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Family Reunions: Worth All the Work

May 21, 2000|EILEEN OGINTZ

Mary Jo Campbell says she was being selfish. Her five grown children and their spouses counter that her gesture was just the opposite.

"An amazing gift," said daughter-in-law True Campbell, who lives in North Carolina. The senior Campbell wanted her far-flung children around her for her 75th birthday. And, more than that, she wanted them to concentrate on her and one another without the distractions of work.

So nearly a year before her milestone birthday last fall, Campbell, a widow who lives in Knoxville, Tenn., called her children and invited them and their spouses on a weeklong Windstar Cruise to out-of-the-way Caribbean ports.

"It's the first time since high school we were together on vacation," said 40-year-old daughter Becky Arrants of Tennessee.

Reunion vacations are a lot of work to plan when families are scattered so far across the country. That's the dirty little secret of these increasingly popular trips.

"The biggest mistake people make is to think it's going to be easy," said Helena Koenig, the Maryland travel agent who was among the first in the country to recognize the potential of this multi-generational travel market and has emerged as a national expert on the subject.

The effort involved to make one of these trips happen doesn't seem to dissuade anyone, though. Nearly 20% of last year's trips spanned three generations--more than 17 million trips, according to the Travel Industry Assn. Millions of others--nearly a third of last summer's vacationers--included a reunion in their plans, and TIA officials expect the reunion trend to continue this year.

Club Med books hundreds of these groups a year, giving up to 20% off for groups with 20 adults or more. Forty percent of Disney Cruise Line's business includes three generations, and that likely will continue when the first seven-day trips begin this summer. Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia sees a lot of these families. So do ski areas, with Grandpa leading the way down the slopes in winter or on hiking trails in summer. "We feel this is a big growth area," said Jennifer de la Cruz, a Carnival Cruise Line spokeswoman.

"I could do nothing, and they could do a lot on a cruise, and we could be together," explained Elaine Vocelka, a 77-year-old Houston grandmother who opted for Carnival. "I'm hooked on the idea."

But sometimes grandparents find it takes coaxing to persuade everyone to go. "You're taking all of the baggage from the relationships with you," explained Florida psychologist and author Nancy Schlossberg, an expert on multi-generational relationships and a University of Maryland professor emeritus. Too often, she said with a sigh, the grandparents' expectations exceed reality.

Rule 1: Plan early, up to a year in advance.

This is the time to get Grandma and Grandpa wired. E-mail makes trip planning easier. This is not the time to surprise everyone with airline tickets for a certain date. Kids' soccer tournaments, basketball playoffs, kindergarten graduations and camp dates must be put into the mix, along with work schedules. "A real pain," said Judy Sitzman, laughing. She had just finalized the details for taking her family of 13 to Maui this June.

Rule 2: Be clear who is paying for what, and consider what types of activities will be available to people of varying ages.

Rule 3: Don't expect this to be the trip of a lifetime, especially if the grandkids are along.

"Think of it as a celebration, not a vacation," advised Helena Koenig. "Everyone is going to have to sacrifice something."

Rule 4: When the going gets rough, get away from one another for a few hours.

Sitzman, for example, has arranged for each of her three children's families to have their own car on Maui. Even the Campbells, who relished their time together, scattered during the day so each could do what he or she liked.

Rule 5: If you want to take the whole gang, ask about group rates and special discounts for large families. The best deals are off season or in the shoulder season. Some sources for savings:

* Call Windstar Cruises at (800) 258-SAIL (7245) or Internet and ask about early booking and airline discounts.

* Call Club Med at (800) CLUB MED (258-2633) or Internet Ask about summer deals that allow you $150 off per room.

* Call Cruise Line Inc., one of the largest cruise discounters in the country, at (800) 777-0707 or Internet Ask how many adults you need to qualify for a free berth. For every 15 full-fare passengers on Carnival, for example, families get one free berth.

* Summer at ski resorts is a great bargain for large families, with plenty to do for everyone--even kids' camps. In Colorado's Vail Valley, for example, two-bedroom condos are available for under $100 a night. Call (800) 525-3875 or Internet

* History-loving families can opt for Colonial Williamsburg's economical Revolutionary Fun Packages, which average a little more than $800 for a family of four and include five-day admission to Colonial Williamsburg, Busch Gardens and other area attractions. Call (800) 465-5563 or Internet

* Holiday Inn Family Suites in Orlando has special travel packages that include two-bedroom themed Kidsuites and food discounts for grandparents. Kids eat all meals free. Rates start at $139, $89 after mid-August. Call (877) 387-5437 or Internet

Taking the Kids appears the first and third week of every month.

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