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Family Reunions 101

Before you pull your hair out at the thought of matching T-shirts and meals for a hundred picky eaters, take a deep breath and read on. By the time you're finished reading this crash course in reunion planning, you'll be ready to tackle this year's event. You might even be excited about it!

Getting Started

Get organized

If you're like me, you write things down on any convenient surface. A grocery store receipt. The back of the phone book. My child's forearm. But then someone puts the phone book away or my son takes a bath, and I'm back to square one. Don't make this mistake with your family reunion. You'll be keeping track of a lot of information, from hotel room quotes to relatives' addresses. Grab a folder, spiral notebook, or even a fancy binder: anything to help organize your thoughts. That way great-aunt Elsie's phone number won't be lost when you toss your grocery store receipts.

If you'd like a little more help staying organized, try Family Reunion Organizer software ($29.95, deseretbook.com). This Windows-compatible program tracks your guest list, finances, schedule, and assignments. It includes ideas for activities and templates for printing out name tags, invitations, and other documents. You can even create a family reunion web page.

Get help

If you anticipate more than 25 guests--or if you just feel overwhelmed--delegate! You may not need a full-blown committee, unless you've got a large or annual reunion. But it's not out of line to ask one relative to handle registration, another to plan meals, a third to handle finances, etc. Just make sure you communicate regularly!

Get input

"Actively seek out ideas from other family members," advises George G. Morgan in Your Family Reunion: How to Plan It, Organize It, and Enjoy It. "Determining the level of interest in the event . . . . [And] the mix of the group is essential to selecting an ideal site for the reunion, developing a budget, setting pricing for attendees, planning meal events, and devising activities to get everyone involved." His book includes a one-page survey you can adapt for your own purposes.

Get moving

"Plan far in advance!" advises Cynthia Snow Banner, organizer of the 2007 Lorenzo Snow family reunion in Kirtland, Ohio. She started a year in advance, and all major arrangements were complete six months ahead of time. But that reunion involved cross-country travel by all attendees. A spontaneous weekender with a couple of relatives can be planned on short notice.

The time you need depends on many things, such as how scattered the group is, how far ahead your destination books up, and how many people are coming. Give yourself more time than you think you need.

The Guest List

Of course you're going to invite the whole family, right? But what's "the whole family"? How far up the tree do you go?

"Start with your closest relatives and work out," advises Family-Reunion.com. "Then stop when you've reached your limit!"

Another approach: think about who really needs to connect with whom. Has the newest generation of grandkids met? Do your siblings need quality time with each other? What about those first cousins you haven't seen in years? Many traditional reunions include all the posterity of one couple. How far back in time you go helps determine how big your group will be.

The annual Riser reunion in West Virginia, which my family attends, includes four generations: between 60 and 70 people attend any given year. The Jared Pratt family reunion in Utah includes everyone who descends from a common ancestor from the 1700s. About 500 attended the last reunion. (The Pratts have been building their guest list for twenty years.)

David Grow, who helps organize the huge Pratt reunions, loves the excitement generated by their large gatherings. "Even though they don't know every single person there, [attendees] still feel a sense of belonging because they're all related to one person," he explains. "It's a powerful sight to look out at five hundred people and realize you're all part of the same family."

He explains that the reunion helps people understand the "big picture of where they fit in this large pioneer family," but it also "gives time for smaller family groups to meet."

First-time reunion planners may want to start on a smaller scale. "Perhaps the first reunion won't be the full-blown, everyone-in-the-family affair you initially envisioned," advises Your Family Reunion. "It may make sense for the first one to be a local or regional affair for a smaller group of family members."

A small group has the advantages of flexibility and intimacy. Cynthia was relieved when only 24 people joined her 2007 tour of Kirtland (which included a day trip to Palmyra). "I was grateful there weren't fifty or seventy-five people--that's just too big of a group," she says. "We had more time to get to know each other. It was easier to travel from one place to another."

Smaller reunions with part of the family provide different types of fun. My grandmother once invited just her granddaughters for a week-long stay at her home. My brothers and I recently took our families on an overnight trip to play tourists in a nearby big city. And my lucky brother and sister-in-law even went on a cruise with her grandfather, who bought tickets for his grandchildren to celebrate his later-life remarriage.

As you can see, you can try any combination of people and places. Just be consistent in your invitations. Don't invite every cousin except the strange one. Don't exclude someone who might already feel alienated because of religious, cultural, geographic, or other differences. That's a good way to make bad family feelings worse. The purpose of your reunion is to unite, not un-tie.

Once you decide who to invite, and then once you find them, you still have to contact them somehow. Mailing costs, if you haven't got a budget from a previous reunion, can be prohibitive. Putting together a family website is nice, but your relatives have to know about it before they can visit it. Many families stay well-enough connected, at least within their own family groups, to reach people by email. Try to identify a "gatekeeper" in each family who will forward your email reunion invitation and your contact information to every relative he or she knows.  

Setting a Date

One of the first big reunion decisions is do you work around everyone's schedules or do you plan something so exciting they'll plan around you? Of course, the answer is it depends!

What is the size and geographic makeup of your group? How invested are they in seeing each other? How flexible are their schedules? How much notice can you give them? Some reunions are already tied to a date: great-grandma's ninetieth birthday, the Hill Cumorah Pageant, or the last remaining slot for a group of eighty at the resort ranch.

But perhaps you want to schedule your reunion around a few A-list guests, like your shared grandparents, all four siblings, or your almost-famous cousin who's bringing her band. If so, consult them first, and then follow up for a firm commitment.

Some annual reunions claim a holiday weekend. The most popular reunion date in the United States is July 4, according to The Family Reunion Sourcebook. The Riser reunion happens every Labor Day weekend, rain or shine. Some Latter-day Saint families celebrate on Pioneer Day, a Utah state holiday that commemorates the entrance of early Latter-day Saints into the Salt Lake Valley.

"It's been a Pratt family tradition to hold [ours] over the 24th of July weekend," says David. "Sometimes it's convenient, and sometimes it's not." Of course, that's true of any annual holiday--but claiming the date in perpetuity makes it easier to remember and attend.

Most reunions are held in the summer to accommodate student vacations or to avoid icy roads. But winter reunions have their own charm. "Kids have three- and four-day weekends in winter--perfect times to get away and enjoy the company of extended family," points out The Family Reunion Sourcebook. "There are lots of benefits to winter reunions, not the least of them off-season prices." Of course, if you're still trying to schedule something for this year, a fall or winter reunion also gives you more time to plan!

Where to Go

Sometimes it's tough to make one decision--like where to have the reunion--without considering other factors like who, when, and what you'll do together. In the initial stages of planning, you may explore several options. But eventually, you have to bite the bullet and make reservations! That said, remember the axiom "Location, location, location!" If you're looking for high turnout, pick a central location.

"About fifty percent of our mailing list lives in Utah," says David. "The majority of the rest are sort of gathered in the West. Utah seemed to make the most sense to us. We've held it in Nauvoo, but we didn't get quite the turnout as when we held it in Utah."

Cynthia had a different goal for the 2007 Lorenzo Snow reunion. "One of the reasons we chose [Kirtland] was because Lorenzo and Eliza were there. We wanted to experience it ourselves." The group was smaller, but they connected with their ancestors' lives in a meaningful way. "There have been and will be other years for the rest of the group to get together," she says. "Everybody's not going to go to all of them anyway!"

If you're trying to entertain an active audience or make the reunion into a vacation getaway, think about a ski resort, ranch, or amusement park. Expect lots of young children or elderly adults? Consider a national or regional park that allows outdoor activity on several fitness levels.

One increasingly-popular reunion setting is the ranch or retreat center. The May Family Ranch in Clayton, Idaho, (mayfamilyranch.com) has been hosting family reunions for seven years. Co-owner Sharon May recalls the first time a family rented out their remodeled "bunkhouse," which sleeps twenty-six people in wall-to-wall bunks.

"They had kids of all ages, college-age girls, and a little three-year-old in a pink tutu stepping all over her suitcase. It just enchanted me, watching them all together. It was just what I'd hoped it would be!"

Taylor Farm Bed & Breakfast in the Finger Lakes region of western New York (taylorfarm.net) also hosts family reunions in a rural setting, just miles from Historic Palmyra. Rebecca Taylor emphasizes that a retreat offers families a respite from the world.

"If you go shopping at a mall, everyone goes their separate ways," she explains. "But here there are so many things you can do together as a family. People come in from the city . . . and comment on how quiet and peaceful and relaxing it is."

A final option, for those who are serious about regular get-togethers, is to build your own reunion headquarters. After changing venues for several years in a row, the Riser family finally converted an old family barn into a meeting-place. They've built it up gradually, with hand-me-down appliances and furniture, so that now it boasts a fully-stocked kitchen, three bathrooms, a shower, and Murphy beds for twenty. Annual fundraisers pay utilities, upkeep, and property taxes. It's rustic, but inviting and inexpensive: just the perfect getaway for his family.

What to Do

Your location may influence your what-to-do list, but some activities can happen anywhere. The Pratt Family reunion usually has a formal program. "We invite speakers and have several sessions on intellectual or spiritual topics," says David of his large-scale reunion. "It's more than just playing games and that sort of thing."

Other tried-and-true activities include family skits, musical performances or talent shows, contests or displays, slide shows or PowerPoint presentations, and group games like bingo. Heritage-themed activities and displays might include memorabilia tables, personal history interviews, even family history trivia games or scavenger hunts.

How do you plan fun activities for great-aunts and fifteen-year-olds alike? Try hikes or hayrides; service projects; kite-making or kite-flying contests; cookie- or gingerbread house-decorating; card, board, or lawn games; get-to-know-you games; art or karaoke contests; or even a trip to the nearest zoo.

Think out of season: last year's Riser reunion had a Halloween theme that got everyone involved. Sure, it was Labor Day weekend. Who cared? Not my six-year-old son, whose eyes popped when he saw that his great-grandmother was wearing a pirate costume, too. More activity ideas can be found in books and websites about family reunions.

But Cynthia has found that downtime is as important as planning formal events. Her last reunion was "a little bit slower paced," says Cynthia. "We didn't pack so much into it. One of the complaints from past reunions is that there was never time to get to know each other."

What's for Dinner?

To many reunion attendees, the menu's just as important--or more so--than the agenda. My husband looks forward every year to Grandma Riser's homemade biscuits and sausage gravy, his mother's cabbage rolls, and any dessert Aunt Sandy makes.

But when planning a reunion without established traditions, how do you decide what to serve? A potluck approach can work well whether you're on the road or close to home. If some relatives live nearby, consider the crock-pot-luck: locals bring crock-pot dinners, and out-of-town guests pitch in with rolls, drinks, or desserts that can be packed along or purchased ready-made at a nearby grocer. If everyone's traveling, try a fast-food or buffet-style restaurant where each family can pick up their own tabs. Just call ahead: make sure there is a grocer nearby or that the restaurant can accommodate your group size and will be open when you want it to be.

Catering is a great option for those with the budget for it. A caterer eliminates the hassle of setup, cleanup, food preparation, and worries about having enough dessert plates. "When getting estimates or meal prices, be sure to give each caterer or restaurant the same information. This way you're sure to compare 'apples with apples,'" Family Reunion Handbook advises. "When you do make a [catering] reservation, request a written confirmation letter including all the details you've agreed upon, such as the date and time, menu, number of persons expected, and price per person."

Often your hotel, resort, or other lodging can provide or recommend catering services. If you use their services, then you may not have to find your own pavilion or rental hall. However, these services sometimes have to be paid with an advance lump sum, unlike other food options that each family can pay for independently.

You can also get our perfect family reunion menu of delicious recipes you can prepare ahead of time and toss together at the last minute, scalable for any group size!

Who's Going to Fund All This, Anyway?

A reunion doesn't have to break anyone's bank. Apart from travel costs, it's even possible to do a no-cost reunion, where you handle all invitations by email, meet at a public park, have a BYO picnic, and plan free entertainment.

Otherwise reunions do cost something for both planners and attendees. Planners often bear the hidden costs: long-distance phone calls, photocopies, mailings, and even advances or deposits. If you are the planner, keep good records; you can build these costs into any reunion attendance fee.

For the 2007 Snow reunion, Cynthia had each family take care of their own lodging, transportation, and some meal expenses. Then she ascertained the per-person cost of each activity--including group meals--and charged attendees accordingly. "They paid far in advance," she reports. "We had a cut-off date and said that was it. So I had the cash when I went to the reunion." Because many of their activities (like Church historic site visits) were free, their actual reunion only cost between eighty and ninety dollars per family.

The Pratt reunion keeps administrative costs down by handling much of their correspondence through email and their website. The Snow reunion reduced mailing expenses by sending out only an invitation postcard to the full mailing list, and a follow-up registration packet only for those who responded to the postcard. The cost of the first Riser reunion was shared among the seven siblings who hosted it. From that time forward, donations and fundraising activities have more than paid for the following year's reunion.

Fundraisers vary by family. The Risers offer annual handmade quilt raffles, chances to purchase donated items off a huge prize table, and $1 guessing games like "how many packs of gum are in the jar." You can also try bake sales, "white elephant" sales or auctions, ice cream socials, or sales of T-shirts, cookbooks, and the like. (Just be aware that personalized items like t-shirts and cookbooks involve advance work and often prepayment.)

Keep the Big Picture in Mind

Planning a reunion is hard--and often thankless--work. Maybe your relatives don't return phone calls promptly. They forget to send in their registration forms. They won't read the detailed instructions you send them. You may start to wonder why you're going to all this trouble for them! When that happens, take a deep breath. And then . . . think about the big picture. Not just the group photo you'll take on an Adirondack trailhead. Or that snapshot you'll enlarge with all the sisters laughing, in matching jeans. I mean the clearer picture that will emerge of who you are and what it means to be a Morton, or a Snow, or an O'Hotnicky. I mean the glimpse you might catch of your younger self in your clowning nephew, or your older self in your fiery Aunt Nancy, or even your deceased father in your precious three-year old grandson. You'll understand anew that you're all part of something much bigger than just yourselves. Then every moment of planning and anxiety and hard work will have been worth it.

Once you're at the reunion, use our tips for sane family gatherings here.

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