Planning a Family Reunion

By Ronnie Mae Weiss 

Bring Your Loved-Ones Together and Create Lasting Memories

“How many 18-year-olds can’t wait to spend time with their grandparents the summer before college?” Diane Teitelbaum says with a laugh.

At a time of year when most teens are excited about meeting their friends at the beach, Diane’s granddaughter, Ariel, is getting ready for the extended family reunion that has been part of her summer since she was an infant.

“My husband, Dan, and I pulled together the first reunion 18 years ago to give my children some help when they first had babies,” Teitelbaum explains. “It was a way to have a relaxing week together, lend a helping hand, and give everyone a vacation. Later, it became clear it was so much more than that.”

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  • So what exactly is that “more” she’s talking about?

    “The gatherings give us concentrated, full days together – rather than the typical short grandparent visits that seem to end as soon as they begin,” Teitelbaum says. “We’ve gotten to know our grandchildren through all phases of their growing up. And it’s given us a chance to develop new relationships with our adult children. These experiences have been absolutely invaluable.”

    The Teitelbaums’ experience is not unique. In today’s mobile society, families often live great distances from one another. Getting together for a backyard barbecue just can’t happen. So, many grandparents – or other family members – pull everyone together for a regular gathering. These are special times for families to connect and create memories.

    This annual ritual is deeply satisfying for each member of the family. “The greatest joy is to see how caring my family has become after spending time together,” Diane Teitelbaum notes. “The geographic distance between my kids seems to shrink when they can look forward to a week of playing, boating and cooking meals together.”

    Ariel describes the benefits from a grandchild’s perspective: “The week together is so important to me and my cousins. We’re so comfortable with each other, even though we’re really different. We spend lots of time just having ‘silly’ fun together, like water balloon fights.”

    Although planning for these events is somewhat more complex than deciding who should bring the potato salad and the badminton net for a Sunday picnic, many family members who shoulder this responsibility report that by the end of their first reunion, they’re already planning the next one.

    Tempted to bring your own clan together?

    Here are some tips and resources to get you started.

    Plan something for everyone. As most family gatherings involve several generations with a variety of interests and needs, it’s important to plan a range of activities that suit the infants, the 80-year-olds and everyone in between. Think about how various family members might enjoy spending time together, whether it’s hiking, playing golf, boating or exploring a city. Plan on splitting into smaller groups for part of the day and reconvening to share experiences at dinner. Catering to the diverse interests of group members makes a happier experience for all. Also keep in mind that reunions provide a wonderful opportunity for children to try out new activities with their grandparents or older relatives. My extended family has a reunion every other year, and I’ll never forget how thrilled I was the day my 6-year-old son announced that he was going to spend the afternoon golfing with his grandpa. Now, 12 years later, both of them look forward to their golf outings at every reunion.

    • Every event needs an organizer. Whether you are planning a simple event or a more elaborate one, someone needs to be in charge. Some families rotate this responsibility; others have a family member who has the talent – and time – to always be at the helm. One way to minimize the load is to divvy up the tasks. Have someone find the site, while others coordinate transportation, activities and meals. Here again, someone needs to take charge of receiving all the information and getting the word out to other family members.

    Mav Pardee and her family have found a very workable solution. Each year, when her parents, her siblings and their collection of children and grandchildren come together for a reunion, a different family member takes charge and plans the event someplace near his or her home. This rotation gives every family a chance to share the pleasures of their region with the rest of their relatives.

    • Allow plenty of time for planning. Orchestrating a gathering takes time … and that’s true whether you’re planning for 15 people or 75. Most successful reunions don’t “just happen,” they are the product of 12 to 18 months of planning that includes visits to potential reunion sites, coordinating flights among family members, accommodating special diets, and negotiating special rates at the selected venue. Having adequate time to plan the reunion is a great way to tame anxiety – and costs.

    • It’s all about location.
    The options for a reunion venue are limitless. To narrow them down, consider your family’s highest priorities. To gather in a location near the oldest family members to minimize travel for them? To find a place easily accessible to everyone to avoid the complications of airplane connections and lengthy road trips? To pick a part of the country that has sentimental value to some family members? To select an exotic site that everyone wants to explore for the first time? If cost is an issue, consider the many wonders of Canada or the values available off-season at a ski lodge, a Caribbean resort or a city hotel.

    • Attend to the accommodations.
    Accommodations that really fit your family’s needs and interests can make the difference between a pretty good reunion and an outstanding one. The range of possibilities is constantly expanding: all-inclusive resorts, dude ranches, national or state parks, conference centers, college campuses, camps run by the YMCA and religious organizations, houseboats, condominiums, cottages in the woods or at the beach, country inns or cruises.

    In choosing an option, consider whether the site will be comfortable for everyone. Will it be easy to navigate for family members with limited accessibility? Are there air-conditioned rooms for those who need relief from intense summer heat? Are high chairs available so parents can avoid juggling squirming toddlers on their laps during dinner?

    One important issue to consider is food. “In our group of 56,” Mav Pardee explains, “we have every possible food issue: toddlers who only want buttered noodles, adults who are avoiding sweets, and college-aged kids who have become vegans! We have to be somewhere that can please everyone.”

    • Take care of the money business early. For planners, it is tempting to gloss over the question of “who pays” because discussing expenses can be awkward. Yet talking about it directly and early in the planning process is critical. One way to end a reunion on a sour note is to discover that the costs exceeded your expectations or that somehow you are footing the bill. There is no rule that the person initiating the event is also hosting it. An open discussion about how expenses will be handled should guide the planning process.

    If you are treating everyone, be clear about exactly which expenses you are covering, such as airfare, car rentals, activities, lodging, snacks and meals. If each family is contributing to the cost, decide what the budget will be. If the expectation is that family members will split costs by alternating responsibility for meals, plan a schedule in advance.

    If the consensus is to hold the reunion at a resort, consider one that offers an all-inclusive option. That way, you won’t be caught off-guard by a staggering bill for all the soft drinks consumed at the pool. Or, if you select an inn or resort, negotiate with the management in advance for special group rates.

    Create memories. A family reunion is a wonderful opportunity to create lasting family memories. Some reunions are celebrations of special milestones – perhaps a 50th wedding anniversary or 80th birthday. When multiple generations get together, it creates a unique opportunity to pass on the family stories.

    What child wouldn’t love to hear about his father’s childhood from an uncle who used to share his dad’s bedroom? Many families bring their photo albums or the family videos along to get conversations going. At the reunion celebrating my parents’ anniversary, they told us about their wartime engagement, and we read their old love letters aloud. The videos my son made of the event will be shared at the next reunion.

    Keep it short and sweet. After spending months planning the reunion and loads of money to get to it, you might be tempted to extend the gathering for days. But experienced reunion attendees report that short reunions (no more than four days and three nights) work best. Better that people leave wishing the gathering were longer than wishing the event had ended two days earlier. Besides, there is a greater chance that everyone will be enthusiastic about a second reunion if the first event ends before every story is told and every activity shared.


    Family Reunion: Everything You Need to Know to Plan Unforgettable Get-Togethers, by Jennifer Crichton, Workman Publishing, 1998.

    Family Reunion Handbook: A Complete Guide to Planning and Enjoying Family Reunions, by Tom Ninkovich, Reunion Research, 1998.

    Family Reunion Planning Kit for Dummies, by Cheryl Fall, Hungry Minds Inc., 2002.

    The Family Reunion Sourcebook, by Edith Wagner, Lowell House Extension Press, 1999. 

    More Reunion Planning Tips

  • Questions to Consider

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    Ronnie Mae Weiss has written and consulted on family travel for more than 10 years. She has also planned seven biannual reunions for her extended family.

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