fantastic Family Gatherings by Kathy Smith Anthenat (Heritage Books)

Fun and Games for Family Gatherings by Adrienne Anderson (Bett Reunion Research)

The Reunion Planner by Linda Johnson Hoffman and Neal Barnett (Goodman Lauren Publishing)

Reunions Magazine, (800) 373-7933 or <>

<>: Filled with family reunion information, resources and software.

<>: Announce and publicize your reunion.

Free, private family Web sites:





Family Shoebox



From the April 2001 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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