Remember when a family reunion meant gathering at Grandma's over a stuffed turkey or a grill filled with burgers and hot dogs? Problem was, poor Grandma inevitably got stuck doing the brunt of the cooking and cleaning. These days, more and more families are turning their get-togethers into a fun and relaxing vacation for everyone. The cardinal rule for reunion planners: Don't host it at anyone's home.
"A reunion is not about being in someone's backyard. It's about going somewhere together, and everybody being able to share a good time without having one person or group do all the work," says Kathryn Sudeikis, vice president of corporate relations and multigenerational specialist for All About Travel in Kansas City.
To maximize the impact of their time together, families should look for an inspiring location. Choosing where to go is the tricky part. It's a tall order entertaining a big group of many ages, all eager to catch up, play hard, and create family lore for the next generation. Yet some destinations seem tailor-made for pleasing large family crowds.
More than 1,000 families gather each year at the YMCA of the Rockies (www.ymcarockies.org), dubbed "the Mercedes Benz of reunion locations" by Better Homes and Gardens magazine. Known for its awe-inspiring Colorado scenery at the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park and atmospheric yet affordable lodging, the YMCA of the Rockies has a team of reunion-facilitating pros who help schedule activities and make sure each gathering goes without a hitch. Reunion planners can even attend a "Family Reunion University" weekend camp months ahead of the family gathering to check out accommodations and iron out details. "At Reunion University, we help families set up a schedule of activities from among all the things the Y has to offer, from evening campfires to how to hold what we call an 'icebreaker' fun session," says Gail Albers, program director at the YMCA of the Rockies. "We also teach planners how to market the reunion to their families. You have to really get your family members excited to come."
Here are 10 ways to know you've found a terrific reunion destination.
Everyone has plenty of choices. A full and varied roster of activities ensures that everyone will have a great time. Make sure there are opportunities to explore age-appropriate interests, as well as for intergenerational fun and group activities. The bigger the crowd, the better for some activities (think flag football or bingo) but breaking into small groups can be a great way for those on opposite branches of the family tree to get to know each other. That's the thinking behind the programs at the YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park Center, where guests can choose from a foot-long list of activities, from archery and ceramics workshops to horseback riding and survival classes. "We're creating an environment for them to grow both as a family and personally," says John Pickett, the Y's Environmental Education Director.
No one flinches at the pricetag. Your goal is to get everyone to come, so affordability is an important key to a successful reunion. A reasonable price also encourages folks to participate in all the activities your location offers. Gathering at a deluxe campground in or near a national park is a good bet for tighter budgets. Or look for off-season deals at ski resorts or dude ranches; you'll get outstanding family facilities and a knowledgeable staff, along with a full roster of activities to keep you entertained. Avoid holidays, when rates can be double what you'd pay at other times. Finally, all-inclusive cruises or resort packages can reassure invitees that there will be no costly surprises. "You want something where you have the pricing under control," Sudeikis says.
There's a choice of lodging options. While some in your party may dig a big communal suite or eight-bedroom cabin, others may need their own space. And if getting along is a priority, don't underestimate the importance of a good night's sleep. Does your group contain both late-night revelers and early-morning joggers? Snoring uncles and babies who tend to wake several times per night? It might be best to break up the group into separate quarters.
Ideally, your reunion location will offer a variety of possibilities, from adjoining rooms to larger suites, stand-alone cabins, and multi-level condos. At YMCA of the Rockies, for instance, popular options include the "reunion cabin" that sleeps 70 and the Longs Peak Lodge, which offers numerous indoor and outdoor gathering spaces.
Consider accessibility, too, if your party has special needs. How many parents will be pushing little ones in strollers? Do any senior family members have trouble climbing stairs? Once you've settled on a spot, set a date far enough ahead to give folks time to arrange their schedules and book transport and rooms. For the most popular destinations, it's a good idea to lock in at least a year in advance.
Group activities have a wow factor. Extraordinary adventures create longer-lasting memories and will keep family coming back for future reunions. Arrange cruise-ship excursions for kayaking or snorkeling, or get a gang off-campus to explore historic sights, amusement parks or cultural draws in the area. Unique and thrilling experiences at the YMCA of the Rockies include team-building high- and low-rope obstacle courses, mountain climbing classes, and a zipline that soars 800 feet across Colorado's Wind River Valley. "These are not things people do at home every day. It takes them out of their natural element, and they learn new things about each other. When Grandma goes up on the zipline, it's a bonding experience," Pickett says.
Kids get their own fun. Programs designed exclusively for kids are essential, not only to make sure the reunion is fun for them, but to give grownups free time for adult activities. This means structured outings in separate facilities, where kids are separated into smaller age groups. It's essential that some planned activities be geared to hard-to-please 'tweens and teens. "Otherwise older kids will go into the arcade and nobody will ever see them," says Edith Wagner, editor of Reunions magazine and author of The Family Reunion Sourcebook. Plus, having an awesome time at the reunion will make kids want to continue the tradition when they're grown.
Everyone gets some down time. Leave some free time between the scheduled fun for folks to relax. "When families come together they don't want to be together 24/7," Sudeikis says. "For example, a cruise works because there's as much togetherness as you want in the evening, but everybody has the whole day to do their thing." Look for space on the property that invites folks to hang out and reconnect in a low-key way. Make sure there are plenty of safe and welcoming open areas where cousins can congregate other than the hotel bar: in a pool cabana, campground picnic area, cruise ship pool deck, or around a toasty fire and game table in the lobby.
Even finicky eaters will chow down. Cousin Abby is a vegan, Uncle Elmer has a wheat allergy, and Little Mike Jr. won't eat anything green. There's nothing easy about feeding an extended family, which is why buffet-style meals work so well. Make sure that dining facilities can seat large groups. Most resort kitchens will meet your special requirements as long as you make your requests well in advance. And look for ways to mix it up; look for casual cafÃ©s and snack bars, room service, and lodging with kitchen facilities.
You can call in reinforcements. Before booking, it's crucial to know that the staff at your hotel or resort knows how to handle a family crowd. Ask how many reunions they've hosted in the past year, and then ask for -- and call -- references from former guests. Request to be assigned a point person for your family's reunion.
If your reunion will be held in a city or town, contact the local tourist office. "Lots of convention and tourism bureaus realize that families are a big part of their business, and devote someone on their staff to assist with reunions," Wagner says.
You can get your own space. There will probably be times when you'll need a designated meeting place just for your group. Ask for a hospitality suite or a conference room with a key, so you have an area where you can register attendees, hand out name badges, and set up fun displays like a family tree or photo displays. Find out if there are other facilities you can have all to yourselves for a few hours, at no charge-perhaps a section of the dining room, or a patio or balcony. At Estes Park Center at the YMCA of the Rockies, families can pay a nominal fee to book a campfire site for cook-outs and sing-a-longs.
Logistics are a snap. To avoid last-minute snafus, think in advance about how your gang will get from place to place as they move through your itinerary, so you don't need to fuss about carpooling or chaperones. Ideally, most activities should be within walking distance of your main activity hub. If not, ask your hotel or resort if it can help you arrange for a shuttle to get from place to place. If your package isn't all-inclusive, troubleshoot and negotiate a lower group rate for extra charges in advance.