How to Plan a Big Family Gathering


Published:

This time of year, calendars start filling up with social events — parties, get-togethers or tailgating with friends and family. But there's often one highlight event that, this year, you're in charge of.

A big family gathering.

Whether you have a large family spread out over the globe or a small bunch nearby, planning a family gathering can be stressful.

It doesn't have to be. Take some tips from event planner Courtney Scholl, a Holly Springs mom and owner of Parties By Bash, as well as a few other Triangle moms who have planned big events. (One even had to coordinate family members in another country, who spoke another language!)

Start communicating

The first thing on your "to do" list is to start the conversation with everyone on the invitation list. Let them know a party is in the planning stages and they are invited. Tell them details are coming but, for now, you just need to find out the best way to include them in the information flow. Email? Texting? Skype? Facebook?

Add less tech-savvy family members to a phone list. If there are several, set up a phone chain. You can call your brother Joe and cousin Sally. Joe will call your Uncle Leo. Sally will call her mom. That way, the phone isn't glued to your ear every time a message needs to go out.

Cindy Altman of Cary is one of a family of 24 who all live in Wake County. They regularly plan family gatherings during the holidays, as well as an annual beach trip, and rely on email to hash out most details.

"Around the holidays, we can end up with an email train that's 30 to 50 emails back and forth about this or that," she says. "We had to drag my mother kicking and screaming into email because, otherwise, we'd spend all morning on the phone trying to figure things out."

A family website may be in the future for the Altman clan so all communication can be posted in one spot. "We haven't quite gotten to that point yet, though," she says. "There aren't enough tech-savvy people in the family for that level."

Consider picking a theme for your gathering. Whether it's "Awesome '80s," "Tex-Mex," sports or Hollywood, having a theme adds a layer of fun to the event. It also helps guide decorating, food and activity choices.

First things first

After you establish communication methods, it's time to start planning. That means answering the big questions: How much is this going to cost and who's paying for it?

If you're footing the entire bill, that's your decision. But if you're splitting costs, ask others those questions. Find the general consensus on who is willing to pitch in and how much they are comfortable paying. Get firm numbers so you don't end up in an awkward situation later. ("Uh, Grandma, you still owe me $45.")

If you will purchase all of the necessary items, consider having everyone chip in up front, through checks or even PayPal if you have an account. Or people can send gift cards for the places where you will shop.

Keep in mind that just because it might be a large get-together doesn't mean it has to be pricey. There are low-cost alternatives to just about everything — from lodging to food and location.

*    COST-CUTTING TIP: If you're having a big blowout, families could hold yard sales or garage sales to help defray expenses. Everyone could donate all of the proceeds, or a percentage.

When's the party?

Think about your timeframe. If everyone lives in the Triangle (or close by), a one-day event is perfect. But what if folks are coming from out of town? Chapel Hill mom Katie Vick coordinated family coming from Canada and other parts of the country for her son's christening. She planned a multiday event to entertain those who came from a distance. "One day was the formal event and we had a casual get-together another day," she says.

*     COST-CUTTING TIP: Consider planning the event during the week if possible or even scheduling a mid-year "holiday" celebration instead of during peak holiday time. You'll most likely save money on rentals — and people probably won't mind freeing up the space in their busy holiday calendars.

Location, location

Free is always a great option, right? If you have the space, opening your home to guests is a can't-miss choice. If the weather's nice, you can spill outside and spread out. Set up a spot for kids to keep them from feeling overwhelmed with the crowd.

"We pulled out a big bin of toys and spread out a roll of butcher paper with lots of crayons and markers," Vick says.

Another free option? Try a local restaurant.

"A lot of them have some sort of private room," Scholl says. "Some have a food and beverage minimum per person, but sometimes all you have to do is call to reserve it and everyone can just pay for their own meal."

Next up the price-point list are parks and recreation centers. You may be able to rent a pavilion or large room for your event. Bass Lake Park and Retreat Center in Holly Springs, for example, offers a facility overlooking the lake you can reserve. If the weather's nice, family members can relax on its decks or stroll the grounds.

The priciest spots will be hotels and event centers, but if everyone's chipping in, it could be a viable option.

*     COST-CUTTING TIP: If your heart is set on a more expensive location, call the facility to find out if any discounts or deals are available. Sometimes choosing a different date or time can lower the cost. Vick needed to reserve rooms at a hotel for out-of-town guests. "We just called and said, 'We don't have as many for a wedding, but we do have a lot of people coming in,'" she says. "They were willing to work with us and gave us a discount."

It's in the details

Once you settle the main issues, take time to consider smaller details. Addressing as many issues as you can in advance will make things run smoother later. Some areas to consider:

*     Transportation – With so many family members flying in, Vick needed to consider how people would get from the hotel to planned events. They found a low-cost solution. "We enlisted friends to help us shuffle people around in their cars," she says. "It worked out great."

*     Ice-breakers – Think about how you'll initiate mingling. "We purposely sat people in groups at dinner the night before where they'd have something to talk about," Vick says. "My husband and I each sat at a different table to get people talking." They also enlisted close friends to talk to people to make sure no one felt like a wallflower.

*     Simplification – Don't make things harder than they need to be. The Altmans divide birthdays into quarterly celebrations. Every three months, whoever has a birthday during that time is celebrated during one event. "The summer party is pizza at the swimming pool," Altman says. "And the winter one is at the ice skating rink, with everyone going back to one sister's house for pizza afterwards."

Make memories

Whether it's an annual event or once-in-a-lifetime gathering, making memories is what it's all about. Consider doing something beyond basic photo sharing to help everyone cherish the family bonds:

*     Try a family scavenger hunt with questions that encourage kids to talk to everyone. ("Who lived in a lighthouse when they were in the Coast Guard?" or "What was Great-Great-Uncle Frank's job?") This especially helps children, who sometimes have a hard time keeping track of who's who in extended families, especially if they've rarely (or never) met certain relatives.

*     Tack up a huge piece of butcher paper on the wall and let everyone draw in their part of the family tree, adding photos when possible. Let them know ahead of time to bring a few current photos.

*     Ask everyone ahead of time to bring old photos labeled with dates and names. Consider having a scanning station with a CD burner or ask people to bring copies. Send everyone home with photos and the stories behind them.

*     Turn photos captured at the event into photo books at sites like Shutterfly.com, Snapfish.com, KodakGallery.com, MyPublisher.com or SmileBooks.com. Let everyone know where to purchase the books so they will have a memorable keepsake. You can do something similar with recipes. Ask everyone to bring copies of favorite or traditional recipes and turn them into a book for everyone to take home. You can do this at a site like HeritageCookbook.com.

Enjoy your event!

Once the planning is done, enjoy your event! No one wants a stressed-out host.

"We told ourselves that once Thursday hit and people started to arrive, no matter what happens we gave it our best shot," Vick says. "We put everything in motion. Something may go wrong, but everything will be OK." 

Kathleen M. Reilly is a freelance writer and mom based in the Triangle.

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Website »

More information

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Cost: $70/month

Where:
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View map »


Telephone: 191-990-25432
Contact Name: Leigh Hamm
Website »

More information

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Cost: See website for fees

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More information

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Cost: $75-$216

Where:
Spanish Alive
156 E. Chatham St
Cary, NC
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Website »

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Short class advertising for local class   I am a mom and retired CPA who is passionate about teaching teens about the high cost of their choices. I teach a fun, interactive "Game of Life meets...

Cost: $225

Where:
Hope Community Church- Apex
2080 E Williams Street
Apex, NC  27539
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Sponsor: Beyond Personal Finance
Contact Name: Charla McKinley
Website »

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I am a mom and retired CPA who is passionate about teaching teens about the high cost of their choices. I teach a fun, interactive "Game of Life meets Dave Ramsey" class that has teens experience...

Cost: $225

Where:
Hope Community Church- Apex
2080 E Williams Street
Apex, NC  27539
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Sponsor: Beyond Personal Finance
Contact Name: Charla McKinley
Website »

More information

Short class advertising for local class   I am a mom and retired CPA who is passionate about teaching teens about the high cost of their choices. I teach a fun, interactive "Game of Life meets...

Cost: $225

Where:
Hope Community Church- Apex
2080 E Williams Street
Apex, NC  27539
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Sponsor: Beyond Personal Finance
Contact Name: Charla McKinley
Website »

More information

Azevedo Family Psychology and Kym Azevedo will host an Art for Life group each Thursday from 5:30-6:30PM beginning January 16 and running through March 26. This group is completely free, kid...

Cost: FREE

Where:
1903 N. Harrison Ave
Suite 201
Cary, NC  27513
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Sponsor: Azevedo Family Psychology
Telephone: 919-624-9568
Contact Name: Kym Azevedo
Website »

More information

Explore astronomy, biology, architectural and engineering principles, technology and so much more through our hands-on, play-based activities. Spend an evening with your preschooler, experiencing...

Cost: free

Where:
Saint Raphael Preschool
5801 Falls of Neuse Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27609
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Sponsor: Saint Rapahel Preschool
Telephone: 919-865-5725
Contact Name: Katie Mistele
Website »

More information

The goal of the How To Talk So Kids Will Listen Group workshop is to help you communicate more effectively with children.   In each session of the workshop you'll be introduced to an...

Cost: $12.95 materials fee

Where:
Wildflower School at Belle Vie Farm
3100 Damascus Church Road
Chapel Hill, NC  27516
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Sponsor: Wildflower School at Belle Vie Farm
Telephone: 919-260-6859
Contact Name: Shelley Welch
Website »

More information

Hounded by Death, the character of Everybody desperately seeks out everyone and everything they know in hope of finding something meaningful to take to the grave. These 90 minutes of theatrical...

Cost: Ticket prices start at $15

Where:
PlayMakers' Repertory Company
120 Country Club Rd
Chapel Hill, NC  27599
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Telephone: 919-962-7529

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Forget tourist-filled museums, make your own memories with a photo scavenger hunt tour in Raleigh! On a Let’s Roam scavenger hunt, you and your team will work together to wander throughout...

Cost: $11

Where:
500 S Salisbury St
raleigh, NC  27601
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Sponsor: Let's Roam
Website »

More information

Amongst the ancient oak trees is the heart of Raleigh. We'll help you see the forest for the trees and all its magic splendor. Tourist, local, or new to town, this is a lively small group activity...

Cost: $11

Where:
Downtown
500 S Salisbury St
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Sponsor: Let's Roam
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: Kelly
Website »

More information

Summer Garden Camps at the JCRA invite your child to investigate nature during half or full day camps.  Campers tend to the garden, harvest vegetables, catch insects, and create crafts from the...

Cost: Varies depending on camp week

Where:
JC Raulston Arboretum
4415 Beryl Rd
Raleigh, NC  27606
View map »


Sponsor: JC Raulston Arboretum
Telephone: (919) 513-7011
Contact Name: Elizabeth Overcash
Website »

More information

Kindermusik is a research-based early childhood curriculum that includes 45-minute classroom lessons with materials and resources that encourages parental involvement . Research has linked...

Cost: $70/month

Where:
Hope Community Building
2080 E Williams St
Hope Community Building, Fuquay Varina Room
Apex/Holly Springs, NC  27539
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Telephone: 191-990-25432
Contact Name: Leigh Hamm
Website »

More information

Skate on an ice trail or free skate on 17,000 sq. ft of ice. Located in the Upper Pond of the Whitewater Center, the skating environment features three distinct programming areas and an on-ice...

Cost: 20

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
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Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
Website »

More information

Lights is a half-mile walking trail that leads viewers through a series of immersive light installations featuring  honeycombs, vines, crystals, and other natural features integrated into the...

Cost: Free

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
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Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
Website »

More information

Sign up for a Raleigh scavenger hunt and put on your best Nick Cage impression as you seek out the national treasures hidden in Raleigh. Via an app, be guided through the cultural, historical,...

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Downtown Raleigh
500 S. Salisbury St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Sponsor: LetsRoam!
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: LetsRoam!
Website »

More information

Join us for Family Trivia Night!  Test your knowledge of pop culture, books, music and more. Pizza and drinks provided.  Call or stop by to register: 919-245-2532. Best for kids ages 8 and up...

Cost: Free

Where:
Orange County Main Library
137 W Margaret Ln
Hillsborough, NC  27278
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Sponsor: Orange County Public Library
Telephone: 919-245-2539
Contact Name: Libbie Hough
Website »

More information

Art Walk featuring local galleries and artist studios in historic downtown Hillsborough on the Last Friday of every month (no Art Walk in December).

Cost: FREE

Where:
Downtown Hillsborough (multiple locations)
102 N. Churton St.
Hillsborough, NC  27278
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Sponsor: Hillsborough Arts Council
Telephone: 919-643-2500
Contact Name: Torey Mishoe
Website »

More information

Kids! Are you sick of the Winter? Enjoy a Summer's night at Peach Road Center. Enjoy a Summer-like evening with us. Get into the luau spirit and play summer games!  

Cost: Free

Where:
Peach Road Community Center
911 Ileagnes Rd
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Sponsor: City or Raleigh Parks, Recreation & Cultural Resources
Telephone: 919-807-8545
Contact Name: Christy Famolare

More information

Hounded by Death, the character of Everybody desperately seeks out everyone and everything they know in hope of finding something meaningful to take to the grave. These 90 minutes of theatrical...

Cost: Ticket prices start at $15

Where:
PlayMakers' Repertory Company
120 Country Club Rd
Chapel Hill, NC  27599
View map »


Telephone: 919-962-7529

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Forget tourist-filled museums, make your own memories with a photo scavenger hunt tour in Raleigh! On a Let’s Roam scavenger hunt, you and your team will work together to wander throughout...

Cost: $11

Where:
500 S Salisbury St
raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: Let's Roam
Website »

More information

Join our bird enthusiast, Vernon, for an easy walk while looking and listening for our feathered friends. Discover different types of birds and their habitats.​ No preregistration required. Meet...

Cost: FREE

Where:
Lake Crabtree County Park
1400 Aviation Pkwy.
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Lake Crabtree County Park
Telephone: 919-460-3355
Contact Name: Carol Cunningham
Website »

More information

How did people predict the weather before The Weather Channel, and can animals really help? Come to the Finley Center to put our colonial weather proverbs to the test and make a pop-up woodchuck...

Cost: For all ages; FREE. Registration is not required

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »


Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

More information

Amongst the ancient oak trees is the heart of Raleigh. We'll help you see the forest for the trees and all its magic splendor. Tourist, local, or new to town, this is a lively small group activity...

Cost: $11

Where:
Downtown
500 S Salisbury St
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: Let's Roam
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: Kelly
Website »

More information

Summer Garden Camps at the JCRA invite your child to investigate nature during half or full day camps.  Campers tend to the garden, harvest vegetables, catch insects, and create crafts from the...

Cost: Varies depending on camp week

Where:
JC Raulston Arboretum
4415 Beryl Rd
Raleigh, NC  27606
View map »


Sponsor: JC Raulston Arboretum
Telephone: (919) 513-7011
Contact Name: Elizabeth Overcash
Website »

More information

Kindermusik is a research-based early childhood curriculum that includes 45-minute classroom lessons with materials and resources that encourages parental involvement . Research has linked...

Cost: $70/month

Where:
Hope Community Building
2080 E Williams St
Hope Community Building, Fuquay Varina Room
Apex/Holly Springs, NC  27539
View map »


Telephone: 191-990-25432
Contact Name: Leigh Hamm
Website »

More information

Join us to meet the educators, see the farm and learn more about our Preschool for 3-5 year olds and Camps for 4-10 year olds. We'll have a campfire for some warmth but please come dressed for the...

Cost: 0

Where:
Longleaf Forest School
4826 Mt. Moriah Road
Durhan, NC  27707
View map »


Sponsor: Longleaf Forest School
Contact Name: Tara Lawson
Website »

More information

Chinese New Year Festival, also Lunar New Year Festival. Largest public event in the Triangle. MAIN STAGE has vocal and orchestral music, folk dance, Lion and Dragon dances, martial arts, and comic...

Cost: $10 entry at door, military and senior discounts, kids<6 free

Where:
Dorton Arena, NC State Fairgrounds
1025 Blue Ridge Road
Enter Gate 1,2,4,5,11
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Sponsor: NC Triangle Area Chinese American Society
Contact Name: Michael, Shin
Website »

More information

Chinese New Year Festival or Lunar New Year Festival, largest public event in the Triangle. MAIN STAGE with musical and dance performances, Lion Dance Dragon Dance, martial arts, comic skits emceed...

Cost: $10 entry at door, military and senior discounts, kids<6 free

Where:
Dorton Arena, NC State Fairgrounds
1025 Blue Ridge Road
Enter Gate 1,2,4,5,11
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Sponsor: NC Triangle Area Chinese American Society
Contact Name: Michael, Shin
Website »

More information

Skate on an ice trail or free skate on 17,000 sq. ft of ice. Located in the Upper Pond of the Whitewater Center, the skating environment features three distinct programming areas and an on-ice...

Cost: 20

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
View map »


Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
Website »

More information

Lights is a half-mile walking trail that leads viewers through a series of immersive light installations featuring  honeycombs, vines, crystals, and other natural features integrated into the...

Cost: Free

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
View map »


Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
Website »

More information

Sign up for a Raleigh scavenger hunt and put on your best Nick Cage impression as you seek out the national treasures hidden in Raleigh. Via an app, be guided through the cultural, historical,...

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Downtown Raleigh
500 S. Salisbury St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: LetsRoam!
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: LetsRoam!
Website »

More information

Spanish Alive is providing Family Spanish classes starting in January! Join us to learn Spanish as an entire family in an immersive, fun environment. Our teachers are trained Spanish educators and...

Cost: $75-$216

Where:
Spanish Alive
156 E. Chatham St
Cary, NC
View map »


Website »

More information

Did you know that Disney, Netflix, Google and NASA, just to name a few, are all using Python? Python can be used for creating web applications, automation, programming robots and artificial...

Cost: Free: registration required

Where:
, NC


Website »

More information

FEB. 1, 2020 | 1 – 4 P.M. | BLUE JAY POINT COUNTY PARK Spend a winter afternoon getting to know Blue Jay Point County Park at our Winter Open House. Whether you’re a regular visitor or have...

Cost: Free

Where:
Blue Jay Point County Park
3200 Pleasant Union Church Road
Raleigh, NC  27614
View map »


Telephone: 919-870-4330
Website »

More information

Hounded by Death, the character of Everybody desperately seeks out everyone and everything they know in hope of finding something meaningful to take to the grave. These 90 minutes of theatrical...

Cost: Ticket prices start at $15

Where:
PlayMakers' Repertory Company
120 Country Club Rd
Chapel Hill, NC  27599
View map »


Telephone: 919-962-7529

More information

Come on out to support the NC State Gymnastics team as they take on North Carolina in a RED out on February 1st! The first 300 fans in attendance will receive an exclusive red NC State Gymnastics...

Cost: $3-$7

Where:
Reynolds Collisuem
2411 Dunn Ave.
Raleigh , NC  27607
View map »

More information

Come on out to support the NC State Gymnastics team as they take on North Carolina in a RED out on February 1st! The first 300 fans in attendance will receive an exclusive red NC State Gymnastics...

Cost: $3-$7

Where:
Reynolds Collisuem
2411 Dunn Ave.
Raleigh , NC  27607
View map »

More information

Hounded by Death, the character of Everybody desperately seeks out everyone and everything they know in hope of finding something meaningful to take to the grave. These 90 minutes of theatrical...

Cost: Ticket prices start at $15

Where:
PlayMakers' Repertory Company
120 Country Club Rd
Chapel Hill, NC  27599
View map »


Telephone: 919-962-7529

More information

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Annual Guides

Education Guide

The 2019-20 Education Guide offers 718 education resources in the Triangle, including area preschools, private schools, public school systems, charter schools, boarding schools and academic resources.

The Triangle Go-To Guide

Our Triangle Go-To Guide connects you to family fun resources across the Triangle. In our 2019-20 issue, explore 1,028 resources for family fun.