Family Reunion Planning: 6 Steps to Stress-Free Success | My Family Travels
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Are you in charge of organizing the big family reunion this year? Here's an in-depth guide to get you started. Are you in charge of organizing the big family reunion this year? Here's an in-depth guide to get you started.

With the typical extended American family separated by thousands of miles, family reunions have become a popular way to spend quality time together. But how should you choose the right vacation spot for a happy, memory-filled reunion that satisfies children, parents and grandparents? Planning ahead is the key.

Step 1: Designate the Boss

Designating a main coordinator is your first order of business. This person is responsible for researching a location, figuring out which dates work best for everyone, deciding how long to stay, and getting a consensus on price range for accommodations. Sometimes your reunion organizer is the person most familiar with a chosen destination, as often is the case with the 15-member Pauli family get-togethers. Other times, such as for the 86-person Fitzpatrick reunion or the 20-member Weidman get-togethers, the coordinator is self-appointed.

For our 22-member reunions, we first started designating the coordinators by age order. However, that plan only worked for two reunions. At that point, my mother-in-law Shirley Gaynor stepped in. "I had the urge to have all my seven children and grandchildren together," and in order to see that to fruition, she became our reunion organizer.

Step 2: Select a Location

Choosing a location is first on the coordinator's agenda. Since you cannot cater to everyone, you should aim for a central geographic location. While some of our locations have been spectacular, such as Rocky Mountain National Park, we have returned happily to scenic Door County for three years in a row. This northern peninsula of Wisconsin is accessible, while exuding plenty of charm and offering an array of activities to satisfy all interests. Yvonne Weidman said they too selected Door County as well as Stowe, Vermont as pleasant spots for their reunions because a family member had been there already.

However, the Paulis decided to have one of their family reunions aboard a small Cruise West sightseeing ship, since Alaska is one place that none of this well-traveled family had previously visited. According to Janet Pauli, their reunion spots have often been decided by the person celebrating an anniversary, birthday or other special occasion; Israel has been the location to celebrate some of the children's Bar or Bat Mitzvahs.

And if you've decided to go green during this year's family reunion, leave the car at home and pick a location in walkable destinations including San Francisco or Vail to reduce driving. Everyone will appreciate having shopping, restaurants, parks, bike trails, and galleries nearby. Walking isn't just better for the environment; it will keep your family healthy and happy. You'll successfully avoid arguments over who has to drive and when to pile the kids in the car and locate car seats.

Step 3: Reserve Your Lodging

There are a number of ways to get information on housing once you have chosen your destination. They include using a travel agent, contacting a tourist board, using the Internet, or physically exploring the region beforehand to choose the right spot for your family's needs. My in-laws, for example, drove to Door County the fall prior to our first reunion and discovered the Evergreen Condominiums in Fish Creek. "We fell in love with them because they were new, clean, located at the entrance of Peninsula State Park, and in walking distance of a cute town center," said Shirley Gaynor.

In the case of the Fitzpatrick reunion, one of the daughters-in-law found the Ocean Reef Condominiums in Emerald Isle, North Carolina through her timeshare. Alternatively, Ms. Weidman discovered the convenient and activity-packed Door County via the Internet.

There are a number of different lodging options. Most large groups which include small children need cooking facilities. This narrows the options to condos, large homes or lodges (when the entire unit can be rented for a week) or even campsites. Ms. Weidman, who has enjoyed family reunions in all of them, felt that the individual units rented in Door County restricted parents from socializing once little ones were in bed, so she preferred the large home that her entire clan stayed in during their Vermont reunion. We, on the other hand, found it very difficult to get children to sleep when we all stayed in one big lodge in Estes Park, Colorado. Thus, we prefer condos where each sibling and their immediate family can have their own unit adjacent to other family members.

Camping is another option that worked "surprisingly well" for a Weidman family reunion in northern California. Although everyone slept in tents, there was a cottage with shared cooking and bathroom facilities. "Staying in the campsite as well as one big house together made it very clear that you are all sharing your food and time with each other, while those lines got blurred when we stayed in individual units," added Weidman.

Keep your carbon footprint small and shop around for lodging that adheres to minimal impact practices. Ask if they recycle and offer designated bins for guests to recycle during their stay. It's also a good idea to see if their in-house restaurant uses reusable china, silverware, and buys in bulk to keep their emissions down. When you arrive, remember to use natural ventilation whenever possible, like in cool mountain air, instead of heavily relying on air conditioning.


Step 4: Fix Your Time & Budget

The three families interviewed held reunions that lasted one week but we have found five nights work well, since it is long enough to have time with all the relatives yet short enough to avoid family friction. Also, this time frame allows my husband, daughter, and me to spend a few days on either end of the reunion alone. Last summer, we flew to Milwaukee and spent a night there enjoying the city's famous German restaurants and lovely waterfront before driving north to Door County.

Obviously, budget dictates length of stay, too. Most family planners do an informal survey beforehand to see how much people are willing to spend on lodging and transportation. In the Fitzpatrick's case, all members chipped in additional money beyond lodging expenses. This money covered the catering of welcome and farewell meals, provided coffee and doughnuts poolside daily, and purchased souvenir T-shirts.

In a number of the families, including my husband's, grandparents pay for the lodging. According to Ms. Pauli, "By paying for our reunions, my parents are giving us now what they would leave us when they're gone. And this way, they get to enjoy it with us, too."

Step 5: Guarantee Fun for All Ages

Yvonne Weidman's brother-in-law researches fun activities to do beforehand and tends to be the "ringleader" once they're at their reunion. For example, he planned a full-day canoe trip which, she said, "really allowed us to get to know each other well." Once my family arrives at our destination, we generally don't set up any formal activities. That way the atmosphere is kept casual and not overly organized. However, sometimes such unplanned time can cause friction, as it did this year, when some family members with little ones felt a bit left out because those without children were opting for activities that were not kid-appropriate.

Ms. Pauli said that while her Cruise West ship was perfect for the older children in her clan, it was a bit rough on the parents of her 2- and 4-year-old relatives since there were no youth facilities. However, this family stayed in the one suite on the ship, which became the main meeting point at sea and allowed for interaction between all groups.

The Crowley/Fitzpatrick clan gathers poolside every morning for continental breakfast and to decide on the day's activities. Our family usually congregates by the pool in the late afternoon after people have finished their explorations, and the kids really look forward to having the whole crew together.

Meals can be another way of sharing time together. My clan takes turns making dinner, which we plan ahead of arrival so that we can bring any special recipes along. We find dinners are a great time for all to touch base and make plans for the next day. Food preparation can be a sore point if you don't plan ahead. Ms. Weidman said that when they took turns cooking dinner it turned out to be a "Can You Top This?" situation which proved rather stressful. One recent reunion, where we all stayed in the same lodge in Colorado, was marred by conflict over who was responsible for the preparation and clean-up of three meals daily. We have resolved now to share only dinner as a group. As Ms. Weidman pointed out, "Each year that we have a reunion, we learn something about what works and doesn't work."

Step 6: Preserve the Memories

At the end of your memory-filled reunion, make sure you take a group photograph. But leave the disposable cameras at home and don't be tempted to hand them out as cute gifts. They'll eventually end up in the trash and further environmental waste. Instead, set up a free account on Flickr.com or Kodak.com and encourage your group to upload their favorite memories for everyone to share.

Once your family reunions become a tradition, it is fun to make a scrapbook and see how everyone has changed over the years. But even more important to all reunion attendees is the realization that their time together allowed for relationships to evolve with family members they might not otherwise get to know and appreciate.

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