How to Plan Your First Family Reunion

Happy mexican grandparents and grandson playing with balloon


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Happy mexican grandparents and grandson playing with balloon

Family Ties

Whether you’re missing your far-flung family and realize you need to see them (in real life) again now that you're vaccinated or your family has recently expanded and you want everyone to meet, family reunions will play into a lot of plans this summer, fall and beyond. If organizing such a monumental gathering seems daunting, read on for some tips on how to create an event that will become a treasured family memory long after everyone has returned home.

Related: Vacation Rentals for Large Groups & Family Reunions

Woman wrinting on calendar
Trendsetter Images/istockphoto

Consult the Calendar

It’s hard enough to gather our own nuclear family around the dinner table, so thinking about when to hold a family reunion can seem overwhelming. If the gathering will be large, planning as far in advance as possible can only help. People may need to take time off from work or can only travel when the kids are on vacation. Summer seems to be the “go-to” option, with autumn or holiday events also popular. As Family History Daily notes, “The majority of these events, 65% in fact, are held in the summer when vacation time, outdoor venues and easier travel make the process simpler for everyone.”

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Old lady holding phone
Dobrila Vignjevic/istockphoto

Confirm the Invite List

Are you looking to gather a few — or a few dozen — relatives? Of course, it all depends on the families, but if funds or capacity are issues, make it clear from the start if new boyfriends, ex-wives or best friends are invited. As Picture This Organized notes, “You can go big, and host a giant event with your extended family (one side, or both sides), but you can also consciously decide to host a smaller event, with just couples and kids.”

Family celebration or a barbecue party outside in the backyard.

Determine the Format

Decide what works best for those who most likely will be coming. Would they enjoy a casual barbecue on a Sunday afternoon, a fancy dinner at the local catering hall — or perhaps even an entire weekend with an activity list that rivals a resort’s offerings? Picture This Organized also notes, “The longer your event lasts, the more activities you’ll need to plan and the more food you’ll need to provide — but longer events also mean you’ll get to (hopefully) spend more time together as one big happy family.”

Carrum Beach, Melbourne

Choose the Site(s)

Will the event be held in the town of the family’s roots, even though some members have moved away? Will you gather at a family favorite vacation spot, be it a lake or beach? Or will you choose a “destination event,” with everyone joining together at a site, one perhaps midway between all those attending? As Traveling Mom, a family vacation-oriented site, notes, “Get a consensus what will work for the majority — and realize not everyone can be accommodated.”

Young woman with curly hair drinking tea and checking her mail

Invite Your Guests

You will want to pinpoint the specifics (date/town) as soon as you can, sending out a save-the-date announcement to be followed up by a formal invitation, old-fashioned paper or digital. Make sure to note the RSVP deadline — and be ready to enforce it. You can’t be adjusting your numbers 20 more, 20 less days before the reunion. If you charge an admission fee, notes ThoughtCo., “Tickets purchased in advance also means people will be less likely to cancel at the last moment.”

Buffet line of lunch and dinner.Buffet self-service food

Hire Professionals?

Depending on your skill set, you may need help. That could mean anything from hiring an event planner to handle most every aspect — or simply engaging a few professionals (caterer, photographer) along the way. Better Homes & Gardens notes you can handle many activities yourself: “Reserve a softball field or hire tour guides or yoga instructors. If the reunion will be at someone’s home, ask relatives or your local community center if you can borrow any outdoor sports equipment or games for the game room.”  

Related: 10 Simple Tips for Taking Better Family Photos

Front view of two women baking mixing flour in their kitchen

Delegate, Delegate, Delegate

If you decide to forego professional help, don’t forego all help. Call on your spouse or immediate family to take part in the planning or even form committees for larger events. It makes sense to rely on skills that family members possess — a sister who’s artistic, for example, seems the go-to choice for designing the invitations. As Family History Daily notes, “Your best timesaver when planning your reunion will be bringing in people to help you. Siblings, adult children, genealogy contacts, even responsible teenagers might pitch in and take some of the load off your shoulders.”

Senior people having fun at Karaoke party
miodrag ignjatovic/istockphoto

Decide on a Theme

Is the reunion designed to celebrate a patriarch’s milestone birthday — or welcome several new members? Sure, you can just say it’s the “inaugural Smith Family reunion,” but don’t themes make everything more festive? Gathered Again suggests a few, ranging from sports (such as the Olympics or baseball), family history (“Celebrate Our History”), foods (Hawaiian luau) or entertainment (to include karaoke or a talent show).

Summer Barbeque Potluck

Consider the Costs

Sure, family reunions are about having fun and making memories, but things will cost money, from reserving a venue or buying food for the barbecue. If you want to splurge, then more power to you — but consider asking for donations, potluck contributions or other ways to defray the expenses. Among options suggested by the Family Reunion Helper blog are holding an on-site family auction where relatives bid on donated goods such as a quilt or homemade cookies, designing a raffle, creating and selling a family recipe book or even just plain ol’ “passing the hat.”

Related: 20 Party Essentials You Should Always Buy at the Dollar Store

Open suitcase on bed

Accommodate the Out-of-Towners

If you’ll have guests traveling to the reunion, the local branch of the family may be willing to put them up for a few days. Don’t be insulted if people prefer to arrange for an Airbnb or hotel, though, and be ready to help them find a place that’s safe and affordable. urges you to “suggest hotels and rental car agencies for your out of town relatives. Going the extra mile to make their planning and scheduling experience easier may really impact the final outcome as far as whether they will attend the event or not.”

Close up edge of colorful magazine stacking

Welcome Visitors

For those new to the area — or who’ve been away for years — gather local brochures and tourist information to give them a “Family Reunion Guide.” Include places they might like to visit outside the formal reunion events or highlight your favorite diner, hair salon, etc. so they’re not in the dark. As Real Simple notes, “Mark local maps with spots like coffee shops, walking trails, and bookstores for fidgety early risers or other folks who need to get out for a bit.”

Woman participates in video call with family
SDI Productions/istockphoto

Create a Buzz

Consider group emails or for the truly creative, a digital newsletter to keep all those on the guest list up on the latest developments. If you add an element to the event or want to spotlight someone who’s coming or share a bit of family history, updates will increase the anticipation and build the excitement. Author and blogger Marie Bostwick (“Fiercely Marie”), who has a background in event planning, suggests, “For families spread far and wide, consider creating a private Facebook group so you can keep everyone in the loop.”

People eating

Feed the People

The food might not be the main focus … who are we kidding? Don’t underestimate the importance of sharing a meal. Pull out a few beloved family recipes or serve an appetizer that reflects your heritage to add another level of meaning to the proceedings. The KOA (Kampground of America) blog suggests keeping in mind the venue, time of year and family heritage when planning the food that will be served. Having said that, it also suggests crowd-friendly options such as soup, bread and salads; grilled foods or a traditional barbecue; making it a potluck; a holiday feast for seasonal gathering; ordering pizza; creating an elaborate taco bar; or, yes, having it catered.       

Related: Barbecue Recipes and Tricks From Celebrity Chefs

Neck of wine bottles in a liquor store in Europe

Bar Any Trouble

To avoid any potential issues, decide if alcoholic beverages will be served. You’ll want to be sure no one overdoes it but also ensure that no one feels they missed out. Author and blogger Marie Bostwick (“Fiercely Marie”) cautions, “If you choose to serve alcohol at your reunion, think carefully about how plentiful and accessible you’d like it to be. On a hot summer day spent outdoors, it can be easy to over imbibe.” If you do serve alcohol, be sure to have plenty of alcohol-free options, as well.    

Related: 50 Refreshing Non-Alcoholic Drinks to Make for Summer

Creating childhood memories

Design Crowd-Pleasing Activities

Think about your audience. Will family members join in a pick-up football game or hop into the pool – or are they more suited to board games, cards or trivia? Make sure to have things on hand to keep the youngest attendees occupied, as well. The same goes for music and entertainment. As at a wedding, you’ll have an audience of diverse ages and tastes. As the KOA (Kampgrounds of America) blog notes, “The key to a successful family reunion is to offer activities that suit everyone.”

Happy childhood

Keep Kids in Mind

Speaking of younger relatives, decide if you’ll need to hire a babysitter so the adults can relax — or designate a few of the teens to keep their eyes open. Don’t take away their fun, but rely on their maturity (for part of the day) so parents can kick back a bit. As TravelMamas notes, “If you’re hoping your family reunion vacation will mean relief in terms of childcare, then be sure to make your wishes known before you leave home. You might hope your in-laws will watch the kiddos every other night, but this might make them feel stressed out. You’re better off discussing expectations in advance.”

Middle aged and senior neighbours talking at a block party

Lay Down Some Ground Rules

You no doubt hope everyone will be on his or her best behavior, but as any Thanksgiving battle survivor can attest, family gatherings can bring out the worst in some people. Let your guests know in advance that the reunion is designed to celebrate family, food and memories, not argue over politics or religion. The Tennessean noted in a holiday survival story — but the tip rings true for reunions, as well: “Regarding emotional boundaries, avoid discussing triggering topics and don’t repeat unhealthy communication patterns.”

Men and women sitting in a circle during group therapy, supporting each other.

Designate a Troubleshooter

If you have one relative who seems to get along with everyone, call on him or her to serve as the unofficial troubleshooter. They can make sure people are mingling, not fighting – and take care of any issues before they turn ugly. As JB Coaches notes, “Family gatherings can bring you and your family many cherished memories. However, there are often challenges when extended families get together.” Its tips range from “remembering the good times” to focusing on the food.

Backyard Celebration Tent

Reconfirm Final Details

As your event nears, re-confirm all that you need, from merchandise orders to food to any venues or people you may have hired. And keep in mind even the best-laid plans can unravel, so have a loose back-up plan in place to avoid “day-of” disasters. As Family Tree Magazine notes as one example: “If your reunion will be outside, reserve a pavilion that can accommodate all the attendees in case of unexpected weather. Pack a few board games or crafts the children can do indoors.”

Essential Items for Your First-Aid Kit

Never Forget Safety

Perhaps the most boring but also most important step is often neglected. No one wants to have an emergency, but be sure to have a first-aid kit, from bandages and aspirin to bug spray and sun protection, on hand. As notes, when planning a reunion consider not only dietary restrictions (you don’t want any allergic reactions), but also, “be sure that you have a first aid kit packed and you know the locations and phone numbers for the nearest emergency services. You never know when someone is going to have an accident and need a quick trip to the emergency room.”

bunch of nametags

Greet Your Guests

When the guests arrive, make sure to have either name tags — or help them feel welcome by making introductions. You can even create a game out of it, having individual families introduce themselves (have the child say “who’s who” in his or her family). According to ThoughtCo., icebreakers, “provide an easy way for people who do not know each other well to comfortably spend time together.” They’ll also get to know each other better by joining in common activities, from volleyball to Bingo — or even by playing a trivia game such as “Do You Really Know Your Family” ($25).

A table of party favors at a baby shower
Tiffany Green/istockphoto

Create a Swag Bag

Who hasn’t spotted someone wearing a “Smith Family Reunion” T-shirt at some point? Decide if you want to give out shirts, caps, mugs, key chains or other souvenirs to all who attend or even create some special trophies or prizes — emblazoned with the event — for those who win activities. For reunions that last longer than an afternoon, Better Homes & Gardens suggests a welcome bag that might include everything from nametags and event schedule to regional gifts such as a local favorite bread or candy, or more playful things such as temporary tattoos. “Ultimately, you can make your family reunion welcome bags as simple or as robust as you like.”

Family on a video chat while playing music at home - video chat
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Honor Those Absent

As nearly everyone has learned from the pandemic, you can still participate in events from afar. Consider arranging for a Zoom call for (or FaceTiming) those who cannot make the reunion. In addition, a reunion is a wonderful opportunity to honor someone who has passed. As the Green Envelope blog shares, “Sadly, not every relative will be able to attend your family reunion. Some may no longer be with us, and others might be unable to travel the distance. Find a beautiful way to include these loved ones in your reunion in some way… For loved ones who have passed, consider asking for everyone’s favorite photos of them to create a remembrance display at your reunion.”    

Related: 20 Ways for Older Relatives to Stay Connected With Loved Ones While Social Distancing

Lunch with dearest people

Chronicle the Fun

Like a wedding, baptism or other milestone, the first family reunion will be ideal for photo ops. Decide if you want to hire someone to chronicle the day — or simply want to have everyone submit their best selfies for a post-event scrapbook, be it a digital creation or old-fashioned photo book. You may even want to take Polaroid photos for an on-site family tree. Gathered Again offers a wealth of commemorative photo ideas from the classic “close-up shot” (everyone crowded together) to the “jump shot” (with everyone captured mid-air). 

girl in a gray jacket is sitting on the sofa and looking at old photos in a photo album
Olga Ihnatsyeva/istockphoto

Recommit to Preserving History

Sadly, as families grow up and apart, sometimes traditions fade. Think about what you found special as a child (perhaps the adults reminiscing over fruit and nuts after dinner while the kids played, pulling out baby photos or singing favorite folk songs) — and try to incorporate that into the day. As the KAO (Kampgrounds of America) blog notes, “Family reunions give your family a chance to learn about your ancestry as well. If your family has any cultural traditions, highlight them at your gathering. Celebrate what makes your family unique.”

Close-up of parent and child holding hands while saying grace before a meal.
Drazen Zigic/istockphoto

Create New Traditions

Since you’ll likely hope the first reunion will lead to more — if not spearheaded by you but maybe another relative — think about creating “reunion traditions.” You may have someone offer a poem or prayer, have all in attendance share what they like best about being part of the family or sharing a beloved childhood memory. Author and blogger Marie Bostwick (“Fiercely Marie”) suggests this: “Have some of the grandkids interview the elders of your tribe. They’ll share their best stories, a few secrets, and impart all kinds of wisdom. The results will be cherished for years.”

Senior Group Reunion Celebration in Mexico

Remember to Have Fun

Sure, planning a reunion can be stressful — but there are countless rewards, from special conversations with someone you haven’t seen in years to jokes that will become part of family lore for years to come. As Southern Living notes, “All in all, family reunions and homecomings are about catching up with faraway loved ones and celebrating the ties that keep you together, with good food and even better company.”

Woman's hand holding closed envelopes

Review the Proceedings

Hopefully, as people leave, they will tell you how much they enjoyed the event. Feel free to be playful by putting out a “suggestion box.” suggests further formalizing the process by sending out a survey a week after the reunion, focusing on, “questions about what they thought worked and what they could have lived without. You won’t make everyone happy with all the events but so long as most of the people ended up happy, you did just fine.”