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With some creativity and advance planning, you can organize and plan a memorable family reunion that everyone will talk about for years.
Who Is Family?
It may seem obvious, but the first step for any family reunion is to decide who is family. Which side of the family are you inviting? Do you want to include only close relatives or all descendants of Great Grandpa Jones (or another common ancestor)? Are you inviting only direct-line relatives (parents, grandparents, grandkids) or do you plan to include cousins, second cousins, or third cousins, twice removed? Just remember, every step back on the ancestral tree adds a ton of new potential attendees. Know your limits.
Create a Guest List
Start by assembling a list of family members, including spouses, partners, and children. Get in touch with at least one person from each branch of the family to help you track down contact information for each person on your list. Make sure to collect email addresses for those that have them - it really helps with updates and last-minute correspondence.
If you're planning to include a lot of people in your family reunion, consider sending out a survey (by postal mail and/or email) to let people know that a reunion is in the works. This will help you gauge interest and preferences, and ask for help with the planning. Include possible dates, proposed reunion type, and a general location (discussing possible costs early on can discourage a positive response), and politely ask for a timely response to your questions. Add the names of interested relatives who return the survey to your reunion list for future mailings, and/or keep them up-to-date on reunion plans via a family reunion Web site.
Form a Reunion Committee.
Unless this is a get-together of five sisters at Aunt Maggie's house, a reunion committee is almost essential to planning a smooth, successful family reunion. Put someone in charge of each major aspect of the reunion - location, social events, budget, mailings, record-keeping, etc. Why do all the work yourself if you don't have to?
Select the Date(s)
It's not much of a reunion if no one can attend. Whether you plan your family reunion to coincide with a family milestone or special day, summer vacation, or a holiday, it helps to poll family members to avoid time and date conflicts. Since family reunions can encompass everything from an afternoon barbecue to a large affair lasting three or more days, you'll also need to determine how long you plan to get together. A good rule of thumb - the farther people have to travel to reach the reunion location, the longer the reunion should last. Most importantly, remember that you won't be able to accommodate everyone. Choose your final date(s) based on what's best for the majority of attendees.
Pick a Location
Aim for a family reunion location that is most accessible and affordable to the majority of people you want to attend. If family members are clustered in one area, then select a reunion location that's nearby. If everyone's scattered, then choose a central location to help cut down on travel expenses for far-flung relatives.
Develop a Budget
This will determine the scale of the food, decorations, accommodations, and activities for your family reunion. You can choose to have families pay for their own overnight accommodations, bring a covered dish, etc., but unless you have another source of income, you'll also need to set a per-family registration fee to help with decoration, activity, and location costs.
Reserve a Reunion Site
Once you've chosen a location and set a date, it's time to select a site for the reunion. "Going home" is a big draw for family reunions, so you may want to consider the old family homestead or other historic site connected to your family's past. Depending on the size of the reunion, you may be able to find a family member who will volunteer to have it at their home. For larger reunions, parks, hotels, restaurants and community halls are a good place to start. If you're planning a multi-day reunion, then consider a resort location where people can combine reunion activities with a family vacation.
Choose a Theme
Creating a theme for a family reunion is a great way to interest people and make them more likely to attend. It also makes things more fun when it comes to being imaginative with food, games, activities, invitations, and just about every other aspect of the reunion. Family history themes are especially popular, as are reunions which celebrate a very special family member's birthday or anniversary, or the family's cultural heritage (i.e. Hawaiian luau).
Determine the Menu
Feeding a large group of people with different tastes is perhaps one of the trickiest parts of planning a reunion. Make it easy on yourself by selecting a menu that relates to your theme, or perhaps one that celebrates your family's heritage. Organize a group of family members to prepare the food for the family reunion or, if you have a large group and your budget allows, find a caterer or restaurant to do at least part of the work for you. A tasty menu makes for an unforgettable family reunion.
Plan Social Activities
You don't need to occupy everyone all the time, but planned activities and ice-breakers at your family reunion will provide an easy way for people who do not know each other well to comfortably spend time together. Include activities that will appeal to all ages and further family knowledge of shared heritage. You may also want to award prizes for special distinctions such as oldest family member or longest distance traveled to attend.
Set the Stage
You've got a bunch of people, now what do you plan to do with them? It's time now to make arrangements for tents (if an outside reunion), chairs, parking decorations, programs, signs, t-shirts, goodie bags, and other reunion-day requirements. This is the time to consult a family reunion checklist!
While many family members will no doubt bring their own cameras, it helps to also make plans to record the overall event. Whether you designate a specific relative as the official reunion photographer or hire a professional photographer to take photos or videos, you should prepare a list of the people and events that you want to be recorded. For spontaneous "moments," purchase a dozen disposable cameras and hand them out to volunteer guests. Don't forget to collect them at the end of the day!
Invite the Guests
Once you have most of your plans in place, it's time to invite the guests by mail, email and/or phone. You'll want to do this way in advance to make sure and give everyone time to get it on their calendar. If you're charging admission fees, mention this in the invitation and set an advance deadline by which at least a percentage of the ticket price is required (unless you're wealthy enough to cover all of the costs yourself and can wait until the actual reunion for reimbursement). Tickets purchased in advance also means people will be less likely to cancel at the last moment! This is also a good opportunity to ask people, even if they can't attend the reunion, to provide family trees, photos, collectibles and stories to share with other family members.
Fund the Extras
If you don't want to charge admission fees for your reunion, then you'll need to plan for a little fundraising. Even if you do collect admissions, fundraising can provide money for some fancy "extras." Creative ways for raising money include holding an auction or raffle at the reunion or making and selling family hats, t-shirts, books, or reunion videos.
Print up a Program
Create a program that outlines the lineup of scheduled reunion events to provide to family members as they arrive for the reunion. You may also want to send this out via email or your reunion Web site in advance of the reunion as well. This will help serve as a reminder to people of activities which may require they bring something with them, such as a photo wall or family tree chart.
Decorate for the Big Day
The big day is almost here and now it's time to make sure it goes smoothly. Create catchy, easy-to-ready signs to point arriving guests to registration, parking, and important locations such as bathrooms. Purchase or make a guest book to collect signatures, addresses, and other important information, as well as serve as a permanent record of the reunion. Purchase pre-made name badges, or print your own, to facilitate mixing and mingling between unacquainted family members. Family tree wall charts are always a big hit as reunion attendees always want to know where they fit into the family. Framed photos or printed posters of common ancestors or past family reunions are also popular. And, if you want to know what everyone thought of all your reunion planning, print up some evaluation forms for people to fill out as they leave.
Keep the Fun Going
Designate a volunteer or volunteers to create and send out a post-reunion newsletter with stories, photos, and news items from the reunion. If you collected family information, send along an updated genealogy chart as well. This is a great way to get people excited about the next reunion, as well as include less fortunate family members who were not able to attend.