Move over, Madea. Cue the O'Jays. Don't panic. Here are some tips for making the event easy and memorable.
Move over, Madea. Cue the O'Jays. It's family-reunion season. Every year since the 1970s TV movie Roots helped popularize the black family reunion, the event has been growing in numbers, sophistication and interest. Today family reunions can be a lucrative niche for hotels, airlines and caterers vying to attract family-reunion-goers.
For those who want to leave the planning to others, there are the long-standing reunion events hosted by the National Council of Negro Women in Washington, D.C., in the fall; the 23rd Annual Midwest Regional Black Family Reunion Celebration Aug. 19-23 in Cincinnati; and the Tom Joyner Family Reunion at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., during Labor Day weekend.
But for others, like Linda Hairston Diggs, planning is less than the warm, fuzzy kumbaya feeling she expected. In fact, Diggs says she is worried that her family reunion in Charlotte, N.C., may not come off as anticipated. A member of the huge Hairston-Dodson clan that gathers every year in Columbus, Ohio, she wants something similar for the second and third generations of cousins on her late father's side of the family.
Diggs' concern is not for lack of planning. The reunion committee has conducted a survey of family interests using Survey Monkey, has lined up the hotel and the caterer, and has even started to put together the program. There's a Facebook page with family photos and a video of Charlotte attractions to juice the folks lagging in their RSVPs. She says she's worried because fewer than 20 relatives from a family tree that stretches from Seattle to Syracuse, N.Y., have indicated that they will attend.
That's par for the course, according to experienced family-reunion planners. Lack of advance notice from attendees is just one more factor to consider when planning a reunion. Most planners say that you should make sure you budget for family members who may show up without notice.
Family-Reunion Planning 2.0
The budget. Whoever oversees the budget should take into consideration the costs of food, facilities, printing, ostage and souvenirs in developing the fee for attending the reunion, which may or may not include the hotel. The fee can also cover the T-shirts or even a bus to chauffeur family members from one venue to another, as well as costs associated with creating and maintaining a family website.
The budget should have some leeway for those who will pay at the door as well as those with financial hardships who may show up with children in tow. Some families will hold bake sales or create and sell a family cookbook and souvenirs to keep costs down. Also, some may ask local companies for a donation. After all, the reunion brings in some out-of-towners who will spend money all weekend.
Advance reservations. Don't forget to make reservations for recreation or picnic sites months in advance, since other families may be planning their reunions for the same date as yours. Committee members may negotiate hotel rates but make family members responsible for their own hotel reservations.
Reunion committee. Is Uncle Joe a shutterbug, or Aunt Sarah the keeper of the family tree? Enlist them as part of your committee. Also select those with the talent and skills to help with the planning. Don't forget younger members, who may offer a youthful take on events and help lure those elusive Gen Xers and Gen Yers, notorious for their independence. A far-flung committee can make use of Skype for long-distance conference calls.
The program. Most family reunions take place over three days, starting with a Friday-night meet and greet. Plan some icebreakers to get family members to interact. Saturday night is usually the family banquet, but include other events, such as a health fair, spa trip, basketball game, karaoke, family fashion or talent show. Reserve Sunday for a spiritual service at a local church -- or at the hotel, featuring family members who are also spiritual leaders. Don't forget to honor ancestors and elders.
The menu. Family-reunion food can be catered or a planned potluck. Decide if all meals with take place at the hotel. Or maybe the host family can take the reins to prepare a big Saturday cookout early in the day. Be sure to plan food for vegetarians or those who have health-driven dietary restrictions. Not everyone can have the pork ribs, sweet tea and pecan pie.
Family portraits. With digital cameras, everyone can take their own snapshots, but consider hiring a professional photographer to take a few shots of family elders that will definitely be remembrances. Use Kodak, Flickr, Picasa, Shutterfly or other online photo tools that allow family members to upload their pictures. Shutterfly and Kodak will allow family to create and purchase a personalized photo memory book.
T-shirts. No family reunion is complete without a T-shirt. But don't forget other family souvenirs. Enlist the family artist to work up a logo that can also be transferred onto caps, tote bags and mugs. Use Zazzle to create custom stamps with the family logo. Use a website like CafePress to come up with unique ideas for souvenirs, and then anyone can order from the site. Design and create a souvenir family tree that everyone can take home.
Social media. Chances are you've already caught up with cousin Johnny on Facebook. Fortunately, social networking has become one more useful tool for keeping family ties tight. Keep in mind that it's not called the World Wide Web for nothing. Be sure to turn on privacy, moderation and security controls to prevent strangers from infiltrating private family information. Facebook has a feature that makes it easy to group family members. Similarly, LinkedIn allows you to create a private group and offers some event-planning features.
Yahoo! Groups. The owner of a Yahoo! email account can invite others to the family group by email. It offers privacy controls, photo albums, file storage and a poll feature so that members can decide on chicken or fish at the reunion dinner, or sample databases for family addresses or recipe lists. It also offers a member list and calendar for scheduling events like the Friday-night icebreaker. In addition, the owner can allow access for other managers.
Google Groups. Similar to Yahoo! Groups but with only basic features. It allows different access levels, including public or restricted access or announcement-only so that users can read the archives. This site has been downsized, and users who want more features are being pushed to Google Sites.
Invitations. Use Evite to send invitations to family members via computer. But don't leave out family members who are still using snail mail. Similarly, Eventbrite offers many of the same features (no family tree, though) but charges when tickets are sold. Family-reunion planners can add the 2.5 percent Eventbrite cost to the family fee.
Ning. This site charges $2.95 a month for a minigroup -- up to 150 members -- or $19.95 per month for a group site with unlimited members. It's great for reunion planning because it allows customizable pages for, say, your family crest. It is easily moderated with privacy tools that keep your network for family members only. It also allows event planning, invitations, slide shows and video players for those embarrassing family moments. There is also a chat feature that allows the reunion-planning group to talk online.
MyEvent.com. It allows you to create a website to organize events and keep track of who's attending for $9.95 a month. Using the family feature, planners can help create a family tree and send and track invitations.
23rd Annual Midwest Regional Black Family Reunion Celebration
The African American Genealogist's Family Reunion Planner
Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau
Lake County, Ill., Convention & Visitors Bureau
DeKalb Convention & Visitors Bureau's Reunion Planning Workshops
Ingrid Sturgis, who loves to write about family matters, is the author of The Nubian Wedding Book and the anthology Aunties: 35 Writers Celebrate Their Other Mother.