If you think trying to get 10 or 20 relatives together for the holidays is problematic, how does the idea of wrangling thousands of them sound? Somehow, writer A.J. Jacobs pulled it off.
In June 2015, he managed to bring together more than 3,700 close, distant, and really, really distant relatives for a massive gathering, the Global Family Reunion, at the New York Hall of Science. The theme was “We’re all part of one big family.”
Jacobs’ reunion tied in with an even larger effort: an attempt to build a family tree of the entire human race. He wrote about the project in his book, “It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree.”
Ultimately, Jacobs succeeded in creating an incredibly cool gathering — Sister Sledge even sang “We Are Family” there — but his take on the day may resonate with many other family reunion organizers.
The reunion, Jacobs told The Guardian, like many things involving family, was complicated. He described it as, “Horrible. And great. It was the best worst day of my life.’”
As Jacobs’ experience attests, planning a family reunion is equal parts excitement and stress, apprehension and thrill. And those emotions apply regardless of the scale of the event. Even if you’re not rounding up thousands of third, fourth, and fifth cousins on genealogy sites like Jacobs did, arranging any family gathering can be formidable. But there are ways to make your role as an organizer a bit easier.
1. Start the planning process far in advance.
You’ll want to give yourself a huge reserve of wiggle room to reach your relatives, let them know you’re planning a reunion, and get their feedback on its timing and location. People will need time to figure out when they can get vacation time from work and make sure there aren’t other conflicts. And you’ll need lots of time to get everyone’s input and move the planning forward.
Most event pros and family reunion-organizing veterans say this process should start at least 12 to 18 months in advance.
Also, it’s important to keep your expectations in check when it comes to finalizing your date(s): It’s very unlikely that you’ll find a window of time that works for everyone. Aim for something the majority of your family can work with.
“Becca,” creator of the Love Our Crazy Life blog, wrote that she learned the hard way about the difficulties of getting relatives to agree on a date when she planned a weekend gathering for her parents, all seven of her siblings, and their families. As a result of that stressful experience, she changed her approach to organizing family gatherings.
“The next one I planned, I chose three weekends and asked which ones worked best for others,” Becca said. “Rather than stress on finding a weekend when everyone could be there, I chose a weekend most people could be there. It helped a lot.”
2. Create and stick with a budget.
Before you delve into planning, you’ll need to know how much money you’ll have to work with and who’s pitching in to pay for the event. Are family members willing to chip in a set amount so you can rent a venue, hire a caterer, or go on an outing together?
In the case of large events, organizers typically collect contributions early in the planning stages, create a reunion checking account, and assign a “finance director” to maintain the budget and handle expenses.
If you and your family have something expensive in mind, like a cruise or overseas gathering, you can always hold some fund-raisers like garage sales or car washes to help cover your expenses.
3. Select your location strategically.
The same approach for date selection can apply to determining your reunion location: Give your family members three or four options, and go with the place that works for the majority. If you and your relatives, like many families today, are spread out across the country, there are online tools available to help you find central locations.
In any case, developing your location suggestions will require some time, research, and initial input from the family.
A few factors to keep in mind:
· Will the location work for a wide range of budgets? Think travel-related expenses (from airline tickets to car rentals to hotels, campgrounds, or resorts) and the circumstances of those attending. Your single cousin may find it easier to pay for a flight than your brother, sister-in-law, and their three children.
· Are any of the hotels, lodges, resorts, Airbnbs, or campgrounds in the area willing to provide you a group discount?
· How about food: Will your relatives have access to restaurants? Will they be able to buy groceries and prepare meals where they stay?
I also encourage you and your relatives to make all of your reservations early, including hotels and your venue. That will prevent the disappointment of anyone being left out or having to scramble to come up with alternative plans.
4. Keep the Lines of Communication Open
Once the reunion dates, times, and location are settled, get the details to family members as soon as possible.
“Mail invitations or ‘save the date’ cards to family members a few months ahead of time,” a recent iSaveA2Z blog suggested. “When the date gets closer, send RSVP cards so you can (hopefully) know how many will be coming. Include maps to the reunion location for non-local family members.”
The blog also recommended sending text messages or making phone calls about a month before the reunion to remind attendees it’s getting close and make sure they’re still planning to be there.
But your communication shouldn’t stop there. You should stay in contact with your relatives throughout your planning process and invite their input.
If you’re planning a catered meal, ask family members about preferences, allergies, and dietary restrictions.
Before mapping out activities, ask relatives what they and their children would enjoy. Tell them what you’ve been considering.
5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Depending on the size of your reunion, your aspirations for games and activities, and your ability to pull everything together while juggling your usual work and life responsibilities, you may benefit from the help of other family members.
You can recruit individuals or committees to handle activities, supervision and activities for the children attending, correspondence with family members, food, lodging, décor, administration (keeping track of paperwork and reservations), and even gathering photos and family mementos to display.
You can seek help by emailing a sign-up sheet with key tasks, or, if you feel more comfortable entrusting specific tasks to specific people, contact relatives individually and ask for their assistance.
6. Be prepared for things to go wrong.
One thing I’ve learned during my years in the wedding and events industry is the importance of preparing for the unexpected. Life happens. At a family gathering, that could range from someone forgetting to bring the family reunion bingo game they promised to technical difficulties interfering with the video you hoped to present.
Some things simply can’t be helped, but there are steps you can take to ensure success, no matter what happens.
· Expect uncooperative weather. If outdoor games and activities are part of your reunion itinerary, line up a location, possibly a pavilion, where family members can take shelter. Have some board games, crafts, or other activities ready.
· Bring just-in-case items. These could include:
o One or more first aid kits
o Extra phone and laptop chargers
o A backup camera for getting quality pictures or videos
o Extra bottled water
o Non-perishable snacks
o Climate-appropriate supplies, whether that’s sunscreen and insect repellant or hand warmers
· Make sure you’ve got their number. I’m talking about flight numbers, reservation numbers, and phone numbers (relatives and venues).
7. Don’t forget to have fun.
Organizing a large event can get stressful, and yes, family gatherings can get complicated. But they also can be incredibly rewarding. They provide a chance to connect with people you may not have seen since childhood (or, like Jacobs, ever). To better understand yourself and your family’s history. To make cherished memories.
So, yes, plan carefully. But please give yourself a chance to be in the moment and relish your time with family.
Hopefully, your reunion will be one of the best times you’ve ever had.
About the Author:
Roger Igo is the founder and CEO of special events venue, The Bell Tower on 34th, along with Houston catering service Excellent Events, and research resource, Venues in Houston. He is the author of “Keep On Going, The History of The Bell Tower on 34th,” a former radio host, a graduate of CEO Space International, and an alumnus of The Disney Institute.