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African-American reunions: It’s all relative(s)

Tom Noonan, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, notes that he is one of 11 children, and when his family gets together, there will be around 45 people. However, when African-American families hold a reunion, there will be several hundred people.

“African-Americans are at the forefront of it [the growing popularity of family reunions],” said Noonan.  “Everybody has family reunions, but it seems to be a much bigger thing in their culture. It is a wonderful tradition; more people should do it.”

Family reunions, especially large African-American family get-togethers, are also good business for cities such as Baltimore.

“Family reunions are a big part of our summer business,” said Noonan.

“They are extremely important,” said Tammi Runzler, senior vice president of convention sales and services for the Orlando Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau in Florida. “They are good business for Orlando.”

Because of their economic importance, many convention and visitors bureaus and tourism commissions offer a valuable helping hand to reunion planners.

“CVB staff are an invaluable resource for reunion planners,” said Edith Wagner, editor of “Reunions” magazine. “Whether you’re planning a reunion for the first time or are just running short on time, CVBs can provide extra resources, ideas and, in some cases, extra hands reunion planners need. They are essential.”

“Some planners are not aware of what a CVB can do,” said Kimberly Ghys, senior sales manager for the Lake County, Ill., Convention and Visitors Bureau. “A lot are doing it on a first-time basis and are not sure who to contact.

“We can get the ball rolling from the start. It is a great chance for them to save time and money and a lot of energy. We can do all the leg work for them.”

Runzler agreed: “We definitely encourage people who are bringing family reunions to engage the CVB. That goes for any destination. We know that most people planning reunions have other responsibilities. It is not a full-time job for them. We make it as efficient in time as possible.”

The range of services offered by CVBs run the gamut, from helping reunion planners find a hotel to providing gifts and registration services when the family members arrive.

“A host city’s convention and visitors bureau can be incredibly valuable in helping to arrange group accommodations, provide activity and restaurant suggestions as well as inter-city transportation ideas,” said Craig Richards, founder and publisher of the website

Here’s a look at how some CVBs work with African-American family reunion planners to make their life easier and their reunions a success.

Noonan said Baltimore, the host city for the 2012 African American Travel Conference, stresses its rich African-American heritage to potential family reunions.

“Every year at the African American Heritage Festival we have a tent to encourage people to do their family reunion in Baltimore,” he said.

“When family members come to town, they can look at all the attractions, but we also have the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History and Culture, the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum and the Douglass-Myers Maritime Park on the waterfront, the first black-owned shipyard in the United States.

“There is a lot of history here in Baltimore. If you are going to have a gathering of a couple of hundred people, that is about heritage. They want to meet distant relatives and have that connection.”

Visit Baltimore works with the local library system to have kiosks that visiting family members can use for genealogical research.

Once a family decides to have a reunion in Baltimore, Noonan said the CVB has a staff member who will work with the planner or the planning committee to find an available date and hotel rooms, help secure rates, do itineraries, find restaurants and attractions, secure discounts and provide collateral material to promote the reunion.

Lake County, Ill.
Ghys said her main selling points to family reunions are the county’s easily accessible location between Milwaukee and Chicago, great outdoors areas for family picnics and activities, attractions such as the Six Flags theme park and the large Gurnee Mills mall for shopping.

“We take all of their information to understand their requirements, send out the information to all our hotel partners and get proposals,” she said. “We pull all that information together for them.
“We will schedule site tours for them to visit in person, and they can try it out overnight. Once they select a hotel, we can help confirm picnics, tickets to attractions and create customized sample itineraries.”

The Lake County CVB also has a special website — — for reunion planners and will hold its third annual Family Reunion Workshop and FAM tour Sept. 23-25 with educational sessions by Wagner of “Reunions” magazine and exhibits by local hotels and attractions.

“Once they arrive, we provide complimentary welcome bags with a map of the area, our visitor magazine, a welcome letter and a small giveaway,” said Ghys. “We can also do comp nametags and a family banner. Everything we do is complimentary; we do whatever it takes.”

“We treat family reunions like any other group,” said Runzler. “We have special services to help planners.”

As with other bureaus, that begins with helping find a hotel, which can be an overwhelming experience in Orlando with its 15,000 hotel rooms. “We can help identify hotels that fit their needs,” said Runzler, “what price point they looking for, what part of Orlando they want to be in — near the attractions or downtown

“We will contact the hotels on their behalf, save them some steps, long distance calls and time. We compile all that information into pretty easy to read charts.”

The bureau helps secure discount attraction tickets and find venues that allow groups to bring in their own food. “We have a list of venues open to those types of arrangements, we help cut to the chase,” said Runzler.

One of the most popular services the CVB offers is a special webpage for each family reunion.
“We design, develop and post at no cost a customized webpage for their reunion,” said Runzler. “We talk to the planners; it’s not what I want, it’s want they want. Maybe they want personal photos or information about shopping, dining and transportation.

“We do two complimentary e-blasts to potential attendees. We manage all of that for them; they don’t have to do a thing.”

The Philadelphia Multicultural Affairs Congress (MAC), a division of the convention and visitors bureau, works closely with family reunion planners in a number of ways.

“We don’t negotiate rates, but we put them in direct contact with folks at the hotels,” said Tonya Hall, MAC executive director. “We do that free. We also can help walk them through what a typical reunion likes and help them in reaching city government if they want a proclamation or help them find a local to print T-shirts, bags and so forth.”

Staff members will also offer sample weekend itineraries and family reunion checklists.
A big help for reunion planners in the recently launched website, an extensive resource that gives families the opportunity to develop their own webpages and photo galleries for free

Birmingham, Ala.
Birmingham’s leading role in the civil rights movement attracts both natives and those with no connection to the Alabama city to plan their family reunions there.

“We have a lot of families whose ancestors or relatives migrated north who basically want to come back home and learn about their history in Birmingham’s civil rights movement,” said Sara Fuller Hamlin, vice president of tourism for the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau. “And we have discovered a lot of families without any ties to Birmingham who want to have reunions here because of the rich history in Birmingham and Alabama.”

The CVB has a special website that leads planners through all the areas needed for a reunion. “From hot rates on group hotels to top meeting facilities and great attractions, we can meet your group’s needs. And don’t forget, we are here to help you,” proclaims the website.

The site allows reunion planners to search the Birmingham area hotels alphabetically, by size and by location. They can submit a FastTrackRFP for a rapid reply.

The website also allows for searches for unique reception facilities, suppliers and transportation that includes contact information, links to websites and links to maps and driving directions.
Planners can also request the bureau’s “Reunion Planners Guide” by mail and can sign up for the bureau’s annual reunion planner workshop.