After many long months of COVID-19 restrictions keeping people apart, it’s time to think about reuniting with far-flung family members. Planning a reunion may seem like a daunting task, but you can break it down into manageable pieces by following the five W’s: who, what, when, where and why.
My father was one of seven children, and for the past 30 years, the descendants of those seven siblings have gathered for a weekendlong event. When we planned the first reunion back in 1991, we weren’t sure whether anyone would even want to show up for it. But they did, and they kept showing up year after year. As time went on, we added some things to the reunion and got rid of some things that no longer work for us. Here are some of the things we learned along the way as our event enters its next decade.
Who: Who will you invite to the reunion? Will it be limited to a particular branch of the family? Will you extend an invitation to anyone who shares your last name? Will you reach out to in-laws?
We started out inviting only the seven siblings and their descendants. But over time, other people wanted to join in. Two or three of my relatives invite their parents-in-law, a cousin asked her husband’s cousins to join us, and another cousin wanted to include longtime family friends who live near our reunion venue. We also reached out to some distant relatives who share our last name and live close by.
You may subscribe to the philosophy of “the more, the merrier,” or you may want to have a more pared-down group. Of course, the number of people you invite may be limited by the venue you select and how far it may for people to travel.
The “who” also includes asking yourself who can help you with the various tasks involved in planning and carrying out a reunion. Can someone help with the food? Is someone good at decorating? Who can keep the children entertained? Can you recruit volunteers to help set up beforehand and clean up afterward?
What: What do you want to do at the reunion? Do you simply want to spend time eating and visiting? Will your attendees want to participate in some activities? Will your family members expect to do all their activities together, or would they like to combine organized activities with some free time to spend how they wish?
At our reunion, we schedule “together time,” but we also include nonscheduled time. Our attendees have dinner on their own on Friday night, followed by a “welcome party” at our hotel.
Saturday includes breakfast and lunch in an amusement park pavilion and an afternoon spent doing whatever we want to do in the park. Saturday night is dinner followed by some kind of activity. Post-dinner events have included everything from karaoke singing to square dancing to board games to sharing old photos to a costume contest.
Ask your attendees what they want to do, but be prepared to offer suggestions if people are shy about speaking up. For some, a jam-packed schedule is exhausting and takes away from “visiting time.” Others may want to have something planned for them. If your reunion is outdoors in a place where the weather can be unpredictable, have an alternative in mind if rain or cold forces a change in plan.
Focus on keeping the older family members comfortable and the youngest family members occupied. We found that if the children are having fun splashing in the pool or playing with their “new” cousins, they are more likely to want to return next year. And if the elders aren’t subjected to anything too strenuous, they will feel the same way.
The “what” also includes determining what you are going to eat. Will people bring their own food? Will you hire a caterer and split the costs among your attendees? Will some family members volunteer to cook for the rest of the group?
When: When will you hold this reunion? For most families, summer is a logical time. Our family settled on the first weekend of August. There was no special reason for this – it happened to be the only weekend that a picnic pavilion was available at the venue where we wanted to hold our first reunion. Other families may want to schedule a reunion around a landmark birthday or anniversary celebration. And one family I know schedules a big reunion the day after Thanksgiving because it’s the only time everyone is back in their hometown.
You may want to select two dates and give your family members the option of voting for the date that suits them better.
Everyone’s schedule is busy, and it’s difficult to select a date that works for everyone. We found over time that the first weekend in August has become so ingrained in our family members’ consciousness that most of them make an effort to keep that weekend open.
Please be sure to communicate your reunion date early and often. Before we leave our reunion, we announce the date of the next year’s event. I send reminders out in January, and we also have a Facebook group, where we share news and updates.
The “when” also includes deciding how long your reunion will be. For some families, an afternoon together is enough. Because most of our family members travel a distance to get to our reunion, it’s hardly worth the trip unless we are together for a couple of days.
Where: Much of what you will do at your reunion centers on where you have it. Do you want to return to your old hometown, or do you want to visit a tourist destination? How far will people have to travel?
If your reunion doesn’t require much travel, then you only have to find a venue for people to share a meal, sit and visit. If the venue includes a place for swimming or something for the kids to do, that’s a definite plus. If most of your attendees will have to travel more than a few hours to get there, then you also need to find a hotel or motel for everyone to stay overnight.
Depending on the popularity of your venue, you may need to reserve it up to a year in advance, so that will affect your planning timeline.
After you have determined the “where,” you will be able to determine the “how,” as in how much will this cost? Will you charge your attendees by the family or by the individual? Do you want to put a limit on how much you are willing to ask your attendees to spend? Do you have some family members who might be willing to help underwrite some of the expenses (meeting room or pavilion rental, or swimming pool or amusement park passes) to keep the costs down for the rest of the group?
Why: Why do you want to do this? Do you want to celebrate a milestone such as a birthday, anniversary or graduation? Do you simply want to get together “once and done,” or do you want to make this an annual event?
As in so many other things, determining your “why” will help make the rest of the event planning fall into place. Enjoy the time you have together creating new memories.