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Family Reunion Planning Guide


Reunions are planned and organized by families every year throughout North-America. While the scale of such reunions can vary greatly depending on the family, planning and co-ordinating such an event draws on the same resources, benefits and methodology as organizing a wedding or a conference. Knowing what you want, being prepared and well organized can save money, labour, can help to avoid unpleasant surprises and clear the way for a memorable and successful event for the organizers and participants. So where does one begin?

If this is your extended family’s first reunion, then it would be appropriate to ask why you are having this event in the first place. This may sound like a naive question, but in fact, the answers to this first question will allow you to set the main goals of this event. If this is not your family’s first reunion, then you are building on some previous experience. It is always easier to design something from a previous blueprint. After all, that is what family history is all about: researching the events of the past and building on the traditions of those who came before us.

Planning an event of this kind cannot be done in a vacuum. If your reunion is a “premier”, then there must have been something that prompted you and your supporters to think this was a good idea, one that could serve some purpose. Perhaps is it based on telephone conversations with other family members, both near and far, or it may be the result of feedback from correspondence or e-mail messages revealing a broad interest in your family’s history. It may be from talking to neighbours or co-workers who have attended and enjoyed a similar event in their family community.

If you are speaking to someone who has attended such an event, then you should be taking notes and asking a great many questions. Perhaps documents pertaining to the event are still available for consultation. What was done, what worked, what didn’t?

Setting Common Goals

An earlier reference to planning a wedding or a conference speaks to the purpose of your event. Most people associate a wedding with a good time, it is a solemn occasion to honour and celebrate a couple’s joint venture, or a welcome excuse to just have a fun time. A conference, on the other hand, aims to inform, to inspire and to make collective decisions about the course a collective want to take for the future.

If you are planning a major family reunion for the summer of next year, then your planning should already have begun, because you have a lot of work ahead of you. Planning an event of this magnitude at least one year in advance is not unreasonable. It can be difficult to book community space. Hotels, banquet facilities and community halls are reserved well in advance for festivities of all kinds.

When setting common goals, a good place to start is to ask yourself a few fundamental questions:

  • Is the primary focus of this reunion to inform your participants, or is it to entertain?
  • Is this reunion the first step in a series of measures to build a following over the long term?
  • Is this event a shot in the dark, or is there clear evidence of broad interest or support for what you are about to undertake?

If your answer to all these questions is yes, then one thing is certain: you are going to need help, that means a planning team.

Building the perfect planning team

If you have ever recruited employees or volunteers, then you know that building a team that works requires more than enthusiasm. It is a matter of matching the right person to the appropriate task. It is best to delegate responsibility to those best suited for the job, those who have the skills to pull it off, unless you are prepared to offer on the job training. This is not often practical, and can drain your energies which are needed elsewhere, such as, focusing on the big picture.

Start by bringing interested parties together for a brainstorming session where you will be able to assess their skills and past experiences. Encourage your team members to work in pairs, that way it is possible to match an individual with lesser experience or knowledge of the task with someone who is stronger. This allows you to reward the person’s enthusiasm without jeopardizing the mission. Pairing human resources also insures continuity and cover-off in event someone is forced to drop out of the project for personal reasons. Let your team members come up with a theme and tentative programme for your event. Don’t forget to consider location, date, day of the week, duration, cost and a hundred other things, You would be amazed at the ideas a group of people can come up with through social interaction and free association.

Defining the Game Plan

The composition of your planning team depends on the tasks to be performed. You need to break-up the plan into manageable pieces, like publicity, co-ordination of specific events, accomodation, meal preparation, entertainment, registration, security and so on. The number of team leaders depends on the scale or complexity of the event. Will food be served at the event? Will the full cost be born by participants in cash at the event, or will the cost be partly off-set by registration revenues? Will participants purchase vouchers in advance? Will volunteers prepare and serve the food, or will you have certain events catered by a third party?
It is perhaps becoming clearer to you, how a family reunion spread over a weekend with expectations of attracting at least a hundred people can be a major undertaking. Some family reunions can attract from 300 participants to a thousand or more. So plan wisely and leave nothing to chance.

Your planning team needs to identity each component of the event and to describe how it relates to the big picture. Obviously, a two-day event means that participants not from the region will need accomodation. Here, a number of options are possible. You can have your participants look after their own accomodations, providing them with a list of nearby hotels or motels, you may offer to book them all into the same hotel as an added service for a modest deposit, or you can combine this with an offer to billet participants with families who are committed to the event. Billeting has the advantage of stimulating social interaction and information exchange before and throughout the duration of the event.

Money Matter$

If you are planning to host an event with a balanced budget, then you need to get a firm hand on the costs of its various components. Some things you may be able to do without, other items or services may be obtained free of charge. Like any budget, your committee needs to balance all the costs against the various sources of revenue. You must determine what your registration fee will be and what it will include. If it is not your sole source of revenue, then you will be able to adjust the fee so as to give good value for the price without dampening peoples enthusiasm. For starters, let us consider the revenue side of the equation. It should not be too difficult to survey the family reunion market to determine what is a reasonable benchmark as a registration fee and what it can include. Conference budgets could provide useful information because of the many areas of overlapping interests.
Let us consider some additional sources of revenue. Prior to the family reunion, the host city with the greatest number of extended family members could have a fund-raising event to get the ball rolling. It could be a casino night, a bingo, an auction, an amateur talent night with or without kareoke, or athletic games between competing families. Other sources of revenue at the reunion itself could include draws which could include prizes donated by participants, volunteers or local businesses, such as, a painting, a quilt, antiques, a weekend vacation for two, etc. Daily barbecues or baked goods could be prepared and sold by volunteers throughout the course of the event, a gift or souvenir shop can be set up to sell commemorative t-shirts or other novelties.

You may want to check with your local municipality to obtain the necessary permits for such fund-raising activities, especially if you are using public space like a community centre or a city park. Conference organizers frequently approach large and smaller businesses about donating goods and services in exchange for some visible recognition.

On the spending side of the equation, including meals in your programme could dramatically affect the cost of your event, but what are the alternatives? Local residents may prefer returning home for main meals, and out-of-town visitors may want to visit some of the local eateries. Consider offering the mid-day meal on the site, a barbecue, picnic or a cold buffet type of offering. It is important to keep participants on the site as much as possible, since it provides the context for information exchange and social interaction. For reunions of a longer duration, consider catering at least one evening meal. You may be able to offer your guests discount coupons from some local restaurants. Those residents billeting participants will also be able to share meals with their guests.

Accomodation is another expensive element which is best left to the discretion of your participants. As mentioned earlier, you can assist your guests with some of these arrangements.

Communication and Public Relations

The backbone of any organization or event planning is effective communication. This will be happening at two levels: you must assure that your planning team members are clear on what is expected of them and that they are updating other team members with progress reports, secondly, you must have regular communiqués with your participants before, during and after the event, Thirdly, you may wish to send out press releases to the media if you wish to draw broader community attention to your event.

From the outset, your planning team should set-up a regular schedule of meetings with a tentative agenda. Minutes of your meetings should be recorded, It is not necessary to record everything verbatim. It is only important to track the decisions taken by the group, and action items, tasks delegated to team members, with realistic deadlines for completion.

Early communication with potential participants is critical to the success of your event. There are a variety of ways this can be done. If you have information on the distribution or dispersion patterns of your ancestors and their living relatives, it will be easier to target the appropriate media. Local newspaper ads are a good way of reaching a broad readership and being noticed. Press releases can also be sent out to the community channel of the local cable network, as well as to the local radio stations. A mailing list can be generated from known relatives, but other prospects can be found using a national telephone directory, such as, Sympatico’s 411 (on the web) which will list family name, address and telephone numbers. Granted, many of the “Smiths” in the directory will not be a part of the desired “lineage”, but the extra postage is not likely to harm your efforts, but it will affect your bank account.

If you have a team member who is highly computer savy, or who is capable of designing a website or a page dedicated to your event, then this can provide an added advantage. For those who are connected to the internet, regular updates can be posted on the site, and global e-mail messages can be sent out to all prospects at once, but be advised that many people and some ISPs (internet service providers) take a dim view of spamming (global unsolicited e-mail messaging). There is an existing service available on the internet for this purpose which will find useful at www, Many genealogical sites also provide this community service. By using the world wide web, persons unrelated to the event may be instrumental in spreading the word. The value of both web advertizing and news spread by word of mouth is that it is free.

The Home Family Survey

Once you have developed a solid list of family prospects for your event you should send everyone a covering letter spelling out the purpose of the event. You could include a one or two page survey to find out their interests, their needs and whether they are willing to volunteer some time at the event, or if they can offer some expertise. Someone in this group may be a competent genealogical researcher, or photographer, an entertainer, a storyteller. There are a great many things you will want to know from the survey.

In your covering letter, you will want to give families all the good reasons why participating in this event will benefit them. Provide some of the positive achievements of your ancestors and some humourous anecdotes. Stress that you need their knowledge and participation to complete the gaps in the family tree, that it will be educational and a fun time for the whole family. Among the things you will want to know from your potential participants are such questions as: are they interested in participating, How much are they prepared to pay? What special skills can they offer? How many people will they be bringing? Will they need billeting, What are the age of the children attending? Are any special dietary needs or medical concerns you can prepare for, etc?.

Your planning team can think of many more relevant questions which will make your job easier and contribute to a successful event. It is also important to encourage respondants to return their surveys within a reasonable time frame. You may want to offer a small discount for early pre-registration.

The family home survey is a mechanism which should become part of an on-going feedback process. You will want to know how you are doing during the event in meeting peoples expectations, therefore, a suggestion or comment box would be useful, and you will most certainly want to conduct an evaluation at the completion to assess your participants’ level of satisfaction. This will also provide you with an all important mailing list, should you decide to follow-up with a family newsletter. The information provided by the surveys will have to be collated and communicated to the other members of the planning team so that measures can be taken to address the needs and issues identified by participants. You should plan to provide every opportunity for families to register up-to and at the event. Your initial communiqué should be followed by subsequent mailings to encourage prospects to register early so you can plan effectively.

The Spirit Of Our Ancestors

There is more to a family gathering than genealogy. When we honour our ancestors, we draw attention to some common thread we share with previous generations, while at the same time recognizing our differences. In a rapidly changing world, and an increasingly globalized culture, a common ground of shared values is not obvious to everyone. History is barely present in our schools, and tradition is often associated with something old and out of date. Breathing life into the past should not be the sole realm of Hollywood producers or fiction writers. Educators teach us that learning is much to do with social interaction and affective expression than memorization.

Your planning team will want to offer some workshops on your family’s history, to help fill-in some of the gaps, and to show participants how to conduct genealogical research on their own. There are a great many freelance researchers advertizing on the web, or members of local societies who can be hired to conduct workshops or do research. They can be invited to your event and offered a small honorarium. However, making family history interesting to young people may require some additional measures.

Games People Play

If your event is planned for the summer months, you may wish to consider hosting an old fashion garden party, where some of your participants or volunteers may be pursuaded to dress-up in period costumes (which can be rented) to provide atmosphere. To entertain the whole family, consider incorporating a few games. Historical artifacts in our possession or those borrowed from a community museum can serve as the subject of a quiz to test people imagination or knowledge of common implements or tools used by previous generations. Small prizes can be offered to the winners. The reunion could host a contest featuring photos of family ancestors, or the most interesting family videoclip with judges recruited from your participants. In such cases, it is clear that attendees will have to be advised so that they are prepared and bring along the required source material.

On the subject of photography, it is preferable to designate someone as the official event photographer, a skilled amateur or a semi-professional who could volunteer his or her services. On the other hand, a studio representative could be recruited to come in on the last day of the event to provide family photos of participants for a fee. This would provide memorable souvenirs and momentos for the future. With today’s digital technology, it is possible to set up a booth to provide customized printed t-shirts at the event commemorating a family’s participation using a digital camera to capture events, or using existing photos supplied by guests.

If you are speaking to someone who has attended such an event, then you should be taking notes and asking a great many questions. Perhaps documents pertaining to the event are still available for consultation. What was done, what worked, what didn’t?

Honouring and Evaluating the Event

A family reunion is an event worth honouring and recognizing. Your guests and participants should not leave without some momento commemorating the occasion. Promotional novelties are simple to personalize and can be relatively inexpensive such as t-shirts, emblazoned coffee mugs, fridge magnets, coasters, pins, pens or bookmarks. The more durable the item, the more mileage you will get for your investment. Less expensive items can be given away, especially if you have the participation of a sponsor, but the more expensive items can be cost recovered through their sale to visitors.

A list of attendees should be made available with e-mail addresses, so that friendships forged at the event can be continued by correspondence. A newsletter honouring the event is an effective way to sustain interest, supported by photo coverage of the reunion which will provide visual recall and evidence of its success. Feedback obtained from participants during and after the event should also figure within the newsletter, along with resources to help families with their research on ancestors and living relatives. A permanent website could also be developed to sustain interest in ancestry, family identity and to celebrate past achievements and future projects. Every successful family reunion is usually followed by another event after some lapse of time, be it five years or ten years.

It is also very important to bring your planning team together after the event to discuss what went well and what could have been improved. An evaluation form could be a part of your programme kit given to participants, to be filled out before their return home. If you also had sponsors, media or municipal officials participating in the event, you should also obtain their feelings or impressions of the reunion. If they were pleased with the results, it will be much easier to obtain their support a second time. A scrapbook of media coverage is also a good idea.

Loyalist crossingPalatine emigrantsAlex Casselman, wife Albina, son Paul Hubert and worker, circa 1929Loyalist townships of eastern OntarioMap of Casselmans' ancestral originCasselman Coat of Arms