What's the most important decision when planning a family reunion? "Set a date so that family members can put it on their calendars before planning vacations," says Tom Ninkovich, author of Family Reunion Handbook (Reunion Research, 1998). And, remember, the key aspect of choosing a reunion date is to stick to your final decision. Changing the date will only create havoc for others. Things to consider when choosing a date: Plan ahead. Most reunions need to be planned one to two years in advance. Advance planning enables you to reserve the ideal meeting place. Planning ahead also allows attendees to set aside vacation time and save money they might need to attend. Get a consensus. Don't just pick the date that's right for you. Poll family members to avoid time conflicts. If there are family members who absolutely must attend (for example, grandparents), check with them first. Then choose a date that's best for most people. There are many ways to choose a date. You could offer 3-4 different options and have family members send in their votes by a certain deadline. You might want to offer some explanation as to why certain dates might be better than others. For example, your initial mailing might say: "Uncle Bert will be celebrating his 80th birthday on June 10. Wouldn't it be great to pay tribute to our favorite uncle by throwing a family reunion that weekend?" Then offer two or three other possible dates as a backup. Let family members know that majority rules. Unfortunately, someone will always have a conflict. One way to resolve this problem is to set potential dates for the next two reunions. That way, people who can't attend this time will hopefully make it to the next one.
Ideas for Dates
Select a date. Here are a few suggestions:
- Family milestone or special day: These types of dates might include a silver or golden anniversary, a grandparent's or elder's birthday, a wedding or graduation, an ancestor's birthday or date of immigration, a retirement party, a birth, or an ethnic or religious holiday.
- Time of year/season: "Most family reunions are held between June and September because the weather is better, travel is easier, school is out, and summer is the traditional time for vacations," says Ninkovich. However, some families prefer to take advantage of "off season" value packages, which include April-May, October-November, and December-February (except at tropical beach resorts and ski areas). Accommodations and airline rates tend to be lower at these times. The drawbacks are that travel conditions may be harsh (think snow), and kids tend to be in school.
- Holidays: In some cities, legal holidays such as Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day are considered "off" season because the usual business travelers are on vacation. Long holiday weekends are usually perfect for reunions in cities like Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C. Keep in mind that Thanksgiving or year-end holidays work well for small reunions close to home. But these holidays usually don't work well for large or geographically distant families, since most people tend to be more focused on their own nuclear families at this time of year.
- A specific reunion date, weekend, or month: "Many families set a particular reunion date they can count on from year to year, such as the 'second Saturday in August,'" says Ninkovich. "The reunion may not be held every year, but when it is held everyone knows when it will be."
Decide on Reunion Length
Reunions can last anywhere from an afternoon to three or more days. "A general rule is that the farther people must travel, the longer the reunion should last," says Ninkovich. Few people will fly cross-country for afternoon tea. Small reunions average one day. Larger reunions last about two or three days. You don't want them to last too long, Ninkovich advises. "Your next reunion will benefit if you leave them wanting more."
After deciding when the reunion will take place, the next big decision is: Where? The possibilities may seem endless. Examples include amusement parks, a camp, church, college dorms, condos, conference centers, a cruise ship, historical sites, home(s), hotels, houseboats, motels, nature preserves, a park, a ranch or farm, resorts, and zoos. In general, your choice depends on the size of the reunion, time of year, accessibility, and the type of reunion you'd like to have (e.g., a small picnic, a cruise, a rustic camping trip, etc.) Keep in mind that no site will be perfect. "If it is nice and inexpensive, it is remotely located. Well-priced and convenient? The aesthetics have a lot to be desired," says Jennifer Crichton, author of Family Reunion (Workman Publishing, 1998). "Reunions are about family life, and family life is more about trade-offs than perfection." However, it is possible to find a site that meets most of your needs. Following are things to consider for four basic kinds of reunions.
Questions to ask include:
- Do you have enough space for everyone to sit and eat comfortably, with enough room for kids to run around?
- How many tables and chairs can fit in the backyard?
- Is there enough room indoors in case of bad weather?
- Is there room for a tent?
- Can your home, street, or neighbors accommodate parking?
- Are you willing to "let things go" in order to host a large crowd in your home? Small children may be running through your house (so put away breakables). Your lawn may take a beating. You might be collecting paper cups, plates, and napkins from every crevice of your property long after your guests have gone. Ask yourself, 'Can I handle the mess?'
If the answer to many of these questions is "no," you may want to look into public parks as another option (see Hometown Reunion on the next page).
This type of event is most likely to be held in the family's original hometown. Questions to ask yourself include:
- If your home isn't large enough to host a crowd, are there any nearby public parks or nature preserves that can accommodate your clan?
- Does the park have a shelter or pavilion to protect you from sun or rain?
- Do you need to reserve in advance? If so, when?
- Do you need to obtain a permit? If so, find out the details such as how and when to apply and how much it will cost.
- Is the site accessible by car or bus? Is there parking?
- Is it wheelchair accessible (if necessary)?
- How close are the restrooms? (You may need to rent a portable toilet.)
- Is there water for drinking and/or washing at the site?
- What facilities are available to your guests (e.g., baseball, tennis, a playground, beach or lake, boating, etc.)?
- Are grills permitted?
- Is there an ordinance regarding alcoholic beverages?
- How many picnic tables/benches are available? Is there a shady area for picnic blankets?
- Is electricity available, or do you need to bring a generator (for things like a microphone, musical instruments, etc.)?
- Does the park provide security patrol?
Longer reunions lasting 3 to 4 days usually require larger accommodations, such as hotels, motels, resorts, dorms, or conference centers. Once you've pinpointed the geographical location of your reunion, you might want to contact the local tourist board, Chambers of Commerce, and Convention and Visitors Bureaus. These professionals can help you find accommodations, restaurants, tours, caterers, photographers, etc. Questions regarding accommodations should include:
- How far is the site from local airports and train stations? Is transportation provided? Is there access to public transportation?
- Does the facility have group rates?
- Do any discounts apply (e.g., for "off season" rates)?
- Are there any "freebies" (e.g., a free room for a certain number of paid rooms; children stay free)?
- Is a deposit required? When is it due? What is the refund/cancellation policy?
- Are there meeting and/or banquet rooms on site or located nearby?
- What restaurants are available both on site and in the area?
- Is there a pool (indoors or outdoors)?
- What other facilities are available to guests (e.g., spa, gym, tennis, coffee shop, salon, etc.)? What are the charges?
- Can the facility provide you with names and contact info of other reunion organizers who have used the site recently?
- Can a family member who lives in the area do an on-site inspection?
- Are there tables, chairs, bulletin boards, and other equipment available for registration/presentations? Is there a charge?
- What is the smoking policy? Are "no smoking" sleeping rooms available?
- Is there wheelchair access (if needed)?
- Is parking available? Is it free? Is there a public lot nearby?
Always ask the facility to send you a contract with all the details you discussed. Review it carefully.
A helpful source is Family Reunion Handbook by Tom Ninkovich (Reunion Research, 1998).
For reunions that last a full week, some families prefer to camp out in tents, RVs, or trailers. Check out the following:
- During what seasons are the campgrounds open?
- What are the fees? How far in advance do you need to reserve?
- How far is the site from the nearest beach, city, historical area, mountains/hiking trails, shopping, state or national park, theme park, and/or tourist area?
- What accommodations are available (e.g., tents, trailers/RVs, lodges, or bunks)?
- Are hookups for water and electricity available?
- What facilities are provided (e.g., barbecue grills, campfires, covered sites/shelter, food, ice, outhouses/restrooms, hot/cold showers, tables and benches, trash pickup, laundry)?
- What activities are located nearby (e.g., boating, backpacking, sports, hiking, swimming, fishing, etc.)?
Renting Condos, a Home or Dorms
Another option is to rent condos, a house, or dorms. For dorm rooms -- sometimes available during summer months -- contact the housing departments of colleges in your reunion area. To find out about condo rentals, check with the local Chambers of Commerce, tourist board, or Convention and Visitors Bureau. You could also search the Yellow Pages, on paper or online, for local Realtors, who often publish booklets with condo or house rental information.
When arranging reservations, be sure to ask:
- During what seasons are rooms available?
- How far are the accommodations from the nearest recreation areas (e.g., beach, city, historical area, mountains/hiking trails, shopping, state or national park, theme park and/or tourist area)?
- What facilities are available in the rooms (e.g., bathrooms/showers in rooms or halls, refrigerators, ovens, microwaves, ice, etc.)?
- Do the rooms have air conditioners?
- Are linens and towels provided?
- Where is the nearest Laundromat?
- Is there a common room for meetings, meals, parties, etc.? Is there an extra charge? Does the room need to be reserved in advance?
Still stuck? Consult the following sources: Publications:
- Family Reunion by Jennifer Crichton (Workman, 1998)
- Family Reunion Handbook by Tom Ninkovich (Reunion Research, 1998)
- Family Reunion Planner by Donna Beasley (Macmillan, 1997)
- The Family Reunion Sourcebook by Edith Wagner (Lowell House, 1999)
- Reunions Magazine Workbook & Catalog (2001); 414-263-4567
Convention and Visitors Bureaus (CVBs): Nonprofit organizations that represent cities or regions for all kinds of meetings. Most CVBs offer their services free of charge and can help obtain accommodation costs, site inspections, and other services based on your needs. Check out local CVBs by searching the Yellow Pages online.
Telephone Books: Available for any part of the country -- 800-848-8000 -- or on CD-ROM at your local library.
Chambers of Commerce: Good sources for accommodations, site inspections, maps, informational brochures, site-seeing trips, etc.