Whom to invite: Everyone, ideally. After all, sometimes it’s the random second cousin you never thought would show up who ends up being the life of the party. If you can’t include every branch of the family tree, “the general rule of thumb is that you should decide the parameters first―whether you’ll invite first cousins, second cousins, or beyond―then include everyone that falls under that umbrella,” says Haltzman.
When to start planning: Set a date as early as possible, preferably a year in advance. Families with school-age children generally need to plan around the school schedule.
How long it should last: For an annual reunion, a weekend will suffice. If reunions don’t occur as regularly, plan a few extra days for those who can stay longer. But remember: “The longer a reunion lasts, the more space you should have to spread out,” says Scott Haltzman, a psychiatrist and the author of The Secrets of Happy Families ($25, amazon.com). “I don’t recommend sharing a small cabin if it’s a weeklong event.”
How to organize it: Pick a point person from each nuclear family so that wires don’t get crossed, and take an informal survey of what people are willing to spend and when they would like to go. For help in organizing your party—down to finding vendors and designing special T-shirts—try Punchbowl.com.
2 of 5Rob Howard
Choosing Your Reunion Style
The Home-Hosted Affair
Best for: Smaller groups, families with elderly relatives, or families concentrated in one geographic area.
Pros: Almost everyone saves money.
Cons: One family can get stuck footing the bulk of the bill. Collect cash before the event, or hold a raffle or a silent auction at the reunion with each family contributing something of value, whether it’s a homemade quilt or a framed painting. The hostess can then use the money to replenish her pantry, pay the caterer, or enlist a maid service to help with the cleanup.
Where to go: Ultimately, wherever someone is willing to host. If that someone is you, take heart in the fact that not everything has to take place in your living room. Give yourself a well-deserved break by planning a few activities―volleyball, tennis―at a local park (see if you need a permit). If you have more than one option, it can pay to check out the airline hubs that various family members live near.
Dealing with downtime: 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. “It’s important to remember your limits as far as togetherness goes and to know that everyone needs his privacy at some point,” says Laurie Bisig, a family-travel veteran based in Louisville, Kentucky.
Organizing meals: If a majority of the guests live within an hour’s drive, consider a potluck. If you do choose to cook most of the food, see Reunion Menu Planner. And buy more ingredients than you think you’ll need; it’s easy to run out of food when you’re not used to cooking for 40 (and who is?). If ordering in, consider a caterer, or tell the restaurant how many people you’re ordering for. They can assess how much food you’ll need for a large party.
3 of 5Emily Nathan
The All-Inclusive Package
Best for: People who are allergic to planning or talking about money.
Pros: No one person gets stuck bearing the whole burden of organizing, and all the financial awkwardness is removed, since each family pays up front for everything (lodging, food, drinks, child care). Because group decision making is at a minimum, a lot of potential friction is eliminated. “At an all-inclusive resort, the group is not going to have to decide about where to eat, what to do for fun, and who’s in charge,” says Haltzman. Bonus: “If the activities end up being a disappointment, the blame lies on strangers,” says Jeremy Greenberg, author of Relative Discomfort: The Family Survival Guide ($15, amazon.com).
Cons: Some family members may feel cooped up at an all-inclusive. In many cases (on a cruise, say), families can’t tailor the length of their stay to their budgets or vacation time, says Suzette Mack, a family-travel specialist based in San Jose, California. And for some families the cost of the entire trip can be hard to swallow.
Where to go: Many cruise lines offer special services for family reunions, as do some beach resorts and ranches. Carnival Cruise Lines (carnival.com) offers free event-planning assistance before departure and can provide private parties in lounges and dining rooms on a ship (from $2.50 a person for coffee, tea, and cookies to $38 a person for a two-hour affair with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres). Norwegian Cruise Line (ncl.com) offers group rates for families booking eight or more staterooms, plus a cocktail party, passes for on-board bowling, and other perks. If your family is less obsessed with sun and sea, a deluxe dude-ranch trip can fit the bill. The Red Horse Mountain Ranch (redhorsemountain.com), in Harrison, Idaho, offers private cabins, meals, cocktail hours, horseback riding, fishing, and kids’ activities from $1,718 per adult for a one-week stay. (The entire ranch can be reserved at a reduced rate for groups of more than 30.) Tip: Don’t count out international destinations; they can be cheaper and easier to reach than some domestic spots. Mack likes the Riviera Maya, in Mexico, for its kid-friendly resorts.
Dealing with downtime: The primary entertainment is provided by the cruise, the resort, or the ranch. But pick a few events over the course of the trip that almost everyone will want to participate in, or have sign-up sheets for different events that people can attend together to help retain the reunion feel.
Organizing meals: Fortunately, this is not your problem. To get the most out of the mess-hall (or banquet-room) experience, however, consider mixing up the nightly seating arrangements so that everyone gets to mingle.
4 of 5David Tsay
The Great-Outdoors Reunion
Best for: Camping fanatics, the cash-strapped.
Pros: It’s low-cost, and everyone can choose lodging that fits his own budget.
Cons: “National parks tend to book six months in advance, so that requires early planning,” warns Mack. Access can be difficult, too, as many parks are several hours away from a major airport. And if bad weather strikes, you could face several long days of playing Go Fish.
Where to go: If you can reserve a spot in time, national parks are a great bet, as most offer year-round activities for kids. The nationwide chain of KOA campground facilities (koa.com) provides another affordable option. Most offer cabins, RV hookups, and no-frills campsites to suit any level of outdoorsmanship; many also have swimming pools and other amenities on-site. The Newburgh, New York, location, in particular, throws in arts and crafts, basketball courts, and nighttime movies and offers a full-service reunion-planning package with activities, outings, and meals orchestrated specially for your group (from $87 a night for a cabin for four; reunion extras not included). Church-retreat grounds, like the Windermere Baptist Conference Center (windermereusa.org), in Roach, Missouri, are another alternative and have abundant outdoor activities (think cave tours, hiking trails, and parasailing) and the facilities to feed groups (motel-style lodging from $66 a night per family, with basic cabins for less and luxe lodges for more; three meals a day for $20 a head; some recreation costs are extra). Even the YMCA has reunion-appropriate destinations: The YMCA of the Rockies (ymcarockies.org), in Estes Park, Colorado, offers hotel-style lodging and family cabins and can arrange campfires, meals, and activities just for your clan (from $119 a night for a cabin for four; reunion extras not included).
Dealing with downtime: Be sure to bring plenty of board games, puzzles, and books to carry you through any foul-weather days. Or create a conversation-sparking deck of cards that features a family photo (about $20 a deck at shutterfly.com or kodakgallery.com).
Organizing meals: For meals not provided by the facility, designate each family to be the provider of a different meal for the whole group―whether it’s cooked over the campfire or trucked in from the nearest takeout joint.
5 of 5Diane Cook and Len Jenshel
The Destination Vacation
Best for: Families that need a little extra motivation to get together or families who have trouble getting time off work and need the reunion to double as a vacation.
Pros: The base price will probably be lower than for a cruise or an all-inclusive resort. Families can tailor their accommodations or length of stay to their schedules and budgets.
Cons: More of the burden of planning activities rests on you. You’re on your own for meals.
Where to go: Look for a destination with a wealth of entertainment opportunities for all types of interests. Mack likes San Diego for its mix of family-friendly attractions (the zoo, Sea World), great year-round weather, beach activities, and fine dining. Even a resort that is not all-inclusive, like the Atlantis in Paradise Island (atlantis.com), in the Bahamas, can be a good compromise, since families can choose which features they want to shell out for ($179 a night per person for four nights; kids under 11 stay free). “Over the past few years, we have seen a marked change in the numbers of large family groups traveling together,” says Lauren Snyder, CMO, Atlantis, Paradise Island Resorts. “As a result, we’ve upgraded our connecting rooms and created a Family Olympics program for large groups, including events on the beach and trophies for the winning team.”
Other factors to consider: Choosing a location you can navigate on foot relieves a lot of the logistics and the expense tied to carpooling, parking, and arranging designated drivers. Wherever you stay, be sure to book accommodations that have large communal areas that people can gather in. For the best rates on multiple-room reservations, book through Groople.com, a group-travel site.
Dealing with downtime: Designate someone to bring along a portable DVD player or a laptop and several family-friendly movies for times when the adults are content to “just talk” and the kids are dying of boredom.
Organizing meals: Do research in advance to find local restaurants that are friendly to large groups, and make some reservations. You don’t want to be stuck in a strange city trying to find a table for 40 on a Friday night.