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Professional Planning for Family Reunions: These Pros Aren't Just for Weddings

Time is a precious commodity. We live in an era where people are busy and barely talk to their families, except for the occasional cell phone call or Webcam session. This distance we create can be remedied by the family reunion, an event that is making an enormous comeback these days -- with more than 200,000 planned nationwide last year alone. Yesterday's family reunion comprised a barbecue in the park or in someone's backyard with cans of beer in big, ice-filled washtubs and plastic-lined tables covered with platters of potato salads, weird noodle salads, and of course Jell-O salads speckled with marshmallows. But nowadays, relatives in charge of the festivities are pulling out all the stops, and the new family reunion has become an event that comprises several different activities in a weekend -- brunches, cookouts, and softball competitions are just the start. Families are touring museums, taking adventure outings like mountain biking or horseback riding, and sitting down to formal dinners.

The new family reunion is much like a wedding in size, scope, and activities, with an enormous to-do list and hundreds of people to contact. And just like a wedding, more families are bringing in professional planners to handle all the details. After all, an expert knows the best locations, caterers, musicians, and photographers. They can even find better sources for those personalized family reunion T-shirts that are usually found online. It just makes sense to hire one of the pros. They can not only save you time and money on the event, but bring creative ideas to your family's gathering.

The Benefit of Experience

Wedding and event coordinator Randie Pellegrini says that a professional event coordinator can arrange for activities, meals, and memory-making moments that most in-family coordinators don't have the experience to dream up. "And beyond the planning details, which can get very involved, there's the benefit of having a professional there at the event to troubleshoot anything that might go differently than planned," says Pellegrini. "A party expert has a Plan B and a Plan C ready to go. If a vendor doesn't show up, a professional planner will know what to do, whereas a family member planner might be completely lost and panicked. Even if you were to assign tasks to relatives, such as running a game or bringing out the desserts, people always seem to get pulled away by their kids or distracted by something else. A professional planner will be there to handle everything and keep everything calm, not to mention keep your activities flowing." As the 'strangers' or 'authority figures,' coordinators are more likely to be respected when they make the announcement that it's time for a family photo. The event will flow more smoothly with a professional in charge.

"In the planning stages, an event coordinator will bring up topics that the family 'team' might not have thought about," she says. "Like making sure the site they want is handicapped-accessible, or that the older relatives will be inside with air conditioning, out of the summer heat. Will there be sight- or hearing-impaired guests who have special needs? What about a special play area for kids?"

Planning on a Budget

Relatives in charge of family reunions are most interested in budget-saving ideas to make it more affordable for all of their guests to attend, and the organization factor is a big issue for busy families. A professional can take care of tracking RSVPs and payments received, arranging lodging for guests, and planning special group dinners or late-night cocktail parties for the younger crowd. "And then there's the matter of contracts and legalities," says Pellegrini. "An events expert knows how to read and negotiate vendor contracts, so that your order is complete and delivered on time, sparing you any extra charges, and making sure your rights are protected."

She says that an events coordinator can look at where your relatives live, and suggest the perfect location for the reunion. It might be a town where the majority of the relatives live, or someplace unique and adventurous at a mid-point destination. "Events coordinators have often worked at the best locations, and have contacts there. They know the best parts of the city and the best-priced restaurants, so that you don't have to go by trial-and-error. Plus, we tend to suggest locales that offer a lot of attractions for an unforgettable family weekend."

Working with a professional planner for your family reunion nets you all sorts of advantages in time, money, wisdom, and creative touches for your day, so here are the top places we recommend to find the best experts.

1. Through a professional event planners' organization, like the Association of Bridal Consultants ( and the International Special Events Society (, two groups where member coordinators receive constant news on the latest trends in family parties, as well as adhere to strict rules of ethical conduct and professionalism.

2. The social and events planners at the resort you have in mind. These experts have planned hundreds if not thousands of events on their own grounds, and they will work with you to create the perfect menu and activities using the resort's many amenities. You may learn from them about nearby attractions or upcoming festivals and sporting establishments that are just a short ride away. Also, the transportation to these events may be free using the resort's guest shuttles.

3. City tourism departments and visitors' centers. Tourism bureaus are getting into the family reunion business, bringing groups of 100 to 200 relatives together in their cities, offering them the royal treatment, and helping them choose the best elements for their celebrations. In some cases, you'll be able to work with your own event coordinator on staff at the department.

Wherever you find your planning expert -- and we do recommend that you stick with planners who belong to professional associations or work on-site at a resort -- remember that it's all about your wishes and ideas to complement your family's style. An expert is there to make your plans come to life, not to decide on every element for you.

Details, Details...

When you're ready to talk to a professional planner, make sure you come prepared with details. "A good planner will want to know what your goals are for the event, such as family mingling time or North vs. South competitions as so many families do," says Pellegrini. "What's your budget? What kinds of limitations do you have as far as time, only having Saturday and Sunday as opposed to planning a Friday night event too? What's the number of kids in each age range, and how many elderly guests will you have? Are there a lot of preteens who need different activities than the younger children? Will your guests be driving in or flying in, and will we need to make arrangements for their transportation to the hotel? Will any of your guests need Internet access for work?"

Other information to have handy includes: What type of lodging will your guests be most comfortable with? Some relatives only stay at luxury hotels and would be miserable at a budget lodge. "What's your family's activity level? Are they the types to always be on the go, preferring back-to-back events, or do they like to have a lot of downtime to just hang out by the pool?"

You'll need to cater your itinerary to a lot of different personality types. A professional can help you plan multiple events to suit your crowd, such as a fancy dinner out and dancing 'til dawn for some, while others enjoy a family-style meal that they all cooked together in someone's home. "For many families, the home-cooked meal is a tradition that transports them to a happy time in the past, and they want their kids to participate," says Pellegrini. "So your professional planner can take care of the shopping list according to your recipes, and get you anything you might need to prepare and serve the meal." A pro will work with you on your menu, getting the best catering options, and planning specialty meals such as vegetarian, kosher, low-sodium, or allergy-restricted. All the details you'll be glad to have someone else worrying about, so that you can relax and enjoy the company of your relatives.

Reunions for a New Generation

The next generation is taking over family reunions, and they've discovered that in the long run a professional planner can actually save money. It's like having a friend with insider secrets, someone with time to devote to your requests and details, and a mediator who will talk to stubborn cousin Sarah or fire a caterer who's not returning calls. 

"And one of the top perks of a professional planner," says Pellegrini, "is the hiring of photographers and videographers to capture every moment, your relatives' life stories, and provide them all in print or on DVD. That's the essence of a fabulous family reunion -- sharing amazing family memories in a relaxed and fun environment and having images to keep forever. It's what keeps a family close.