How To Plan a Successful Family Reunion

Congratulations, you’ve volunteered – or been volunteered – to organize your next family reunion. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of your relatives are counting on you to plan a great event. Don’t stress out. Follow these basic steps to ensure the family reunion is a wild success.

1. Start planning today. Family reunions can be particularly time consuming. So start early. Planning in advance will increase the odds that more people will be able to attend the reunion, which translates into more fun for everyone. By booking early, you can most likely secure better rates and/or reserve your preferred hotel or retreat site, flights and other travel arrangements.

2. Guest list size. Deciding which members of the family to invite and how far to extend the family tree can create stress and challenges. It’s akin to planning a wedding invitation list. You don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings and yet you have to draw the line somewhere. This is a personal family decision. While you can extend the invitation to more people over time, in order to begin the planning process it’s critical to understand how big of an event you are planning and to have a rough sense of who will be attending. Send RSVP messages (planning sites such as TripHub make this easy) out early enough so people can pencil the date in on their calendars.

3. Money matters. Your group’s budget is perhaps the most important consideration to understand up-front. When estimating the expense for each attendee, consider the costs of transportation (by air or car), lodging, food and entertainment. With input from other family members, set a budget that will be comfortable for the vast majority of the family. If you will be collecting money from attendees to help cover the costs of special events and activities, keep detailed records of your expenses including any deposits for hotels, caterers or other service providers. Unfortunately, trip organizers are often left holding the bag with extra expenses. Don’t be shy to ask for contributions. And, while you want to keep the event as affordable as possible, make sure you add some buffer to your budget. If there’s extra money left over, splurge on a special treat for the group, or bank the funds for the next reunion. Most importantly, plan activities that can be enjoyed regardless of budget: potlucks, games, music, storytelling.

4. Choose the date. First of all, know in advance that you will not be able to accomodate everyone’s schedule. With that in mind, here are hints to get the best date locked in:

  • If you’re scheduling the reunion around a particular event (i.e., a grandparent’s birthday or 50th wedding anniversary), holiday or school break then your options may be limited. If you’re not date constrained, and if there are particular family members who absolutely must be there, speak with them first.
  • Next, talk to key family members (i.e., Uncle Bob who keeps in close contact with many people in and beyond his branch of the family tree) to determine if there are other events that might create a conflict for a number of possible attendees.
  • Then select 3-4 dates that provide sufficient planning time, and send these dates to the family.
  • Ask people to let you know which dates work best for them of the 3-4 options you provide, but make sure to emphasize that the majority rules so no one feels singled out if they are not able to attend.

  • Many people may not be able to fully commit six or more months in advance so you may need to request guesstimates. To increase your response rate and make decision making easier, give people a deadline and ask them to rank their date preferences.
  • Finally, stick to your decision. Changing dates mid-stream can create a phenomenal amount of additional work.

6. Location, location, location. As in real estate, location is key. If you have a tradition of rotating between the homes of various family members or there is an obvious central location, this decision is easy. However, if your family is spread out and there’s no pre-established plan, choosing the location may seem daunting. Many families converge at places such as Disneyland and other theme parks, top vacation spots such as Hawaii or the Caribbean, they explore national parks and monuments and also gather in urban, rural and resort towns across the United States. Your choices are endless and depend on group size, budget, time of year and the type of activities best suited to attendees.

Here’s a quick checklist to help you find the location just right for your next family reunion:

  • Can the majority of folks easily get to the location without a huge expense (or are they willing to pay to travel that far)?

  • Does the location provide fun and engaging activities for all ages from kids to seniors?
  • Does the location have multiple activity options both indoor and outdoor (for those who either need to get out of the sun, rain, or cold)?
  • Is there anyone in your family or extended family that may have difficulty in a location (wheelchair considerations, health issues, etc.)? If you choose a theme park as your major destination, can everyone or most participate?
  • Parents with infants have a special set of considerations and needs (nap times, feeding times, diaper changes) and may require easy-access to a quiet room.
  • Will in-laws (who may not be as excited as y’all about the prospect of spending an entire weekend or week sitting around listening to old family stories) have interesting things to do?
  • Check with the convention and visitors bureau (CVB) before setting a date to ensure there isn’t a major event in town to avoid filled hotels and a location busier than normal. On the other hand, you could make a public festival or event part of the fun!
  • Explore the advantages/disadvantages of having the family reunion in the same location as a previous year. There is comfort for people in being in a familiar area; plus, you can always try new activities, food and places to stay in that same location. Survey your group and find out if they prefer a new destination or an old favorite.
  • Be flexible and you’ll have the greatest chance of securing a better rate. Keep in mind peak or off-season for various locations. For example, occupancy rates in Florida are very high over spring break but typically much lower in August. Granted, Florida is much hotter in August, but prices are significantly lower.

7. Hotels, resorts, vacation rental homes, cruises, etc.
After choosing the date and location, you need to identify the appropriate hotel or other accommodations for your family. To ensure that you are able to secure your desired lodging at the best possible rate, start the search as early as possible. Some of the most important considerations in selecting the right lodging for your group include:

  • Your group’s per night budget
  • Number of rooms required
  • Hotel’s location
  • Amenities (on-site restaurant, pool, in-room kitchens etc.)
  • Meeting space and catering services available (if required)
  • Shuttle service and parking

When making hotel reservations, simplify this part of the group organizing process by keeping this basic, but key, tip in mind. Offer options in a range of price categories (for larger groups, arrange room blocks at multiple hotels to give your group choices):

  • Budget (typically 1-star and 2-star hotels)
  • Moderate (mainly 3-star hotels)
  • Higher-end and luxury (4-star and 5-star hotels)
  • Suite hotels, homes for rent, villas, condos with in-room kitchens (often ideal for groups with young children)

8. Schedule events and activities.
Why? They increase the fun factor, offer bonding opportunities, serve as fodder for conversations, jokes, photo-ops and turn into life-long memories.

Events and activities vary from formal sit-down meals to casual barbeques, from guided tours to theater, and from physical activities to family-oriented games. Activity-planning tips:

  • Activities such as swimming, tennis, golf, bicycling, walking/hiking, shopping and visiting museums and historical landmarks provide great entertainment for family members young and old.
  • Be creative and leverage the talents and skills of your group when thinking about food, decorations and entertainment for these activities.
  • Schedule two events per day as well as “optional” choices such as a golf tournament or a hike so people can participate or opt out.
  • Everyone may not know each other (spouses, for example) so think about ways to introduce people to each other. Nametags with names and favorite villain, cartoon, sport, animal, kitchen gadget, dessert or vacation spot (you choose!) is sure to spark conversation.
  • Make sure that there will be enough space and food per activity.
  • Alert the group when meals are incorporated or provided with activities. If a stop at a world-famous milkshake joint follows a white-water rafting excursion, you might entice more people to go rafting.
  • Have a Plan B in case of rain.
  • Family reunions are designed to bring people together so plan events and activities that encourage group interaction. Something as simple as a potluck brings everyone to one place for mingling.
  • Provide games (Scrabble, cards, other board games) so people can sit down and relax without feeling anti-social.
  • Bring a first-aid kit on excursion-type activities such as hiking, biking, touring.

Provide a list of what to wear and bring for each activity.


Jocelyn Milici has worked in online travel for over eight years, including five years managing content at Expedia, and is currently a freelance writer/editor and blogger for www.triphub.com.