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Make Everyone Happy And Take The Family Reunion On Location

These days, most families are scattered all over the country, if not the world--giving more reason to get together but making it harder than ever to do so.

In 2001, senior editor Brad Tuttle's family reunited in Playa del Carmen, Mexico (Cara Ranft)

Kris Zahrobsky, a 25-year-old firefighter from the Chicago suburb of Berwyn, Ill., is a member of the Feelys, a family based mostly in the Midwest that for generations has tried to keep in touch and get together every other year or so. When Kris was growing up, the reunions were simple affairs, maybe in someone's backyard or at a state park. There wasn't a whole lot to do besides catch up, eat, and pose for pictures. "It was great to see all the relatives," says Kris, "but I remember being bored out of my mind."

For the 2005 reunion, Kris proposed a different kind of get-together--a weekend in the Wisconsin Dells, a destination that overflows with family resorts and water parks. "The Dells was my first choice," says Kris. "In the same building, the kids can go to the water park while the parents sit and relax." The Feelys decided to base the reunion at the Kalahari Resort, which has indoor and outdoor water parks, a banquet hall that can host a big family dinner, and all sorts of rooms and suites. Last fall, Kris even set up a website to post family news and a reunion itinerary, including times for group boat tours, casual gatherings in a hospitality room, and a mass on Sunday morning. The Feelys are expecting this summer's gathering to be the best turnout in years: around 200 people from 18 states, with some members of the extended family who haven't attended a reunion since the 1970s.

If you expect people to devote vacation time and endure hours of travel, the least you can do is make the reunion fun. Rather than the traditional backyard barbecue or potluck in someone's crowded living room, more and more families are going on cruises, renting a few beach houses, or heading to all-inclusive resorts.

Planning a big reunion is difficult enough. Add in coordinating a vacation that jibes with everyone's budget, schedule, and desires, and the job becomes nearly impossible. Age-old rivalries and differences don't help either. "You find out how dysfunctional your family is when planning a reunion," says Stacey Hopkins of Atlanta, Ga., whose family reunion of 150 to 200 people takes place every other year, usually somewhere in the eastern U.S. "Our family has a lot of alpha females, and it's not pretty when people don't agree. The experience can be traumatic."

From the planning stages to exchanging pictures after the trip's over, everyone involved should try to be flexible and keep things pleasant. "Don't talk about religion, politics, and child rearing," says Laurence Basirico, author of The Family Reunion Survival Guide. "Not if you expect everybody to have a good time, anyway."

There are many ways to make the experience as painless--and as fun--as possible, and we've done some of the homework for you. The consensus is that you should begin planning a reunion at least a year in advance, to allow time for deciding where to go and when, to give everyone ample warning for taking off work, and to make sure rooms will be available. If you've got a reasonably big group--over 20, say--lodging reservations should be made eight or more months ahead. Memorial Day to Labor Day is prime family reunion season because kids are out of school. The Christmas break is also popular, but prices are sky-high and many people have traditions they like to keep at home, as well as commitments to the other side of the family.

It's usually clear who'll be the reunion ringleaders--the same crew of matriarchs (and sometimes patriarchs) who host Thanksgiving dinners and send cards to everyone on their birthdays. "Somebody's gotta take charge, but no one should do it alone," says Basirico. "When things get going, have a travel agent serve as a neutral third party." People won't be offended when an agent says there's a deadline for deposits (and it's handy to have an outsider to blame should things go wrong).

After a few casual conversations indicate that there's a fair amount of interest, one of the ringleaders should send out a group e-mail. To keep the conversation from literally going all over the map, offer roughly three possibilities. List a few pros and cons for each, as well as ballpark costs. To avoid any confusion, specify up front who will have to pay for what. Some people will want to go camping while others will lean toward five-star resorts, so compromise is essential. Organizers of the Feely reunion in Wisconsin Dells knew that not everyone wanted to pay over $100 a night at the Kalahari Resort, so they provided booking details for a nearby campground.

Have each family pick a leader to voice its concerns and, if necessary, put the decision on where to go to a vote. Don't get hung up if someone doesn't want to go or cancels at the last minute. Carry on with the people who want to be there.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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