A big family reunion is a wonderful opportunity to create and renew deep connections, learn about your roots and foster a sense of belonging. And big reunions have been growing in popularity over the past 20 years. It is not uncommon to see reunions of 100 to 200 or more people. But if you’re planning a big reunion, it’s easy to make these very common mistakes. Here’s what to do instead…
MISTAKE: TRYING TO DO IT ALL YOURSELF
If you organize an event single-handedly, you will be too busy and overwhelmed to enjoy and interact with people at the reunion itself, missing out on the whole purpose of the event.
Also, the more people involved in the planning, the more people will spread the word and encourage others to attend. What to do…
Get input. Send a simple questionnaire to family members via e-mail, supplemented by snail mail and/or phone calls for those who don’t use e-mail. Ask about people’s level of interest in a reunion…how many from their families might attend and their ages…preferred time of year…preferred locations…and willingness to volunteer.
Form a planning committee. Start with three to five people who expressed interest in volunteering. (Others who volunteered can later be recruited for subcommittees.) Have one or two initial meetings—in person or by telephone conference call—to review the questionnaire results and narrow down the location, potential dates, duration, size and areas of responsibility.
Once date and location have been determined, have committee members contact other family members and invite them to help. Depending on how large a reunion you are planning, you will need a chairperson or two co-chairs and people in charge of areas such as communication and contact list, finances, meeting space and lodging, food, activities and entertainment, and on-site coordination.
MISTAKE: UNDERESTIMATING COSTS
In an effort to make the reunion a success, costs easily can get out of control. What to do…
Create a budget. List the estimated costs for every potential component of the reunion. You will need to do research and contact vendors in order to make the budget realistic. In addition to major costs such as banquet rooms, lodging, meals and organized activities, remember to include incidentals such as photocopying, postage, phone calls and gas mileage for errands. Use this information to calculate the cost per person.
Negotiate with vendors. Get several bids for each major expense, such as meeting rooms and catering. Always ask what discounts are available. Examples: Many hotels will give a discount on meeting rooms if a minimum number of sleeping rooms are booked. Caterers may offer a lower rate on meals for children and seniors.
Give options. Before committing to expensive activities such as a guided tour, lake cruise or catered banquet, send potential attendees a list of possibilities and their estimated cost per person.
MISTAKE: SKIPPING THE NAME TAGS
Name tags may seem unnecessary among family. However, forgetting someone’s name can be embarrassing and sets the festivities off on the wrong foot. Name tags also can serve as conversation starters. What to do…
Provide plenty of tags. If you opt for sticky-backed name tags and felt-tip markers, make sure that you have enough on hand for each day of the event because sticky tags are impractical to reuse. This type of tag is fine for casual gatherings, but keep in mind that the sticky backs may not adhere to all clothing and can even damage dressy clothing.
If you choose more expensive, durable name tags with plastic sleeves—either clip-on or with strings around the neck—keep extra sleeves and tags on hand in case people forget to bring theirs each day.
Use large type. Whether you preprint the tags on a computer or have people write their own names, make sure that the first name is large enough to read from a distance.
Provide interesting information. In addition to first and last name, consider including the person’s city and state, maiden name, age (ask permission first) and family line of descent.
MISTAKE: LACK OF STRUCTURE
Although some family members may jump into conversations immediately, more introverted people—or those who don’t know many people at the event —will need help getting acquainted. What to do…
Start with a multigenerational icebreaker. A good icebreaker is the Family Information Scavenger Hunt, where individuals or teams look for answers to preprinted questions. Example: Find a family member who traveled more than 1,000 miles to attend…whose parents hail from Ireland…who has a specific maiden name…who has more than four siblings. For more icebreaker ideas, see FamilyReunionHelper.com and Family-Reunion-Success.com.
Include age-specific activities—such as pizza-and-movie/DVD night for teenagers…storytime for young children…softball for grown-ups…canasta or poker for seniors.
Allow some downtime. Don’t go to the opposite extreme and structure every minute. Spontaneous interactions create some of the best memories.
MISTAKE: ASSUMING THAT SOMEONE IS TAKING PHOTOS
Even when everyone seems to be snapping pictures with smartphones, it doesn’t guarantee that all attendees will be included in photos or that the pictures will be distributed. What to do…
Assign the job. Either hire a professional photographer or ask, in advance, two or three family members to be responsible for photo-taking. (This can be a good task for teenagers.) Tell whoever does the photography to make sure that everyone at the reunion is in at least one shot. Give each photographer a list of everyone at the reunion so that he/she can check off names. Also, make sure that someone keeps track of the names of people in the photos to ensure that the photos are labeled for posterity.
Arrange for distribution. After the reunion, have a volunteer burn photos to CDs and send to all attendees…or upload the photos to a shared folder website such as Dropbox.com. Ask another volunteer to make prints for people who don’t have online access.
MISTAKE: NEGLECTING STORYTELLING
Sharing stories about the family, present and past, is one of the great joys of multigenerational gatherings and one of the best ways to strengthen family ties. But storytelling doesn’t come naturally to all families, and the opportunity may be lost. What to do…
Prime the pump. Before the reunion, ask attendees to come up with three fun facts about their own childhoods…and/or think about which family members have influenced them the most. At the reunion, pair up older people with younger ones, and have them share their answers to these questions. Or invite each person to come up in front of the group.
Facilitate table discussion. During a meal, assign someone at each table to encourage each person to answer questions such as, What’s something you remember about your grandmother or grandfather?…What was your first job?…What did/do you like/dislike most about school?…What’s the most amazing thing that happened in your life?
Get young people involved. One family came up with an activity they called “I’m My Own Grandparent,” in which each of the children under 12 dressed up in costume and acted out a story about his/her grandparents—either a story that the child had heard directly from the grandparent or a story that had been told to him. (An adult monitored the rehearsal and program.) All the kids who took part got a gift card, and special prizes were awarded for the most enthusiastic portrayal.