The Family Reunion Planner
Some families hold their reunion in the same treasured spot each year. Others like to travel to different places. Whether your family gathers for a barbecue at a park or flies to an all-inclusive Caribbean resort, special memories will be created and shared.
“Families have done the same thing year after year, and they just want to do something more exciting,” says Nicole Wineland-Thomson, general manager of Thomson Family Adventures in Watertown, Massachusetts, which specializes in family reunions. She has seen more families wanting to travel farther afield or try new activities.
Experts and family planners offer suggestions on how to plan an event that meets your needs and fits your budget.
Start planning and making arrangements six months to a year ahead to negotiate better prices for lodging, venues and activities and secure necessary reservations. That’s especially important now with travel up and prices on hotels and airfare rising.
The designated reunion committee or lead planner should send a poll to determine what family members want to do, where they want to go and how much they’re willing to spend. It helps to narrow the choices and send a handful of options to everyone so it’s not overwhelming. Keep family members up to date with plans and dates via email, phone, Zoom or the family Facebook page or website.
Choose a destination
Since many families drive to a reunion, ease of travel and convenience are key factors. Look for a location central to where most relatives live, says Shawn Waller of Waller Travel Group in Waldorf, Maryland. If family members live in Maryland and Florida, then North Carolina might be a good location, he says.
Consider the various interests of multigenerational family members. “Finding a destination that offers a variety of activities is the key,” Wineland-Thomson says. “You’ll have people who are more interested in being active, while other people are more interested in culture and food.”
Other popular location criteria include being near: a big city for entertainment options, especially for younger relatives; a park for outdoor activities; a golf course; or a theme park, like Florida’s Disney World.
Half of all family reunions are held in a new place each year, says Edith Wagner, editor of Reunions Magazine. She and other experts see increased interest from families, if they can afford it, in holding reunions on dude ranches and cruise ships. They offer something for everyone, easy planning and often all-inclusive pricing.
“While there are numerous opportunities for together time, participants have a whole ship to enjoy,” says Meg Ryan, manager of ecruisenet.com. Ships often employ onboard group coordinators and offer activities like day camps for kids and classes for adults.
A three-day cruise can cost less than $200 per person and group bookings (at least eight cabins usually) or shorter 3- or 4-night sailings can garner even better rates, she says.
Some other family-friendly options: Mohonk Mountain House north of New York City, the Greenbrier in West Virginia, Destination Kohler in Wisconsin, Kiawah Island Golf Resort in South Carolina and the Broadmoor in Colorado. More affordable stays can be arranged at low-cost vacation meccas such as Myrtle Beach (South Carolina), Branson (Missouri), or Pigeon Forge (Tennessee). Planners might also consider all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean and Mexico.
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Find affordable accommodations
Start by contacting local tourism bureaus, which may have a meeting planner or family reunion specialist who can help. “We get them a discounted rate [typically 20 to 25 percent off the standard rate] for their group blocks, sometimes beyond what they can negotiate themselves,” says Lisa Anders, executive director of Explore Gwinnett Tourism & Film in Gwinnett County, Georgia, just northeast of Atlanta. “We’ll put together a proposal package for them — rates as well as other offers — within 72 hours without them having to lift a finger.”
Families can negotiate group rates on hotel rooms as well as deals on meals, meeting space, parking or other amenities. Choosing lodgings on the outskirts of a city typically costs 15 percent to 20 percent less than in town, says Waller, who specializes in group travel.
For any size reunion, experts advise blocking off hotel rooms. Hotels have different policies, but typically the bigger the reunion, the bigger the price discount on rooms or other perks like parking and meeting space. A courtesy block holds a number of rooms at a certain price for your group until typically 30 days before check-in, when the remaining unbooked rooms return to the hotel’s inventory. You have no financial obligation to use all the rooms, but there are no guarantees. A contract block is similar, but an agreed-upon number of rooms is guaranteed. You must fill or pay for typically 70 percent to 90 percent of those rooms.
Rental houses are increasingly popular options because they fit large groups — plus you get a kitchen, common lounge areas and perhaps a pool. By combining funds, reunion planners can snag a dream house that costs less per person than separate hotel rooms.
In addition to using home-sharing sites like Airbnb and VRBO, you may get a better price by renting directly from owners or local real estate agencies. Theresa Klisz, a communications and marketing specialist for a St. Louis healthcare firm, helped score two adjoining beach houses in the Outer Banks of North Carolina for a reunion of six cousins and their families, raging in age from 6 months to nearly 70.
Consider traveling off-season for greater availability and lower rates. If families have flexibility, Waller says the best prices can be found Oct. 1 through mid-December.
Control other costs
Families often fundraise year-round to keep costs low for everyone. Sometimes grandparents pay for some or all of the travel costs for relatives in financial need.
Driving-distance destinations are easier on the wallet, even with higher gas prices, because car rental is pricey. Large groups may find it cheaper to charter a bus.
If you plan to fly, check travel sites like Google Flights and Hopper.com, which provide price forecasts about a month out to help you find the lowest airfare, or deal directly with airlines for a group rate. Local tourism bureaus, such as Explore Gwinnett, often provide coupons for local attractions like the Georgia Aquarium and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.
Planning family reunion travel is “a lot of work,” says Wineland-Thomson. Families must “come together and get an idea of where they want to go” and what they want to do, she adds.
Kitty Bean Yancey contributed to this article.
Sheryl Jean is a contributing writer who covers aging, business, technology, travel, health and human-interest stories. A former reporter for several daily metropolitan newspapers, her work also has appeared in the Chicago Tribune and The Dallas Morning News and on the American Heart Association’s website.