The Family Reunion Planner
What’s the best advice for rookie reunion planners? Start now.
“Not starting early enough — that’s usually the mistake of someone who’s planning for the first time or a first-time reunion,” says Edith Wagner, the founder and editor of Reunions Magazine, which offers resources for family, military and school reunions. “They think it’ll take six months, and it takes a minimum of a year. And a really large reunion probably should take two years.”
Of course, the size of your reunion and the location will affect how you plan. A potluck picnic for 30 will require less time to organize than a destination reunion for 300. That said, there are some common threads, such as allowing time to track down far-flung relatives, set up a payment system, order souvenir T-shirts and, perhaps most important, delegate responsibilities.
“There are the reunions where one person is in charge. That’s a real big mistake, but the world is full of martyrs,” Wagner says. “Having other people involved, having other people taking responsibility, makes it a family reunion. It has to be a family project.”
But family projects can get complicated: Imagine a reunion as a wedding planned by a committee. It’s good to rely on a framework and advice from experts, other families and venues that handle scores of reunions every year. Check out suggestions, resources and workshops offered by a variety of sources, including AARP, Reunions Magazine, Familyreunion.com and the Family Reunion Institute; Etsy and Pinterest; house and campground rental destinations (such as Utah Family Lodges); and the convention and visitors bureaus of popular reunion cities and towns. For example, the Alpharetta Convention & Visitors Bureau, in the Atlanta metro area, offers free in-person workshops and will send you a downloadable reunion planning guide.
One more vital piece of advice from Wagner: “At a planning meeting, you never go to the bathroom because when you go, someone has volunteered you for the job you don’t want to do.”
To get started, here’s a timeline created from those expert sources that can be adjusted to the size and scope of your reunion.
24 to 18 Months
- Form the reunion committee. Be sure to make it representative of all ages and incomes. Then, recruit subcommittees for categories such as meals, swag, social media, finances, entertainment.
- Start to build your mailing list or database. Include details such as mailing and email addresses, family relationships, and social media handles. Eventually you can make it shareable online or even sell a directory to raise funds. There are downloadable forms on Etsy.
- Create a homepage and/or social media site to build excitement and help locate distant or hard-to-find family members.
- Open a dedicated reunion bank account and choose a treasurer or a team of people to be responsible for it.
- Pick a management system or app for handling payment and finances.
- Send out a family survey on ideas for destinations, activities and cost. Ask about potential date conflicts with weddings or graduations.
- Attend a reunion workshop, visit hotels or other sites, research attractions, and contact visitors bureaus or chambers of commerce for ideas, pricing and information.
- Pick a theme (e.g., Wild West, family tree, Hawaiian luau).
- Decide if you are going to fundraise and brainstorm strategies.
- Start a reunion notebook — print or digital — of tips, ideas and contacts that can be passed on to the next committee.
- Pick a date.
- Choose the location.
- Work with a planner at a visitors bureau or negotiate to reserve a block of rooms, cabins or campsites.
- Send out save-the-date notices with preliminary information.
- Negotiate with attractions, transportation companies, venues and caterers to secure group discounts.
- Settle on a price per person.
- Start to fundraise.
- Decide if you’re going to offer a class or workshop (e.g., genealogy, family health, financial planning), and make arrangements with family speakers or other presenters.
- Arrange for livestreaming, Zoom or any other technology
- Set the RSVP deadline and consider offering an incentive for early registration, such as a discounted room or free T-shirt.
- Send out detailed invitations with registration details and order forms. Use the registration form to collect family details such as birth and marriage dates and enter them in the directory database.
- Reserve any rentals such as chairs, tables, table linens, glassware, lawn games and shade tents.
- Recruit volunteers to help at reunion events.
- Finalize the reunion schedule and distribute to invitees.
- Finalize the entertainment and remind family about participatory events such as a talent show, craft show, trivia night, karaoke or story swap.
- Order personalized swag from manufacturers (e.g., T-shirts, tote bags, hats).
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- Finalize the menus for the banquet and other planned meals. Don’t forget to include options for vegetarian, vegan, low-salt and other special diets.
- Create a cleanup plan and recruit volunteers for venues that don’t provide it.
- Follow up with anyone who has not RSVP’d or paid the deposit.
- Remind families to bring memorabilia, recipes or crafts to share.
- Prepare name tags and swag bags.
- Pick captains or problem-solvers for the day(s) of the reunion. Make sure families know whom to contact with questions or issues that arise.
- Tell families how to share reunion photos.
- Check in with volunteers and review their jobs, such as registration or hospitality suite set-up.
- Give the caterer a final meal count.
- Test all tech — projectors, laptops, livestream, Zoom — to make sure it works.
- Have fun!
- Send thank-you notes to volunteers and venue staff.
- Settle up outstanding payments or bills.
- Decide whether to keep the reunion account open for coming events and, if so, decide who has the authority to dispense funds.
- Schedule a postmortem for the planning committee to review what worked and what didn’t. Update the planning notebook.
- Send out a survey to families asking them what they liked and what they did not.
- Appoint someone to maintain the website or social media and keep it up to date.
- Update family directory with information you gathered at the reunion or from registrations and appoint someone to keep it updated with births, deaths and changes of address.
- Share photos or recipes that you collected.
- Choose a committee for the next reunion and pass on tips and planning tools.
Susan Moeller is a contributing writer who covers lifestyle, health, finance and human-interest topics. A former newspaper reporter and editor, she also writes features and essays for The Boston Globe Magazine and her local NPR station, among other outlets.