GWEN Moran was vacationing with her family in Maine a few years ago when she stopped in to visit relatives who lived in the area. She enjoyed the visit so much that she asked them whether they were interested in a family reunion.
When they said yes, she embarked on a yearlong project: planning a reunion that would bring together relatives in the U.S. and Europe. Three hundred invitations and lots of hard work later, 150 of her clan assembled for a long weekend in southern Maine for what she says was a successful reunion.
"When you gather a group of people who have a special connection with you, it can really touch your heart," said Moran, 39, of Wall, N.J. "We were all sorry to see it end."
No matter how far-flung the family, a reunion can help you reconnect quickly, create lifelong memories and preserve heritage and traditions.
Having a reunion is no longer limited to a backyard barbecue. Instead, gatherings can be at resorts, amusement parks and even on cruises.
Family reunions and travel seem to go hand-in-hand; 34% of U.S. adults -- about 72 million -- have traveled to one in the last three years, according to the Travel Industry Assn. of America, a trade group based in Washington, D.C. About 1 in 5 adults took a trip to attend a family reunion last year.
More than half of reunions take place in someone's home, but city or town parks (12%) and national and state parks or national forests (6%) also are favored sites. And family reunions occur with some frequency, at least once a year for half of family reunion travelers.
Planning a reunion can be a huge undertaking, but timing, experts say, is most importance.
"One of the biggest mistakes planners make is that they usually don't give themselves enough time or start early enough," said Edith Wagner, editor of Reunions magazine (www.reunionsmag.com).
Moran started planning her family reunion a year in advance, a good timetable, Wagner said.
Tracking down relatives was one of her biggest challenges. "The hardest part was definitely reaching out to everyone, both to compile the initial list of family members and then to confirm whether or not they were coming," she said.
She was also responsible for finding hotel information and planning social events, dining and more.
Unless you are building the event around a particular occasion -- say, a milestone birthday or anniversary -- be open about the date.
Linda Johnson Hoffman, an author of "The Reunion Planner" (www.reunionplanner.com) suggests having the event during a school break or summer vacation.
"The Fourth of July and Labor Day weekend are very popular times," Hoffman said. "If you center the event around a holiday or theme, it's often easier to get people to commit because they make those plans well in advance."
Advice from the pros
SO you have contacted the family and you've received expressions of interest. Now what? Here some of the key points to consider:
* Who will organize the gathering? "The event may be too difficult for one person to plan everything," Hoffman said. "Divvy up responsibilities to a few family members, maybe West and East coasts if necessary.
You need a good committee of people who will be the doers, people you know you can count on to commit and know they will handle their responsibilities."
For a complete checklist of reunion responsibilities, visit Hoffman's website or check out other reunion sites or publications by plugging "planning a family reunion" into an Internet search engine.
* Create your guest list. "Decide what you mean by a 'family reunion,' " Wagner said. "A reunion could be as small as parents and their children or as large as several generations of all family members, including cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, grandparents etc."
* Decide on a location. "Reunions aren't in backyards anymore," said Kathy Sudeikis, vice president of All About Travel in Mission, Kan., and a specialist in reunion planning. "You want a place where everyone can enjoy the trip."
Cruise ships are a natural venue for a reunion, Sudeikis said: "There is something for everyone to do. You also have a white tablecloth dinner experience, and you don't need reservations for your party of 19 or 219."
Some cruise lines provide discounts for group travel. By booking a certain number of cabins, the planner may receive a discount (although he is still responsible for taxes, charges and airfare).
A cruise can also accommodate various budget levels, because different priced cabins can be booked.
Other options for a gathering place can include a dude ranch, a family resort, hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, and amusement parks. Talk extensively with personnel to see whether it can accommodate your group.
When choosing the place, keep the travelers' resources in mind. "You need to find a location that accommodates different budgets," Hoffman said. "Ask travel agents for different-priced packages."