By Jennifer Wilson

The Haugen Family

Every Fourth of July for almost a century, 60 to 80 members of the Haugen family — from newborn to 94 years old — travel from their homes in Minnesota and Colorado for fried chicken, a much-anticipated game of Bunco (with "prizes" like an old parking meter), hula dancing, and a pie-eating contest. Aunt Doris and Aunt Pearl sing "Springtime in the Rockies," and the family newsletter, The Norwegian Enquirer, keeps everyone informed about the day's happenings. This year they will congregate at a Haugen family homestead in Murray County, Minnesota.

"Everyone wants to be a Haugen after our family reunion," says Dodi Haugen of Slayton, Minnesota. "We have such a great time."

While we can't magically make you a Haugen, we can offer tips and tools to help make your reunion the envy of all your friends.

Plan, Plan, Plan

Organizing a terrific family reunion may seem like a daunting task, but it doesn't have to be. "Give yourself time. That's the cardinal rule," says Edith Wagner, editor of Reunions magazine. "Take a year to prepare, especially if it's your first reunion."

  • Start by gauging interest among family members via phone calls, e-mails, or a questionnaire. Are they willing to attend? What types of activities do they enjoy? How much money can they contribute? Suggest a few dates and locations and ask for feedback. Web sites such as allow you to conduct polls and set up chat rooms. Also use this time to compile contact information — you'll need it later to ask for volunteers and delegate tasks.
  • Before choosing a location, define your goal. Do people simply want to visit with each other and catch up? Consider a potluck at a local park or a barbecue in someone's backyard; both encourage relaxing and chatting. On the other hand, if your objective is to make new memories and establish traditions, consider a long weekend at a campground, hotel, or resort, or go on a cruise. Always pick a place that's easy for people to get to, and keep in mind the travel limitations of older family members. You may want to switch locations throughout the years so the same families aren't always traveling the farthest. Sometimes your location will determine when you can have the reunion. For example, the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, Colorado, attracts the reunion crowd with its inexpensive accommodations, variety of meal options and gorgeous scenery. Because of its obvious popularity, you can’t always get the weekend of your choice.
  • When picking your date, try to make it convenient for everyone. Summer reunions are common because the kids are out of school and work schedules may be more flexible. Long holiday weekends are also good. Setting a consistent date, such as always having it on the first weekend of a particular month, can help people remember. Send a save-the-date card as soon as you decide — up to a year in advance — so people can arrange for vacation time or put aside money to travel.
  • Deciding on the guest list can be a challenge. Many reunion organizers invite everyone — even distant relatives — to avoid hurt feelings. Cheri (nee Landrith) Carlson from Rives Junction, Michigan, says the Landrith reunion in Michigan has gotten so big — 200 people are expected this year — that immediate family members meet ahead of time to bond before the extended crew arrives. "It helps us reconnect before getting lost in the larger group," she says.
  • For first-timers, it's best to start small. "Tell extended family members that this reunion is a tryout, so it's not going to be a grand affair," says George G. Morgan, author of Your Family Reunion: How to Plan It, Organize It, and Enjoy It (Ancestry). By notifying distant relatives directly, you ensure that they won't hear about it through the grapevine and feel left out. Emphasize that this event is an intimate test run.
  • The site and timing of the reunion may also dictate whom to invite. "If you're throwing a backyard barbecue, faraway family members may not feel it justifies the travel cost and time," says Morgan. Still, it's better to extend the invitation and let them decide.
  • Handle divorces or feuds the same way by making everyone feel welcome. Morgan recommends that if other family members complain about your goodwill, you remind them that it's important for children to get to know their relatives.

No matter whom you decide to invite or how you want to celebrate, make sure the lines of communication remain open. "Our family Web site is essential," says June Czarnezki of South Milwaukee, who reunites with all of her female family members, including aunts, nieces, granddaughters, and in-laws, around her grandma's birthday. "The gal cousins decide on a date a year ahead and notify everyone by phone," she says. "Then we direct people to the Web site for smaller details."

The Fun Stuff

Now that you've got the logistics figured out, it's your job to keep everyone entertained. Don't worry — it's actually easier than it sounds!

  • Refer to the initial information provided by your relatives when you started planning. Did several people mention sports? Arrange for a round of golf or a softball game. If you have creative types in the crowd, organize a talent show or karaoke contest. Hay rides and silent auctions are also popular.
  • Plan events that encourage interaction. Doris (nee Morris) Maxfield is in charge of activities at her reunion in Osceola County, Michigan. "My goal is to get people to mingle with relatives they don't know," she says. "I suggest games like a scavenger hunt or family bingo, which encourage interaction."
  • If yours is a destination reunion, look for attractions in the town that appeal to different ages and abilities. "You really can plan something for everyone," says Morgan. "Card games, driving tours, amusement parks, identifying old family photographs, storytelling, and show-and-tell of family artifacts are all great options."
  • To keep costs under control, make the mandatory activities inexpensive, and let people schedule their own additional entertainment. This also ensures a relaxed schedule; people appreciate free time to decompress. Don't forget to save a few minutes for family announcements — everyone likes to share good news and special accomplishments.

Talk Turkey

Fun and games aside, the cost of a family reunion is an important factor to consider. You'll incur plenty of expenses throughout your planning, from a few bucks of postage to hefty down payments. "Some families even have a membership fee for reunions," says Wagner. No matter what, don't take on more financial responsibility than you can afford. Divvying up expenses by family branch is fair — heads of families can decide who pays what individually.

  • Take a leadership role in the finances...or find someone else to do it. For large events, Wagner suggests appointing a treasurer to make a financial report and to keep track of spending. This eliminates questions or conflicts about who has paid and where the money is going.
  • Become a fund-raiser. Doris Maxfield defrays expenses for her get-together in Michigan with creative fund-raisers — last year it was a "beautiful baby" contest. "In the reunion announcement, I asked people to send baby pictures of themselves, their children, or their grandchildren," she says. At the reunion, she posted the entries on a bulletin board and set corresponding cash cups beneath. People "voted" for the cutest baby with their dollars.
  • Choose your hotel wisely. Tracey Zeeck, 36, of Louisville, Colorado, helped put together her family's first reunion on a shoestring budget in the Colorado town of Trinidad, where her great-grandparents had immigrated in the 1880s from Italy. "We stayed at a conveniently located hotel that everyone could afford," she says. "I recommend a place with a Sunday brunch and an indoor pool. It's the best way to keep antsy kids busy, and the adults are able to socialize. And there's usually a bar!"
  • When booking hotel rooms, ask for group rates. Web sites like specialize in group travel; you can even book a block of rooms at once, then have each party pay for their room separately so you're not stuck with the bill. Or opt for more simple and affordable accommodations by staying at a campsite.
  • Cook, cook, cook. To lower food costs, pick a location that offers cooking facilities so you don't have to eat out every meal. If your meals are catered, try to negotiate separate costs for children's and seniors' plates, says Morgan.
  • Plan ahead. The Landrith family in Michigan holds a meeting at the end of the reunion to select next year's planner. "At that time, we collect money for the following year," says Cheri Carlson. "If there isn't enough to cover expenses realistically, we encourage people to slip in just a little bit more."

Memories and Advice

Family Circle readers know a thing or two about reunions! Here are some of your best tips and favorite memories:

Each year we reserve a day spa near the motel for the ladies on Saturday morning — and the men have to babysit! Come Sunday, though, they have their big event: the annual golf tournament. The winning team is presented with the golf trophy, which someone keeps until the next reunion, when it gets handed over to the new champions. — Dianne Clenney, Colquitt, Georgia

To keep everyone happy, we all go our own way and do whatever activities we want during the day, but reserve the evenings for dinner as a group. — Renee Germain, Bloomfield, Connecticut

We have an auction every year to pay for our expenses. We buy items from each other such as afghans, pot holders, jelly, framed photographs, and handmade clocks. At the last reunion I was bidding on a pair of hand-embroidered pillowcases made by my aunt, who was then 92. I was surprised when my son began bidding against me, but gave up when I saw he was determined to get those pillowcases. He paid $50 for them — and then gave them to me! — Pat Long, Ashland City, Tennessee

To save money, we hold our family reunions at various state parks. We rent a camp with cabins, shower houses, and a dining hall that's stocked with cooking and eating utensils. All we have to do is bring the food. — Kay Tummel, Coal City, Illinois

Every two years my five female cousins and I plan a four-day reunion getaway. We bring our daughters and daughters-in-law and have a wonderful girls' weekend with laughter, food, a day at the spa, and plenty of bonding. We call it Just Cuz, for "just because" and "cousins." — Joy Lassman, Littleton, Colorado

One of the most popular, perennial activities is the fish pond. The "pond" is actually a box behind which the "fish" hides, waiting for a line to be dropped. A helper announces who's fishing and the person's age. When they get a tug on their line, they reel in a prize selected just for them. All family members from babies to teens "catch" prizes ranging from teething rings to notebooks and pencils. — Doris Maxfield, Linden, Michigan

Last year, instead of booking rooms in a hotel, we rented out an entire bed and breakfast for the weekend. We were able to play games in the large family room, relax on the porch, or just catch up with one another on the huge window seat. There was even a hot tub! It was so much more personal than staying in a hotel. — Kathy Frederick, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

Each year my niece brings quilt squares to the reunion for families to decorate. They sign their names and write special messages. She then uses the squares to sew a quilt, which is raffled off at the next reunion. This year's quilt theme marks our 25th year — and everyone wants to win it! — Mary Sarisky, Athens, Pennsylvania

My in-laws have found a marvelous way to bring their family home every summer: They've started a camp for their 16 grandchildren (they own 20 acres of land). At night the kids sleep in tents in the woods. During the day they do all sorts of activities, from visiting a space museum to taking a tour of a nearby dairy. My in-laws provide camp shirts, and above the road to their house they hang a sign with a name derived from my father-in-law's initials and the owls that inhabit the area where they live — Camp hOOTENkAMPY. — Lisa Kuhlman, Collegedale, Tennessee

When I was a kid, I always looked forward to our annual reunion in Nags Head, North Carolina, because I got to spend time with all 19 cousins on my dad's side. During the day we'd ride bikes or relax on the beach, and at night we'd play board games. These days, hectic schedules make it more difficult to get together, but I still try to see extended family as much as possible. Each year my husband and I take our daughters to Cape Cod, and we bring two of my teenage nieces. The girls get to spend time together, and we get babysitters! We've also recently started going skiing in Colorado, where we have relatives. It's been fun learning a new sport with them. While I hope our girls continue these traditions, I sometimes imagine my dream reunion. It would involve my whole family on a beach, with someone else to cook and do the dishes! — Hannah Storm, anchor, CBS News' The Early Show