How to Plan a Family Reunion

Family reunions sound fun in your head, but planning them takes a lot of effort and time.  You’ve got to take into account the distances people have to travel, when most people will be free, how to deal with soap-opera situations like estrangements and divorces, and also whether or not most people want to have a reunion to begin with.  Assuming your family is on board with your idea, start planning at least a year out, maybe even two years out.  Even if your reunion won’t be huge and will involve people who don’t live that far away, you want everything to go smoothly.  If you don’t know where to begin, here’s a look at the steps required for planning family reunion ideas.

Where to Start

First, talk to your family.  Maybe that sounds like a no-brainer.  But it’s essential for two reasons. The first is to find out if they have any ideas for when a reunion could be held because you don’t want to plan for summer when all the kids are at camp or working summer jobs, for example.  

It’s also to find out if there are any current problems or issues in the family that you’ll need to address.  For example, you may find out that a cousin you haven’t spoken to for a while has gone low contact with another relative, or that someone is in poor health and that you may have to adjust the date or location of the reunion to make it easier for them to attend.  Decide whether you want this reunion to be linked to a holiday, such as a gathering over the 4th of July weekend, or if you prefer to just choose a date that’s far enough out to avoid most schedule conflicts.

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It can be useful to send out a questionnaire to those you want to invite.  Think of a few options for dates and locations, and ask recipients to rank them in order of preference.  Leave a space for comments and suggestions.

Another item to check off is deciding what the purpose and scope of the reunion will be.  Will this reunite the family from across the globe in a big party?  Is someone from out of state thinking of visiting, and you want to plan a local reunion around their trip?  Have you found “new” family through DNA testing and want to bring branches together for a relaxed getting-to-know-each-other brunch?  Once you figure that out, that will help you narrow down venues and activities.

If you’re the one who wants the reunion, you should be the lead planner, but not the only planner.  Ask your family for additional help, such as in tracking down relatives and help with calling around to find out prices.  You may even want to form a committee where everyone has a specific duty, if the reunion is going to be big.  Reunions Magazine Editor Edith Wagner was very blunt about ensuring other people help in an interview with AARP: “There are the reunions where one person is in charge.  That’s a really big mistake, but the world is full of martyrs.”

By the way, if you do form a committee, Wagner also told AARP that no one should go to the bathroom during meetings because that’s when someone else is going to volunteer that person for the jobs no one else wants.

The Details You Need to Research

If it feels like the planning so far has been rather vague, that’s OK.  You have to start somewhere, and the details will take shape over time.  As you mull over what you’ve decided and learned so far, keep a running list of items that you’ll need to think about:

  • When and generally where the reunion will be (what city, what potential venues, is a “destination” reunion held at a vacation spot a possibility)
  • How long the reunion will be (it can be a few hours, an entire day, a weekend, or longer)
  • Who you invite who you haven’t contacted already
  • How you handle food (catering, holding the reunion at a banquet hall or restaurant, potlucks for smaller reunions held at home)
  • What your budget should be (if the reunion will be big, create a spreadsheet for this and assign someone to monitor income and expenditures)
  • Where people from out of town can stay (and whether you’re helping with lodging and travel costs, or having everyone pay for themselves)
  • How organized and event-like you want this to be (in other words, whether you want the type of reunion where everyone gets a commemorative T-shirt and there’s hired entertainment, or the type where people just hang out and relax)
  • Whether you’ll need a sound system to address everyone in a speech
  • What activities there will be for people, especially kids, and especially for longer reunions (camping, tours, games, and so on)
  • How to find relatives you’ve lost contact with (Spokeo’s People Search, Reverse Phone Lookup, and Reverse Address Lookup can all be of great help here in making the process more efficient.)
  • What design to use for the invitations, where to get them printed, and whether to use an e-invite service
  • Deciding whether you want a photographer
  • Who will be on the clean-up crew
  • Whether to memorialize relatives who have passed
  • Whether to create an online archive after the event or send everyone a commemorative book
  • Whether you’ll need to warn neighbors about all the people parking nearby if the reunion is at your home or get HOA permission for a large gathering
  • What decorations to have and who will put them up
  • Seating and table space

You’ll no doubt think of other items, and some of the points here might not apply to your situation.

Estranged Relatives

Estrangement is something many families have to deal with, and family reunions can become minefields of old hurts and arguments if you’re not careful.  Whether you should invite estranged family members depends a lot on why the estrangement exists, and who exactly was estranged from whom.  

It may be better to discuss whether to invite an estranged relative with others in the family because they may know more about the situation than you do.  Anger associated with some estrangements fades over time, while others remain strict no-contact situations for life, and you don’t want to create a tense situation or scene at your reunion.  Nor do you want to avoid inviting someone when the estrangement is more of an apathetic than hostile situation.

Following Up

Once as many relatives are found as possible, send the invitations out, and keep a chart of who’s replied with what answer.  Set a deadline for the “maybes” to make a final decision.  Ensure the RSVP deadlines (both the initial and the maybe dates) give people enough time to decide and give you enough time to adjust plans to fit the number of people attending.  You may want to create a website or social media page for everyone to participate in and trade questions and answers, too.  Facebook is usually the easiest to use, but if you know people who want to stay away from social media or Meta’s platforms, a separate website might be better.

You’ll also need to follow up with venues, caterers, hotels, and any other services or professionals.  Do this a few weeks before the reunion so you have time to find a replacement if one service or professional can no longer fulfill their contract.

Don’t worry if reading this has you wondering what you’re getting into.  Many families plan successful reunions every year.  The keys are to allow a lot of time for planning, to stay flexible, and to get more people involved.  It looks like a lot, but take it one day at a time, and before you know it, you’ll have a family reunion ready to go.

Suzanne S. Wiley is an editor and web content writer. She has been editing since 1989 and began writing in 2009, covering topics such as environmental issues and health. Wiley has also written about gardening, food, and history.

Sources

AARP – Family Reunion Planning Checklist

KOA – The Complete Guide to Family Reunion Planning

Pepperdine University – What to Consider When Reconnecting With Estranged Family Members

Real Simple – A Family Reunion Planner for Every Kind of Family

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