Create a Guest List

Unsure of how many people to invite, or who to invite? We have it all covered in our guest-list guide.

Deciding which relatives to invite to the reunion can pose some unexpected challenges. Families can be big, small, far-flung, close-knit, feuding, or completely out of touch. Should you invite every living descendant of the Osenhoffer family, who settled in Boston in the late 1700s? Should you leave out eccentric Uncle Al because he tends to embarrass everyone with his off-color jokes? Check out our tips and advice to consider when drawing up a guest list.

Group Size

Select a group size that you feel you can handle. Some organizers suggest starting small (parents, children, and grandchildren) the first year and adding on family branches (cousins, aunts and uncles, etc.) for later reunions. If your family is small to start with, invite everyone. Some organizers might be more inclined to collect all the cousins that have scattered around the globe. Others who are searching for family roots might expand the list to include all descendants of a certain ancestor. There are numerous ways to expand or limit the guest list. The bottom line: Only you can decide where to draw the line.

Some families are small and tight-knit, making the process of finding everyone easy. Others may be far-flung, making the task of finding these individuals rather arduous. But persistence pays off. Here are a few tips:

  • Appoint a family "sleuth." Choose someone who loves investigative research and is willing to take the time and effort to get results. Make sure your sleuth's name, address, telephone number, and e-mail address appear in all reunion mailings.
  • Include a list of "missing" family members in each mailing and ask anyone with leads to contact the family sleuth. Any small clue can help.
  • Some identifying clues to search for: Name of hometown; schools attended and years of graduation; age; occupation; religious affiliation; married name; special interests or training; community and/or club affiliation (Town Board; PTA, etc.)
  • Check out these books, which may prove to be helpful resources: -- Find Anyone Fast by R. Johnson and Debra Johnson Knox (MIE Publishing, 1997) -- Get the Facts on Anyone by Dennis King (Prentice Hall/Macmillan, 1999) -- The Directory of Family Associations, 4th edition (2001), Genealogical Publishing Company, 1001 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, MD 21202; 800/296-6687; $34.95 plus postage and handling.
  • Hire a professional genealogist. To locate a genealogist near you, check out the Roster of Certified Persons of the Board for Certification of Genealogists. There's no fee to read the list online. Or visit Everton's Genealogical Helper magazine online, which offers a fee-based search service.

Board for Certification of Genealogists

Everton's Genealogical Helper

  • Print a reunion announcement in a newspaper or magazine.
  • Use Internet search engines such as Google or Yahoo for a specific name or white pages search.



Black Sheep

Should you invite the so-called "black sheep" of the family? Unless that person has committed some unforgivable, heinous crime, invite him or her to the reunion. (Still unsure? Armed robbery is a heinous crime; forgetting to call Grandma Louise on her birthday is not.) Reunions are about drawing people together, not creating rifts. It's usually better to invite the individual, and let him/her decide whether or not to come.

Unlike planning other special events like a wedding or birthday party, reunions require ongoing communication. Unless the reunion is very small and everyone lives close by, a one-shot invitation is generally not enough. You may need to send about three announcements to ensure that everyone gets the message and has time to respond and plan for the trip. Though it may sound like a lot of work (and it is), keeping the communication going is the best way to stir up interest, build momentum, and have everyone share in the planning process.

First Mailing

This initial "exploratory" mailing -- which should be sent about 18 months to a year before the big event -- can take the form of a letter or flyer. To set the tone and encourage involvement, make sure the letter is as enthusiastic as possible. Let family members know that a reunion is being planned. Solicit family participation by requesting preferred dates, times, and locations, ideas for the reunion, and a call for volunteers. To limit the field, offer some concrete suggestions for the time and place (e.g., "Memorial Park in Bergenfield on July 4," instead of "Bergen County sometime in July"). You should also ask how much money people are willing to spend on the reunion per day and give price ranges. If you're still trying to hunt down some long-lost relatives, this initial mailing is a good time to ask for leads.

To increase the odds of receiving a response, include a deadline (about four weeks), a self-addressed stamped envelope (if your budget allows), as well as phone numbers and e-mail addresses of all members of the reunion committee. To help find missing relatives, include contact info for the family "sleuth" to help track them down.

Second Mailing

This second mailing, which should be sent six to nine months before the reunion, is the announcement everyone's been waiting for. If the budget and time permit, you could send formal, printed invitations. But most families opt for homemade letters or flyers, spruced up with artwork, photos, interesting fonts, and/or a family emblem to make it eye-catching (see Newsletters, below). E-mail works well for keeping in touch with individuals and answering questions. But where invitations are concerned, good old-fashioned flyers that can be stuck to the fridge seem to work best.

This mailing should include the following: Time, date, and location of the reunion; lodging information; registration fee; a registration form (sometimes provided by the hotel/facility); payment procedure; cancellation refunding policy; directions; and what to bring. You might also use this opportunity to solicit volunteers and ask for suggestions for programs and games. Request T-shirt/cap orders.

Some families also include a survey, which can be used to create a family book or to plan programs at the reunion. Questions might include: names and birthdays of all family members, including children; occupations; anniversaries; favorite hobbies, recipes, etc.

Make sure to include a deadline for reservations and responses, a self-addressed stamped envelope (if your budget allows), as well as phone numbers and e-mail addresses of all members of the reunion committee.

Third Mailing

About six to eight weeks ahead, send out one last mailing. If you just want to pump up the excitement and remind people of the time, place, and any minor updates or changes, send an informal postcard. You can also send a longer, more complete letter that should include updated information; last-minute changes or additions to original plans; a "kick in the pants" for stragglers and procrastinators (encourage them to attend by including a list of attendees); a reunion schedule; map and instructions; car-rental information; public transportation schedules; and a list of things to bring (e.g., clothing list, memorabilia, insect repellent, sun block, cameras, film, etc.).


With all the excitement in the air, some families start ongoing newsletters (or web pages) as a way of keeping in touch, providing updates about reunion plans, and strengthening family bonds. Newsletters could contain articles submitted by various family writers, historic family dates, photos, quizzes, jokes, birth and death announcements, marriages, new addresses, kids' contributions, etc. 


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