The Family Reunion Planner
When it comes to planning and paying for a family reunion, there are plenty of ways the finances can jump the rails. What if the price per person turns out to be much more than you expected? Or if Aunt Alice misplaces someone’s check for the banquet? Or your mother can’t remember if she ordered a T-shirt? It can all add up to a big headache for whoever is in charge of finances, to say nothing of confusion and lost dollars. Your best move to prevent financial stress? Start with a family conversation, says April Luter, partnerships director for the Arlington Convention & Visitors Bureau in Arlington, Texas, part of the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area and home to Six Flags Over Texas, a sprawling amusement park that is a frequent destination for family reunion groups. Pre-COVID, the Dallas-Fort Worth area played host to as many as 250 family reunions annually, averaging about 200 people each.
“The biggest mistake we see families make is not having the money conversation at all,” Luter says. “We always encourage people to have the money conversation early and often. You want to be as transparent as possible with your family, and money talk with family can always be a touchy subject.” The Rev. Doug Harris’ family learned the hard way. At one reunion, several relatives thought the banquet was free and the reunion committee ended up short on funds when it came time to pay the bill, says Harris, 80, who lives in Swedesboro, New Jersey. Since then, Harris’ family has added a cushion to the price of banquet tickets to cover contingencies or to pay for someone who couldn’t otherwise afford to attend.
How you handle the money may depend on the size of your reunion. Reunions come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from a simple potluck picnic to events with hundreds of relatives that can take up to two years to plan, with many of the complications of a wedding. Families planning destination reunions at hotels or cruise ships often put the reunion committee in charge of arranging for blocks of rooms or cabins, organizing a banquet or other events, and negotiating discounts at attractions. Attendees book their own rooms directly with the hotel but then use whatever system is set up by the committee to order banquet tickets, reserve excursions or order swag.
The Harris family uses smart strategies to keep reunion finances — and relationships — running smoothly. Here are seven tips based on conversations with reunion planners and families:
1. Consider everyone’s income level
To maximize attendance at the reunion, the price point has to be manageable for all, from elders on fixed incomes to families with small children, says Edith Wagner, editor of Reunions Magazine, which has resources, advice and listings for family, school and military reunions. “If the people who are planning it have vast means, then they’re going to plan it the way they would plan anything. They’d be way off base because there’d be whole gobs of people who couldn’t come because they simply couldn’t afford it.”
2. Open a reunion account
Harris’ family has a bank account that’s used not only for reunion expenses but also to pay for funeral bouquets and other occasions. As a safeguard, put two or three people on the account and require regular reports, planners say. But make one person the primary financial contact, says Luter. “That doesn’t mean they can’t have other people helping them get the word out or double-checking it or whatever, but if you have just one point of contact, then there’s not, ‘Oh, Aunt Susie has five of the checks and Uncle Joe has three PayPal payments.’ You want just one central depository for all of that payment information,” she says.
3. Embrace technology
There are two main types of digital tools to help keep you organized and reduce the need to handle cash, Luter says. Eventbrite, Cheddar and MyEvent.com, for example, offer all-in-one registration, communication and payment options. PayPal, Zelle and Venmo only track payments. “It comes down to how much information you want to gather upfront,” she says. “Are you doing T-shirts? Are you doing meals? Are you doing attraction tickets? [Do] you need to bundle all that together and need a good way to keep track of it? Then we recommend looking at one of those all-in-ones.”
4. Include everything in your cost estimate
Walk your way through the reunion weekend to identify all event expenses families may encounter, from swag to meals, Luter says. What will be included and what will be offered as optional? Does your reunion site offer less expensive places to eat or free things for families to do? Perhaps you want to offer an alternative, less expensive but nearby hotel that might appeal to families or those on fixed incomes. Need help budgeting? Family reunion spreadsheets are available online, including from Reunions Magazine and various sellers on Etsy.
5. Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate
Hotels, cruise lines, motor coach companies, restaurants, even the bowling alley will be happy to have your reunion business and will negotiate a discount or extras like a free hospitality suite, experts say. And convention and visitors bureaus can connect you with vendors and discounts and even help with reservations. That said, learn the language and steer clear of pitfalls. For example, you want to avoid an “attrition clause” in the hotel contract that holds you responsible for rooms in a reserved block that aren’t used, Luter advises. Don’t forget to use your own network — friends, places of worship, clubs, neighbors — to secure the best deal. And get creative when motivating relatives to RSVP by the deadline. Some families get inventive with incentives like discounted rooms, T-shirt giveaways or the chance to enter a drawing for free banquet tickets, Wagner says.
6. Fundraise to cover deposits and surprises
Suzanne Vargus Holloman of the Family Reunion Institute, which researches and advises on reunions, says many families don’t bother with fundraising ahead of the reunion dates. But hotels, transportation companies, venues and attractions may require up-front deposits. And you may want something in the kitty to cover surprises. Some families charge dues to maintain a cash balance. Others sell a family directory or revenue share with a company that markets a product like popcorn, similar to school wrapping paper or chocolate sales. Other families arrange to receive a percentage from a restaurant if family and friends eat there on a particular day. Harris knows of one family that worked with a bar to create a signature drink: Every time someone ordered it, the family got a cut. In addition, supermarkets and other stores may offer discounts or donations to support reunion events.
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7. Do your homework and enlist help
Most people planning family reunions are “accidental” event planners, not professionals wise to the ways of the travel industry and negotiating with vendors, Luter says. Ask friends, research online, rely on family expertise, and attend an in-person or virtual workshop offered by the Family Reunion Institute or a visitors bureau. Many chambers of commerce and visitors bureaus offer reunion planning workshops and showcases of attractions, as well as free planning guides. “The majority of the information we share in there is tips and tricks on how to make your life easier and how to figure out some of these things that if you’re not an event planner you wouldn’t ever think about,” Luter says about the guide they distribute in Arlington, Texas. “Planning a reunion is not for the faint of heart.”
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.