The Family Reunion Planner
A family reunion is a way to connect, keep ties strong, share insights about family history and just plain enjoy the company of relatives who live near and far.
Many families are anxious to get back to holding reunions, both large and small, after postponing them because of the pandemic. But reunions can be more than a big party or a celebration, says Suzanne Vargus Holloman, co-director of the Family Reunion Institute. These family gatherings can encourage attendees to delve into genealogy, address family health issues and foster social supports such as youth mentoring.
“One of our mottoes is that family reunions are more than a picnic,” Holloman says. “These reunions were organized to pass down history and impart values — to support the family and extended family in the various ways that were needed. But they have grown into major events.”
“When are we going to have the reunion?”
Eighty-year-old Rev. Doug Harris says family reunions have been a constant for much of his life. But it wasn’t that way from the start. In fact, he was too busy falling in love to attend his family’s first reunion.
“It was the week I met my wife, and I declined,” says Harris, who lives in Swedesboro, New Jersey, and is a former marketing and communications executive. He may have skipped that family reunion in 1973, but he and his wife, Myrna, have been to dozens of them since. Most were for his father’s family and reunited branches of his African American family from southern Virginia and New Jersey. The most recent took place in August 2021 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and because of COVID-19, it drew only about 50 people — down from a pre-pandemic range of 80 to 100.
“It came about because there was a demand,” says Harris, who helped plan last summer’s event. “People kept calling and saying, ‘When are we going to have the reunion?’ ” he recalls. “Finally, in spite of our concerns about COVID, we went ahead and planned one.”
Reunions can be major events drawing hundreds of attendees, making them a prime market for the hospitality industry. For example, before the pandemic, people attending reunions in Detroit occupied more than 15,000 room nights annually and generated more than $16 million in direct visitor spending, based on numbers from the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau. That kind of market means visitors and convention bureaus, hotels, restaurants, cruise lines and other attractions are eager to court families, including by offering information sessions and discounts.
Focus on planning and organization
Whether you’re planning for 30 or 300, a family reunion requires organization and creativity. Harris’ family has both northern and southern reunion planning committees, since events shift between Virginia and New Jersey and places in between, like the Poconos in Pennsylvania. Harris reunions are usually held every other year and might include a banquet, dancing, a talent show, family updates and news, local tours and church services.
But for many, event planning doesn’t come naturally.
“Organizing a reunion takes some learning,” says Edith Wagner, editor of Reunion magazine. Wagner founded the magazine more than 30 years ago in hopes of helping adoptees like herself reunite with their birth families. Today the magazine has expanded to include resources, advice and listings for family, school and military reunions.
Wagner’s suggestion is to start slowly — don’t try to plan too many activities the first year. “There will be people who will start out and want to do everything, everything in the first reunion,” she says. “And you can’t do that, because you need to build up to a point of people understanding what you’re doing.”
Experts add that it’s important to include all age groups in reunion planning, particularly young people. They are, after all, the future of the family — and reunions. Harris says the young adults in his family haven’t quite taken up the planning mantle, but they do value keeping in touch with each other, with the help of technology. They have a texting group on GroupMe, for example, he says.
“They do a lot of checking in on each other,” Harris says. “And sometimes the conversations go on for hours and even days going back and forth.”
Thinking of organizing a family reunion? Here are some tips to get you started.
1. Start early
It’s never too soon to start planning, even if it’s just for a backyard barbecue, experts say. If you’re planning a big gathering at a hotel or other venue, they suggest starting as much as two years in advance. A time line can help you keep organized and assign tasks — and avoid surprises.
2. Make the reunion committee inclusive
A range of ages and incomes will help ensure there are activities that everyone can enjoy and afford, experts say. “You want to have people who represent the youngsters, your families with children, and then our seniors,” says Harris. “People feel it when they are left out.” Also, including younger generations in the planning will prepare them to take over in the future.
3. Consult the experts
The Family Reunion Institute hosts free virtual workshops on how to organize a reunion. Convention and visitors bureaus and chambers of commerce also sponsor family reunion workshops that showcase hotels, restaurants and attractions and offer tips on organization. Jeffrey Mills, a recently retired marketing expert based near Atlanta, wrote a manual for the hospitality industry on how to attract the reunion market and has also taught at showcases. He focuses on practical tips, including making a reunion attendee spreadsheet that tracks names, addresses and relationships. You can use the information to create a family tree and raise reunion funds by charging a few dollars for copies.
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4. Use technology
Email, social media and texting apps like Facebook Groups and GroupMe can help people stay in touch between reunions and build excitement about upcoming events. Payment apps like PayPal or Venmo make it easier to handle the money, including allowing people to pay over time. Use Zoom or similar apps to keep in touch, to include people who can’t attend in person, and to host events like family cooking lessons.
5. Seek opportunities to exchange information
The Family Reunion Institute encourages families to share health information. “Oftentimes there are certain medical conditions that run through families, and families can organize to support each other to help prevent possible health conditions,” says Holloman, whose nonprofit promotes research on family reunions and helps families, particularly those of African American descent, organize them. The institute was founded by Holloman’s mother, Ione Vargus, professor emerita at Temple University.
6. Celebrate family history
Lisa Louise Cooke of Genealogy Gems, a podcaster, YouTuber and author, has many tips on how to make history fun at reunions, such as a hopscotch game that requires answering a family trivia question. She also has ideas for genealogy-based souvenirs. One family used a treasured blanket design to create a wrapper for souvenir candy bars. Another gathered and distributed favorite family recipes. “To me, a family reunion isn’t really a family reunion without genealogy,” she says. “The one thing that binds everyone together is that they share ancestors.”
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.