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How to Plan a Family Reunion
16 smart tips for your family's next reunion that help you keep in touch throughout the planning and enjoy the day of the celebration
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Put the focus on family
Every successful reunion starts with a good turnout, says Jack Bettridge of New Canaan, Connecticut, whose extended family has been gathering regularly since 1988. “Decide from the start that your goal is to spend time together, and not necessarily to have a lavish vacation,” he suggests.
Beth Payer, who runs her Olliebop blog from home in Saratoga Springs, New York, attends up to three major family gatherings per year—one on her husband’s side of the family and two on hers. “Make it a priority to be as inclusive as possible,” she says. “That means being sensitive to those with the tightest budgets, the least flexible schedules, and the greatest mobility issues.” To wit: when a nonagenarian aunt could no longer travel comfortably by car to a longstanding reunion location, the family moved it.
Worst: Mom Hacks Kids’ Grades
Why earn your marks when your mommy can just go into your school’s computer system and change them? Pennsylvania mother Catherine Venusto set a seriously bad example for her kids when she used the computer password she obtained while working as school secretary to change her daughter’s failing grade to a medical exception, and her son’s 98 to a 99 (really?). She also logged into the system more than 100 times to snoop into the grades of other kids. She was caught and charged with computer trespass and unlawful use of a computer.
Adopt easy lines of communication
The most efficient way to connect depends on how Internet-savvy your family is. “Group e-mail worked best for us because we could cover the most ground,” says Traci Suppa, a writer from Hudson Valley, New York, who runs the Go Big or Go Home family travel blog. “Not everyone uses social media sites like Facebook, especially the older members of our family.”
For large reunions, consider free online event-planning sites like Eventbrite.com, which can make tracking RSVPs and activity sign-ups a breeze. Another option is to set up a blog, like the one Krissie Lynch’s family created on Google’s Blogger.com, where reunion guests can interact, view schedule information and peruse links to local tourism organizations. “Setting up the blog is a great job for a tech-savvy teen,” she says.
Divvy up tasks
Seasoned reunion-goers say sharing tasks is the way to go. “We usually have one main coordinator who assigns other responsibilities—one person in charge of researching lodging, another for meals, someone else to plan recreation and activities, and so on,” says Beth Payer. “If we’re staying at a place where we’re cooking our own meals, we would also assign turns for cooking and cleaning up.”
“Everyone appreciates being able to pitch in,” agrees Krissie Lynch. “We always ask anyone who is driving to bring along coolers, sleeping bags, softball equipment, and other items for the group to use.”
Aim for a long weekend
The consensus is that three or four days is an optimal length of time to catch up, share stories and build new memories. For busy families, Beth Payer recommends aiming for a holiday weekend such as Memorial Day, Columbus Day or Thanksgiving. “My husband’s family held a fantastic reunion on Cape Cod last Thanksgiving weekend. Off-season rates were low, and our group had the place completely to ourselves.”
“Folks who fly in for the reunion may want to extend the trip into a full-fledged vacation,” adds Krissie Lynch. “They can tack on a few days before or after the reunion and explore the area.”
Rally around an occasion
Milestone birthdays and anniversaries make particularly meaningful reasons to gather. Jack Bettridge’s first family reunion was planned to coincide with his mother’s 75th birthday, and they have reunited regularly for over 20 years since then. After his mother passed away, Bettridge became even more grateful for those earlier gatherings. “My mom really loved having all her kids and grandkids together,” he recollects. “Those reunions meant a lot to her, and to us.”
“Don’t try to make your event into a vacation and a reunion,” counsels Beth Payer. “You don’t need a lot of bells and whistles. They tend to take the focus away from family.”
Traci Suppa says her family’s reunion at Walt Disney World was a lot of fun for family members with children, but admits that choosing such a lively destination meant there was less time for connecting with family. “We all tended to do our own thing during the day and just met up at night,” she says.
Include lodging options for smaller wallets
“No hotel has one price for every room. So whether you are looking at a large resort, hotel, or cruise ship, there will be a range of price points,” says Traci Suppa. To keep costs down for everyone, consider campgrounds and smaller resorts with cabin-style accommodations.
“Booking out an entire B&B or inn has worked really well for us,” says Jack Bettridge. “We get the run of the place and can take advantage of the facilities and all the common areas. And, as a bonus, breakfast is often included.”
Also consider using a vacation home rental site such as HomeAway.com, like Payer’s family did at a reunion on Cape Cod. “It’s so nice to have one place where everyone can gather,” she says. “One large group might rent out a big house and other guests can get rooms at a local motel or rent smaller houses nearby.”
Don’t take an all-or-nothing view
Your nephew’s baseball championship falls on the same weekend as your reunion. Cousin Tim has a big business trip he can’t get out of. Life happens, so don’t hold it against anyone who can’t come. “But make it equally clear that fragmented families are welcome,” says Krissie Lynch. “Whoever can go should just go.”
When her younger son and husband couldn’t attend last summer’s reunion, Lynch went anyway with her 17-year-old son. “That trip gave me some great one-on-one time with Connor,” she says. “It was really nice to have him to myself for the long car rides, and I was so glad he was there to spend time with family members.”
Play up family history
“I’m the second youngest of eight kids who were all born in Toledo,” says Jack Bettridge as an introduction to his favorite reunion destination. “One of the best things we did was to charter a coach that took us around to addresses that were meaningful to our family,” he remembers. The itinerary included their house, school, church, minor league baseball stadium, and the Toledo Zoo, where Bettridge’s grandfather had been president of the zoological society.
“We moved from Toledo to Connecticut when I was six,” he explains. “Visiting our old stomping grounds was fun for me, nostalgic for my older siblings, and tremendous for my mother. What was cool was that our kids were really fascinated with this chapter in our family’s history. A year later, my daughter kept asking when we were going back to Toledo.”
Photo courtesy of Beth Payer
Put together a loose schedule
Start by blocking off times for meals and perhaps one mandatory gathering. “It’s nice to bring the whole group together for a big event, perhaps a dinner where you’ll present a slideshow of family photos,” says Krissie Lynch. Before or after the main event is the ideal time for a family portrait. “That’s really important to schedule in,” says Beth Payer, “or else you’re always missing one or two people.”
Next, build in a few group activities such as a karaoke night or an afternoon tag football game. “Don’t force participation for these activities,” says Payer. “Respect that not everyone enjoys being in a talent show. Everything is optional and it’s okay to just watch.”
Play some party games
Schedule an icebreaker to help guests get acquainted. At 4 p.m. on the Saturday of a reunion weekend, the Robsons know it’s time for the Yankee auction (sometimes called a white elephant gift exchange). Everyone arrives with a wrapped present, then pulls a number from a hat. Number 1 chooses a present. Number 2 can either choose a wrapped present or steal Number 1’s already-opened gift, in which case Number 1 will choose a new present. And so on.
“All year long, we look for silly gifts, yard-sale finds, and other goofy items,” says Beth Payer. “It’s all about entertainment value.” The fun part is how much swapping and negotiating goes on, and how some gifts—like the crazy candlesticks with cherubs on them—keep returning year after year. “In my garage there is a life-size cardboard cut-out of Paris Hilton,” says Payer. “I’m recycling it at the next Robson reunion.”
Photo courtesy of Beth Payer
Give kids a project
There’s nothing children love more than a messy group effort. “We let the kids go nuts repainting the trailer that their great-grandfather always pulled behind the tractor,” says Beth Payer, who reminisced in her blog about riding around years ago in the very same trailer, in the very same meadow, with her sister and cousins:
“We would be bouncing along and Boppy would suddenly turn the wheel, put the tractor in reverse, and start backing into the river surrounding the property – eliciting shrieks from us all. It never got old. That trailer was nothing special to look at, but its plywood walls surrounded many a happy memory.”
The best part about mess? It washes off. Which brings up yet another Robson tradition. “The kids also like to rebuild the dam in the stream every summer,” says Payer.
Leave some downtime
Between the sing-alongs, croquet round-robins, and nature hikes, be sure to leave spaces of downtime, too. “Less is more,” stresses Krissie Lynch. “During unscheduled time, people get to just hang out together and that’s when really nice organic moments happen. One of my best memories from our last reunion is the impromptu tether-ball tournament that started up on the beach.”
“You really need to leave room for the telling of stories and the sharing of memories,” agrees Beth Payer. “I would hate to leave a reunion thinking that I hadn’t had time to talk to everyone.”
Photo courtesy of Beth Payer
Create a family heirloom
“Food always plays a central role in Robson family gatherings,” says Beth Payer. “So one year we held the reunion around Granny’s birthday and created a cookbook.” The cover features a photo of the birthday girl and the title, Robsons Eat: The Culinary Legacy of Elvah Marie Abbott Robson on the Occasion of her 85th Birthday. Sprinkled in and among the recipes are old family photos and fond recollections of Payer’s grandmother, like this one from Uncle Bill: "It didn't seem to matter how many of my friends would show up at the end of the day. There was always enough for everyone; I don't know how she did it.”
Payer’s treasured keepsake is as nostalgic as it is useful. “That reunion happened in 2001 and we still use this cookbook all the time,” she says. “It always makes me smile, like a trip down memory lane.”
Plumb free resources
Begin your research with your destination’s state and local tourism organizations. Not only will those websites offer a wealth of information on lodging, dining, activities, but many visitors bureaus have dedicated staff to help reunion planners.
Traci Suppa also recommends checking out Reunions Magazine, especially for the initial stages of planning. “It’s full of destination ideas and is a good resource for first-time planners,” she says.
If your group will be pooling some funds to cover some expenses, such as meals, consider using a free service like WePay.com to collect money online.