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All Together Now: Planning a Memorable Family Reunion

How to plan, where to go, why do it

Published on: February 03, 2015

When was the last time your children toasted marshmallows over a bonfire with their favorite cousins, or listened as your great-aunt shared memories of her childhood from decades ago? If your answer is “never,” it’s time to plan a family reunion — a real, offline, in-person family reunion.

In this digital age, most of what I know about the day-to-day lives of my extended family is whatever pops up in my Facebook feed, from what Aunt JoAnn is planting in her garden in Oklahoma to the dress that Cousin Kellie wore at her beach wedding in Florida. But my connections to them are rooted more deeply than what social media can provide, thanks to our annual family gatherings when I was a child. Some family experiences can’t be “liked” on Facebook — they need to happen in real life, face-to-face.

Recent research shows that spending time with extended family as children provides more than a fun, feel-good tradition. It turns out that kids who have a firm grasp on their family narrative, from where their grandparents grew up to how their aunt and uncle met, tend to be more emotionally resilient, healthier and happier. Researchers believe family connections and stories give kids a strong intergenerational sense of self. In our high-tech world, firsthand knowledge of family stories — both the joys and challenges that previous generations have faced — may be even more important.

With vacation days in short supply, it makes sense to combine a family reunion with summer vacation. The Pacific Northwest offers many beautiful, fun destinations that are perfect for both.

Are you ready for some serious offline family time? Read on as we unpack the trends in destination family reunions and give you tips on planning stress-free, connection-building gatherings that will create lasting memories.

Three trends for destination reunions

First, figure out what type of gathering is appropriate for your family, given factors such as size of group, ages of relatives, budgets and where people live. Here are three types of reunions you can plan to fit any budget.

1. Low budget: campout or cabin

The great outdoors provides a perfect playground for gatherings that have lots of high-energy children, and planned activities like short hikes and canoe trips can tempt kids away from tablets and gaming devices for quality bonding time. Camping is easy on your budget, and nature provides the entertainment. But unless your family is made up of camping die-hards, walking through ferns to the bathhouse can get old fast, so save this trend for short reunions. Look for campgrounds that have group picnic areas and a variety of lodging options, from tent spaces to RV hookups and shelters like yurts or cabins. Some parks also have group campsites (tip: book far ahead for these). For an experience closer to glamping than camping, opt for rustic resorts that have cabins.

Top pick: Cape Disappointment State Park on the Washington coast has it all, from beaches to hiking trails, plus more than 150 campsites and 17 yurts and cabins. Two onsite lighthouse-keeper residences serve as vacation rentals with large kitchens and common areas.

Others to try: Doe Bay Resort camping and cabins on Orcas Island, Cama Beach State Park cabins on Camano Island, Copper Creek Inn and Cabins near Mount Rainier.

2. Moderate budget: rent a house

For a smallish gathering of family members (fewer than 25 people), consider renting a large vacation house or retreat center, where all of your lodging, cooking and common areas are under one roof. This keeps the per-person costs low, you can save cash by cooking your own meals together, and such accommodations are available all over the mountains, beaches and islands of the Pacific Northwest.

“We have had our 20 family members from all over the country come to the Northwest each year,” notes one ParentMap reader. “We’ve rented vacation houses on Lake Joy in Carnation, Vashon Island and Gig Harbor.”

Opt for a setting that offers day-trip excursions nearby, such as hiking and biking trails, a golf course or kayak rentals.

Top pick: The Willow Pond Lodge and Lake House on Whidbey Island features two vacation-rental homes, each with five bedrooms and three baths, which can be rented individually or together; combined, they’ll sleep as many as 30 people. The 50-acre estate is dotted with ponds, prairie and wildlife habitat.

Others to try: Harmony Hill on Hood Canal, Snowgrass Lodge in Leavenworth. Or, of course, try a vacation-rental website, such as VRBO, HomeAway or AirBnB.

3. More expensive: resort fun

Leave the stress at home when your family gathers at a destination resort. The big draw? An abundance of onsite activities that foster teamwork and family bonding, from golf for the grownups to pool time for the kids. Some resorts offer group activities that will transport you back to summer camp, such as crafting and horseback riding.

Courtesy of Seabrook Resort

Accommodations are usually flexible, offering a mix of lodge rooms and vacation homes with full kitchens. You’ll have more flexibility for mealtimes if you plan a mix of resort restaurant dinners and DIY meal gatherings.

Pam Mandel, a Seattle-based travel writer, recently attended an anniversary celebration at Seabrook, a resort on the Washington coast, with dozens of family members and friends, and ranks it as an ideal place for a reunion. “There are so many different configurations for accommodation. People who need privacy can book a studio cottage, people who like to be surrounded by others can get a big house, and they’re all close together.”

Top picks: In addition to Seabrook — a beachfront resort town with family-friendly activities from an indoor pool to a pottery studio and cruiser bikes — Black Butte Ranch in Sisters, Oregon, is a huge family-oriented oasis flanked by ponderosa pine trees in the Oregon Cascades. Lodging options include 120 vacation condos and homes that sleep from four to 20 people. There are laid-back restaurants, plenty of golf courses, nature paths, paved bike trails, swimming pools with waterslides and tennis courts.

Others to try: Sunriver Resort near Bend, Oregon, and Suncadia Resort near Cle Elum.

And here’s one more reunion idea for families who can splurge: Take a cruise. When Seattle attorney Richard Smith’s grandmother turned 90 years old, their extended family embarked on a celebratory cruise from Seattle up the Inside Passage to Alaska, giving everyone the opportunity to spend several days together and with her while enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime scenic trip in the process.


Tips for planning your gathering

Plan far in advance. You’ll be accommodating many different calendars and work schedules, so once a date is chosen, set it in stone.

If your family reunion will be large, designate one person in charge of the planning, with a small group that works on specific tasks. This ensures planning gets done and provides a clear contact for questions and input.

Set up a way to communicate. A private Facebook group for reunion attendees is a great way to keep people in the loop. You can also keep all reunion documents on Google drive.

Get input from at least one rep from each family on dates, budget, location, meals (including dietary restrictions) and activities — this creates buy-in and helps avoid conflict later. Using a free online survey service (such as SurveyMonkey) makes this easy.

Select a location that attendees can easily access (for example, not too far from a major airport) and that people will truly want to go to, especially if family members are using precious vacation time.

Decide how attendees will pay for reunion costs, and stick to it. Avoid surprises and hidden costs.

Accommodate every budget, if possible. Destinations that offer flexible lodging choices (for example, both campsites and cabins) give attendees more options. You could create a donation-based fund that helps cover the costs of attendees who are on a tighter budget than others.

When planning reunion activities, consider all ages, from toddlers to seniors. Activities can be anything from a nature hike to an evening slideshow of vintage family photos. Be sure to include unstructured time.

Recruit volunteers to showcase their special talents, from cooking meals to leading a birdwatching hike.

Designate some keen photographers to take photos, and provide a way to see those photos online after the event (such as on Flickr).

Create a souvenir. My husband’s family produces a T-shirt with the year, location and everyone’s name on the back.

Help attendees stay connected after the reunion is over. One idea is to have a directory printed that includes everyone’s contact information and birthday.

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