"In every conceivable manner, the family is the link to our past, and bridge to our future."

— Alex Haley

I believe my grandmother is one of the best storytellers to have ever walked the earth. She could literally spend hours telling stories about each person at our family reunion. The stories and boisterous laughter were almost enough to rattle the pictures off the walls. Each year, my family members came from all over Wisconsin and Minnesota to share in this quality family time. There were generally anywhere from 50 to 75 people, with enough seating for 25 to 30 tops. But when you’re among family, sitting on the floor reminiscing is just as comfortable as telling stories at the table.

Planning for this event was pretty daunting. How far were people willing to travel, and what could they realistically afford to spend on the trip?  And finding a place that can accommodate all the needs — lodging, food, and recreation – at a reasonable price can be difficult.  To meet this need, more and more families are turning to the resort. Think about it: A resort isn’t just a vacation getaway. The resort is set up to provide everything you need, a one-stop shop for the successful family reunion. 

“The recreation needs to be diverse so the kids, mom, and dad as well as the grandparents will all be entertained.”-- Mike Mills, Owner, Buffalo Outdoor Center

Work Smarter, Not Harder

Far too often, the planning of a reunion falls on the shoulders of one person, usually the one who thought of reuniting in the first place. At first, this person welcomes the idea of planning the perfect family reunion. Veteran planners probably already know what I am going to say next: Get help!  Don’t try to do everything yourself. You shouldn’t have to, and you shouldn’t want to do it all alone. It just creates unnecessary stress and headaches. Pick a few people to be a part of the “family planning committee.” This will help offset the cost of planning the family reunion and alleviate stress. Now that the team is assembled, you can begin planning the reunion with some confidence.

Many planners of reunions, me included, make one fatal mistake:  We think we know what everyone wants. I don’t know about you, but I am not a mind reader. How can you quickly find out what everyone wants? The answer is simple. You ask!  I wish I could take credit for this idea, but a friend of mine actually told me to include a survey with your RSVP. This was so deceptively simple it took me by surprise.

Eureka!

I can testify to the effectiveness of a survey. It drastically cuts down on your planning time and alleviates stress. That alone makes it worth the effort.  A few things your survey should include are:

  • Two to five pre-selected dates for the reunion
  • A blank for activities that attendees would like to have available
  • A blank for foods and beverages they would like to have.  
  • A list of lodging options and the location. 

To find out how a good resort can help you with your family reunion, I talked with Mike Mills, owner of the Buffalo Outdoor Center in Ponca, Arkansas. His property caters to family reunions and has years of experience helping people to make sure the event goes off without a hitch. “The average family reunion typically lasts two or three days,” Mills says. “So space, flexibility, and variety are the keys to success.”  Mills says that if the reunion is going to last more than even a few hours, you will require enough space to allow people to “get away” if they need to without feeling cramped. “The resort should also provide a variety of activities,” he adds. “The recreation needs to be diverse so the kids, mom, and dad as well as the grandparents will all be entertained.”

In fact, “diverse recreation” is an understatement at Buffalo Outdoor Center. Families can go on scenic trail rides, explore the Ozarks in a hot air balloon, take rafting trips down America’s first national river, the Buffalo River, or just enjoy the serene beauty of the Ozark Mountains from a cozy log cabin. 

No matter the location, reuniting families are looking for a “home away from home” feel. The urge to get families together is in large part a sociological phenomenon. In Europe, the Middle East and other parts of the world, it is not uncommon for extended family to live in the house across the street. They cook dinner for 20 or more people daily, according to William Ferris, Southern folklorist and Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), which operates Genealogy.com. Americans don’t have the same contact with extended family, so family reunions are a way to bring everyone together. The main reason for this gathering is a desire to connect with the past. We meet this desire by telling stories, catching up on what everyone is doing, and preserving family traditions. In my family, stories are never in short supply.

The cabins and the lodge at Buffalo Outdoor Center provide that closeness. But according to Mills, the actual quality time for families takes place over meals, when people gather, settle down and let the stories start flowing. Another interesting highlight: While Buffalo Outdoor Center does cater meals, Mills has noticed that most families prefer to cook the meals themselves — not only is it cost effective, but it provides plenty of time during the preparation for people to work together, communicate, and re-connect.

The last bit of advice Mills has to offer is that the resort you ultimately choose should be willing to work with you. Above all, they should be just as flexible as you need them to be. This may sound like a customer service line, and it is: For family reunions, service is key in helping a guest create lifelong memories. Ultimately, that is what family reunions are all about — passing on past memories and traditions from one generation to the next, and forming new memories that are equally as precious.

Each year as the red, orange, and yellow leaves are falling from the trees in northern Wisconsin, my family and I would gather in my Uncle Mike and Aunt Barb’s house, and the passing along would begin. It’s in all of my grandmother’s stories. It’s in the smell of freshly baked buns, roasted turkey, and pumpkin pie that fills your nostrils before you even step in the door. It is in the memories, as Mills says, “A father teaching his children how to catch a fish in the Buffalo River is priceless.”

Buffalo Outdoor Center

Ponca, Arkansas