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Written by:  Kathleen M. Reilly
Date: November 1, 2011

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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