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5 Tips for Organizing the Perfect Family Reunion

5 Tips for the Perfect Family ReunionOne of the major reasons I travel with my daughter is to visit family.  With my parents in Alabama, my sister and other relatives in North Carolina, and my husband’s extended family in Connecticut, we cross the country often so that my daughter can have real relationships with these large but close-knit groups of people.

Sometimes we’ve gotten a little tired of visiting family in the same non-exotic locations every time.  It’s not that I don’t love my hometown, but it is fun to visit new places too!  One thing that has worked for us is to combine visits with family with a leisure trip, by meeting up with family in a different location.  And it has been even better to be able to organize larger groups of family to accompany us on these trips.

Last summer, we found ourselves on an impromptu family reunion of sorts on the Big Island of Hawaii.  My husband and I had been dying to go, and we were interested in bringing some family along so that our daughter could visit with some relatives and we could perhaps have a few built-in babysitters.  My husband’s parents got on board, followed by my parents (isn’t it nice to have in-laws who get along?).  Then the extended family thought Hawaii sounded tempting, and before long we had a group of 17 booked for a week in paradise.  Amazingly, there was family on both my side and my husband’s side in attendance, as our extended families have come to be friends (my sister and some of my husband’s cousins live in the same town and regularly hang out without us).  We had an absolute blast and my daughter really got to know so many of her aunts, uncles, and cousins.

5 Tips for the Perfect Family Reunion - Family Reunion in Hawaii

With extended family for a week in Hawaiian paradise!

This summer, we are attempting a more formal family reunion of sorts.  This time, the group getting together is just my mother’s family.  My cousins on this side of the family all grew up together in Alabama and were very close.  But we have now all gotten married, had kids, and have settled in different areas of the country, including California, Texas, and Colorado.  We had the chance to all get together for the first time in many years when my grandmother passed away in 2011, and we decided we would continue to make an effort to see each other.  So, the idea for a family reunion was born!  We are going to Panama City Beach in Florida in July, with a total of 20 adults and 9 children, all ages 5 and under.  It should be a crazy time and I promise lots of trip reports to follow.

If you are thinking of planning your own family reunion, here are some tips to make your getaway a big success:

1) Plan more than a year in advance.

With a big group, the more advance notice, the better.  Everyone has differing levels of job flexibility and vacation time allotments, so you want to get on the calendar on a date that is convenient for everyone and block it off.  In my family, one of my aunts is a school principal, so she can only travel during a few weeks during the summer.  It was very helpful for our group that we reserved dates about 13 months in advance, and everyone is now able to attend.

2) Think carefully about who is coming and the most convenient location for everyone.

Think carefully about finding locations that are within reasonable driving distance for those in your group who aren’t likely to fly.  But, if your family is scattered in many different locations, it is inevitable that some of your attendees will need to fly in for the reunion.  That is a big inconvenience and cost for many, so do your research carefully to make it as easy on them as you can.  Ask the following questions — Is the destination you are choosing easily served by an airport?  And, do the airlines that serve that airport have options for your attendees based upon where they live?

We chose Panama City Beach for our upcoming trip in large part because of the airport options.  While we were happy to have the get-together anywhere on the Florida panhandle or Alabama coast, we ultimately settled on Panama City because its airport (ECP) has better service from the home airports of most of the attendees.  ECP is the only airport in the region that is served by Southwest, and with family coming from Austin, Dallas, Denver, the SF Bay Area, and San Diego, we knew that Southwest service would be helpful in making the trip doable for everyone.  And we were also close enough to alternative airports that everyone had multiple choices if they were able to spot an airfare deal elsewhere.

3) Be mindful of differing budgets.

The hardest part about scheduling a trip with a big group is that everyone is likely willing – and able – to pay different amounts.  Now is simply not the time to schedule a luxury trip.  The reunion should be about spending time with each other.  Consider renting a large house to share, or finding a resort that has rooms or condos at different price points.  If your unit or units have a kitchen, make a Costco or Target run and feed everyone a few homemade meals on the cheap, especially for breakfasts and lunches.

4) Don’t overschedule or try to micromanage a large group.

If you are a trip organizer, it is tempting to try to manage the logistics of everyone on your trip.  Don’t.  This is the hardest tip for me to follow, as I am a planner by nature!

But there are ways you can redirect your planning energies in more productive ways.  First, send gentle reminders to everyone so that your group doesn’t miss important deadlines.  It is easier for one person to keep track of these deadlines that it is for many people to do so.  You can also be a cheerleader of sorts in the process to get everyone excited about the trip.

Second, do the research legwork for others by offering options and suggestions, but don’t mandate participation in too many scheduled events.  Remember that everyone has a different idea of a vacation, and many folks may want to spend their time differently than you do.  Schedule one or two group events (rent a private room in a restaurant for a family dinner or have a potluck one night at your house or condo).  But let the other events happen more organically.  With a big group, one advantage is that you can usually get a smaller subset of people interested in lots of different activities.  So, if a few of your uncles want to go golf while the moms and kids hit the water park, everyone is happy.

One of the things I did for my family’s Hawaii trip that I’m repeating for our Florida vacation is to make a guidebook of sorts for the family to enable these organic gatherings to happen more easily.  Using TripAdvisor, Yelp, and various internet resources, I’ve meticulously researched our destinations and created lists of all the major activities, restaurants, and shops in the area.  I’ve also included a customized Google map so everyone can learn the lay of the land before they arrive.  This way, everyone can simply consult the guide and map, find what interests them, and set off with a few like-minded others.  It is also helpful to include in the guide the arrival and departure information for everyone in your group, as well as contact information so everyone can stay in touch (cell phone numbers, hotel or condo numbers, etc.).

5) Get creative with a souvenir or two.

If your family is like mine, you probably don’t want to go overboard with matching Hawaiian dresses or something similarly cheesy!  But that doesn’t mean you can’t create a souvenir or two that will promote family unity and still not embarrass everyone.  Consider making cute souvenir t-shirts for the kids, compiling a family photo album (you can order lots of duplicates for everyone on a site like Shutterfly for a reasonable price), creating a cookbook with favorite recipes from family holiday dinners of yore, or printing a genealogy booklet for everyone to cherish.

Have you attended or planned a family reunion lately?  Please share your thoughts in the comments.

5 Tips for the Perfect Family Reunion

V with her second cousins in summer 2011. Those 5 kids have now turned into 9 accompanying us for a reunion in summer 2013!

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