How to plan a perfect family reunion

How to plan a perfect family reunion

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How to plan a perfect family reunion

Get the whole family in on planning—and enjoying—your best get-together ever.

Tossing water-filled balloons in a contest to see which pair of kids can avoid bursting them; a picnic table laden with savoury steamed buns from Chinatown; cases of chilled soda cans stacked on the grass; the din of grown-ups agreeing and disagreeing in Cantonese – these are my fond childhood memories of Mah family picnics.

What's the best part of having a family reunion? Share your best reunion memory with other readers in the comments section below!

Today, I recognize the thoughtful prep that went into these Chinese-Canadian reunions on my mom's side of the family. Various Mahs divided the tasks, some hauling provisions to Toronto's High Park, while, months before, other family members had placed a web of phone calls across southern Ontario to beckon the clan – and that was all for just an informal midsummer picnic.

In fact, more Canadians travel for the purpose of visiting family than for any other reason, according to Statistics Canada. And great reunions start with great planning – so why not gather everyone this summer and make your own family memories? Here's how to plan one from scratch.

Getting started
Start early: Whether your reunion is for 25 or 250, plan well in advance. "Take a year to plan it so everyone has a chance to help out with the decisions," advises Susan Steen-Turkington, visitor services coordinator for Tourism Red Deer in Alberta, who attends two family reunions a year. A year of organizing sounds like a long time, but it gives everyone ample time to plan around the event – and gives you ample time to contact everyone. The Steen family, with 75 members ranging from newborn to 82 years old, makes picking a day easy by setting the dates in stone, choosing the last Wednesday of June to kick off their annual week-long camping event.

Create a website
"A reunion website is usually started six to 10 months before the reunion," says Rob Hirscheimer, president of, a Montreal-based online service that helps members easily create a personalized reunion website for $10 to $15 per month. "It's a great way to increase attendance and build interest," he says. "When relatives see all the great plans [you are] putting together, they tend to consider the reunion more seriously."

Get organized
Choose a committee and delegate. Remember, you don't have to be the webmaster, meal coordinator, treasurer, location scout and greeter – enlist help from your extended family. Delegate according to interests: Teens can collaborate through social networking by creating a Facebook group for the event, and the family accounting whiz can be the treasurer and organize RSVPs with a computer spreadsheet. Also, if your mom keeps in touch with elderly relatives who might not use the Internet, she can spread the word to them.

Pick a place
If possible, survey family members via email to find out how much money they can spend and what type of setting they prefer. "Choose what suits the majority," says Steen-Turkington. "You can't please everyone, but do the best you can without losing all your hair," she jokes. Don't forget to consider the needs of the elderly and anyone with limited mobility. Steen-Turkington's maternal family, the Storchs, holds reunions in a hall to accommodate relatives in wheelchairs. Also be sure to check for deals: Resorts and hotels often offer group rates. And many tourism boards, convention centres and visitors bureaus have staff members like Steen-Turkington who can help to steer you in the right direction.

Plan events
Decide whether you want lots of structure, with organized sports events, for instance, or whether your family prefers a low-key gathering where everyone chats over comfort food. Either way, keep kids busy with fun games (for unique ideas, check out "Summer Games for Kids" at Steen-Turkington's reunions include a Family Amazing Race. "Kids are asked questions about the family, like who's whose husband or wife, and they have to put us in order of birthdate. Once they get it right, they get the next clue and run to the next station," she says. "This keeps the kids busy and the adults, too, because we have to man the clue stations." The fastest team gets a cupful of jelly beans.

Some families fund future get-togethers with silent auctions, bake sales and other fund-raising activities built into the reunion day's events. During a multiday event, people may want to explore their surroundings, so compile a list of cultural and shopping destinations in the area.

Collect money
If you're renting a venue, be sure to get funds from relatives up front., for example, allows invitees to securely pay in advance with credit cards. Encourage prepayment by offering an early-bird discount. "You can offer your relatives a lower price if they pay by a [certain] date, and if they don't pay by then, the price goes up by 15 or 20 per cent, for example," says Hirscheimer. "It's a good tactic to try to get people not to procrastinate and pay for their commitment."

No money? No problem. While some family reunions take place on deluxe cruises, you can still have a great time on a small-to-nonexistent budget (my family certainly did). Although travelling members of the family will have to pay transportation and accommodation costs, setting a date as far in advance as you can and spreading the word will allow them more time to find deals on anything from airfare to hotel rooms. Potluck meals or pizza parties, gathering at public parks (be sure to pick a rain date), or even holding the reunion at a family member's home are all ways to keep costs down.

Reunion day
Hurray, the day has arrived! Time to roll out your plans. One last thing to consider is a tip from Doug O'Neill, our executive editor, who has been to his fair share of reunions: "If it's a fairly large family reunion, you're bound to get new members – who've recently married into the clan – and long-lost relatives who've driven up from New Brunswick." Doug suggests appointing greeters – the extroverts of the family might relish this task – to welcome the newbies.

Finally, enjoy. Big or small, luxurious or down-home, reunions are a chance to celebrate what's important in life: family.

Reunion timeline
One year to 10 months ahead:
- Collect email addresses, telephone numbers and mailing addresses
- Survey family as to how much to spend, and where to celebrate

Ten to six months ahead:
- Create a website
- Create an organizing committee
- Decide upon a location
- Choose meals
- Update relatives

Six to three months ahead:
- Collect money
- Arrange photography
- Plan games
- Organize decorations

Three months before:
- Update website
- Send reminders to everyone, as there may be last-minute joiners
- Encourage procrastinators to pay up
- Have committee finalize outstanding details
- Appoint greeters

Meet up for the big day!

Family reunion dos and don'ts
- Do consider holding the event near a common family home or homestead, if applicable to your family. People enjoy revisiting their past.
- Don't forget about photography, videography and decorations.
- Do make sure children are under the supervision of a group of adults at all times, especially if you are near water (in fact, assign specific kids to each adult).
- Do honour your heritage and history, be it through food or activities such as storytelling or arts and crafts.
- Don't take the decision to serve alcohol lightly.
- Do encourage mapping out the family tree during the event – what better setting could there be?
- Don't resent others who don't do as much as you do, or it will ruin your day. Let it slide, says Steen-Turkington.
- Do keep the reunion going after the event by posting photos on your website or sending out a newsletter.

Fond memories of great family reunions
"Our clan gathers every two years for a family reunion, and about 150 to 200 people attend. For some relatives who live far away, it's one of their few family connections. Just before dinner, we take a few moments to remember those we've lost in the preceding two years, along with an introduction of those we've gained – be it the babies, a new daughter-in-law or someone newly engaged. It allows us to reflect on the renewal of family, the beauty of a life cycle that replenishes that wonderful gift: the love of family."
- Alain Gingras, Hull, Que.

"Each August, when our family gathers for the annual picnic, we take a photograph of the youngest and oldest members of the family together. Sometimes it's a great-uncle and a little grandniece, or my grandmother pictured with my second cousin's daughter."
- Helen Altobello, Montreal

"We have the Clarence-Margaret platter. It's a basic ceramic platter with the names of our great-grandparents, the two folks who started this clan. The names of each of their seven children are painted on this plate. Each year, we draw a name out of a hat and one family member gets to take the platter home – but must use it on a regular basis. It's not meant to sit untouched in the china cabinet. It's practical. Just like my pioneering great-grandparents who came to this country with few extras. If it gets chipped, it's chipped. It's a platter well-lived. Like our great-grandparents, it has a life well-lived."
- Marg Johnson, Ottawa

Want to plan your own big family reunion? Visit for your chance to win 1 of 3 Catelli Family Reunion Experiences valued at approximately $10,000 each. To celebrate its shared 150th birthday, Catelli is saying thanks to Canadian families with the this gift of togetherness. Contest runs from February 28 to April 4 and is open to Canadian residents only.


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How to plan a perfect family reunion