In years past, family reunions planned on a budget meant a backyard barbecue with hot dogs and hamburgers, or a cookout at a town park where the picnic benches were rickety and nearby families' soccer balls and Nerf footballs always seemed to come sailing into your party. Relatives came because it was tradition, but over the years fewer and fewer attended. 

Now, we're seeing a resurgence in family reunions, both in number and frequency - as well as a complete makeover in how and where reunions are planned. And it's all done on a budget. If you think we're talking better food in your backyard, think again. Now, the trend in budget family reunions is making it an event at a phenomenal new location - including resorts that offer reunion packages customized to your group.

For example, Pinecrest Chalet, Pinecrest, California, offers multiple-bedroom cabins especially for incoming groups. "We have a wide variety of types and sizes of units to offer people," says Karen Taylor, co-owner of Pinecrest Chalet. "If they want to, they can put three families in one unit. Our four-bedroom unit, for example, might seem cost-prohibitive. But if you split it up, it comes out to about 22 dollars a night. It's actually one of the most cost-effective units we have, per person."

The popularity of Pinecrest for the family reunion also lies in its location in the Stanislaus National Forest. "It's very obvious to us that we're popular for (the family reunion)," says Taylor. "For the most part our units are attached - you can open up the back doors to the decks, and people can kind of pass through. Often, some people stay in RVs while others stay in the cabins."

Though Taylor cannot completely explain the dynamic that makes the resort ideal for families, it certainly has something to do with the open, friendly surroundings that the wooded location affords. "We are not nearly as uptight as other places about things getting moved," she says. "At individually owned condos, you can't move the silverware from one condo to the other, because it doesn't belong to them. Here, we don't mind if people do that. It makes things alot easier for our guests."

The New Generation

In every family, there comes a time when the next generation takes over the family parties. While those who planned the old-style backyard cookout did a fine job throughout the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, the new crop of reunion planners are taking the party on the road and spicing it up with creative menus and new and exciting activities and competitions; and they're using technology not only to help in their planning, but to plan it for less.

Linda Messina of Toms River, New Jersey is one of the 'next generation' reunion planners. "We have a huge family," says Linda. "My mother was one of eleven siblings, and I have dozens of cousins who are now having kids of their own. For years, we alternated locations between New Jersey and Virginia. Everyone looked forward to our traditional barbecue foods, Italian specialties, and of course the North vs. South softball tournament. Several years back, the tradition fell away as our older relatives were in poor health and the younger ones were having babies, but we all missed it so much! So I and a few of my cousins took over the planning. We kept in mind that everyone was on a limited budget, and we've now created a full weekend of events that more and more relatives are showing up for each year. We think our departed aunts and uncles are proud of us for keeping the tradition going, and making it better each year."

Linda credits their decision to base the reunions at a major hotel, and work with the manager there to arrange use of the pool and volleyball courts, and block room rates to save them thousands of dollars and attract more relatives to the event. "When our relatives see the Web site for the hotel, they see it as more of a vacation. Then we add on our family traditions: the North vs. South softball games, and the night-before poker games where everyone is invited to bring a few dishes and desserts. The younger relatives hit the nightclubs in the area, and everyone is happy."

Such is the new trend in budget family reunions. Edith Wagner, editor of Reunions Magazine says, "More and more family reunions are planned as a weekend getaway, a vacation, rather than a picnic in the park, so the locations that are most popular are any destinations that would make great family vacation spots."

Our four-bedroom unit might seem cost-prohibitive. It's actually one of the most cost-effective units we have, per person." - Karen Taylor, Pinecrest Resort

"California is an attractive destination," says Taylor at the Pinecrest Chalet. "We're near a lot of attractions, and we find that the reunions we get are planned by the local people here and they attract everybody from everywhere else. They might do a side trip to Yosemite, or to San Francisco - you can tack onto your trip. And even in the immediate area, there's a lake for fishing, boating, you can go horseback riding, there are even gold mining tours. There's a lot to do."

How to Plan Your Family Reunion For Less

Find Your Location. It's all about finding the perfect establishment that offers you a fabulous group room discount and a list of free amenities. "If people reach a certain dollar limit, they automatically get 20 percent off in the spring and fall," says Taylor. "We try to encourage some groups to come in the off-season, particularly in the fall because the weather is still nice. Almost everybody who comes in the fall, in September on the weekend, pretty much all of them are getting discounts."

Make it drivable. Edith Wagner says that the vast majority of family reunion guests drive to the destination rather than flying, since they're likely to bring along their children and sporting equipment, perhaps even pets. 

Set up a Web site. Provide all of the details in one place - including a link to the resort's Web site for reservations. A personalized Web site allows your relatives to discover all of the events you have planned, plus listings of what they can bring to particular gatherings. Check out www.MyFamily.com or www.MyEvent.com for free site-building, or add a Family Reunions page to your own family's existing Web site.

Plan events. Families who have long held a tradition of softball tournaments or football games know to bring the equipment themselves. As an organizer, it's up to you to coordinate the effort, asking for several volunteers through emails to all of your relatives. If you're at a resort, though, you may get free use of their sporting equipment, such as, horseshoe sets, basketballs, volleyballs, and kids' pool games. Ask your manager what freebies you can get and ask about special competitions and parties at the resort as a whole. Your resort could be a goldmine of free attractions.

Check with the tourism board. Festivals, street fairs, free displays at museums and hayrides at working farms...you can get free tickets to nearby events by visiting the Web site for the local tourism board. Go to www.towd.com for a link to the tourism office in your destination.

Create free or low-cost invitations. www.Evite.com  is perfect for free family reunion invitations, and your relatives can see who has responded with a Yes and a message to the family. If you'd prefer to make your own invitations, visit www.mountaincow.com for the best, inexpensive invitation software (titled Printing Press) and great paper stock.

Add personal touches for free. Skip the pricey floral centerpieces, and set out framed family photos, wedding pictures and photos from family parties, graduations, baby photos, and more. Attach a label to the back of each photo explaining who's featured in the picture, the year it was taken, and also who owns the photo so that you can return it to the owner. (For older and more valuable photos, encourage the owners to make a copy to bring along).

They key to a great family reunion is not how elaborate it is, or how much you spent on decorations or a menu to rival the latest family wedding. It's about creating moments for your loved ones to share, activities to get everyone playing and laughing together, and bringing your favorite family traditions to life each year. We all live scattered to the winds now, not all in the same hometown that we never leave. So your family reunion serves a much higher purpose than just a fun party - it tightens family bonds and you can't put a pricetag on that!