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No place like home for reunion? Travel industry thinks it has better idea

By LARK BORDEN | Gannett News Service

Little Johnny has a basketball tournament during the planned family reunion. Cousin Suzie needs to use her time off from school to practice figure skating. Dad wants to head to warmer climates and get in some offseason golf. Mom wants spa time. Aunts and uncles are opting for a cruise. Uncle Joe says he’s too busy at the office to make time for a reunion, holiday or no holiday.

“Have you ever tried to corral a family?” asks Kathy Sudeikis, who sees her job as doing just that for families who have trouble getting together.

Sudeikis, a Mission, Kan., travel agent, has found a niche in the national travel market specializing in what she calls “intergenerational family travel,” and she says, “it has become a very lucrative niche.”

In fact, while the media was writing obituaries for travel agents after airlines took away their commissions and do-it-yourself Internet sites threatened to seal their fate, survivors are thriving and other travel providers are jumping on board the “reunion” frenzy with zeal.

“Organizing a family gathering is like trying to bring together stray cats,” says Sudeikis, who sees her importance as being a third party who can get tough with family members to convince them of the immediate value in getting together.

“An unbiased third party is the key to success,” she says. “The agent and not a sibling — who says her brother is being a procrastinator — can call the sibling and say ‘C’mon, get off the stick … these are the plans and let’s get moving on this.”

"Even more important," says Sudeikis, the travel agent can act as the third party with another sibling who “is being a pill and says ‘this is a terrible time for us.’”

“My job is to say ‘Look, if the worst happens to your family, you will drop everything and you will all come together, so why can’t you come together for something as special as this?’ I can say it, the siblings can’t. It’s what gets people off the dime. We don’t have to get caught up in the family dynamics and interpersonal relationships.”

Edith Wagner, editor of Reunions magazine says family reunions differ from military and class reunions in that most families prefer to be hands-on in the planning process.

But as families and extended families outgrow all but the largest mansions and time demands rage out of control, that process grows more and more complex.

“You could do this online piecemeal, but you don’t know what you don’t know without a travel agent,” says Sudeikis.

Others in the travel industry are jumping on board, too.

They include Royal Caribbean cruises, the Westin hotel and resort chain, Marriott hotels, Hilton, Beaches resorts, and others. There’s also ground zero for families — Disney, which launched its Magical Gatherings program this fall.

Disney is incorporating Sudeikis’ advice and apparently recognizes families’ demand to be involved in planning their own reunion experiences. The travel empire has created a Web site in which families can log on, far-flung members can plug in their individual requirements for reunion vacations and can communicate with one another through a “Magical Gatherings” Web site and then, with assistance from Disney’s travel planners, customize their reunion.

Linda Warren, executive vice president of marketing for Walt Disney World Resort says the Web-based tool allows every participating family member to participate in the planning through a listserv e-mail network. “There is still going to be a need for a group leader, but there is a voting capability. If five people are voting and Timmy and Grandma want to do something different than the others, we can do something to make them feel special and make that happen” during the gathering.

Are so many travel providers jumping on the family gatherings bandwagon that it might be in danger of becoming overcommercialized?

Reunions editor Wagner says no. That while you might think so, “When we poll readers and ask them, if price was no object, ‘Where would you want to have your family reunion?’ they almost always say ‘a cruise or Disney World.’”

Jay Rasulo, president of Disney’s Parks and Resorts division shoots from the hip on the phenomenon.

“We all know there is still some reticence to travel for economic reasons — sometimes for geopolitical reasons — you’ve got to be out there with a message that breaks through and touches people. If it’s 'Magical Gatherings,' fantastic.

"The reunions theme “resonates with people not only relative to their own lives and what they like to do and how everything we do is about family and togetherness and creating memories,” he says.

Says Rasulo about allowing families to customize their reunion: “What was good 10 or 15 years ago — the one-size-fits all philosophy — hardly fits in any business so it’s no surprise it doesn’t fit ours either.”

Disney chief Michael Eisner, speaking with Gannett News Service, questions how new the reunion trend is but understands why it is becoming more important.

“There is a need to be in the outside world, the real world, and to appreciate entertainment in a crowd … whether it’s a movie theater, a theme park or Broadway, this is a three-dimensional world where you actually live.” (When you’re having a reunion) “you’re not on your computer playing your game … you are actually experiencing it.”

“That said, I think people have wanted to vacation with their families forever. The idea of gathering as an extended family is not new. I think historically the idea of parents living with grandparents in the same house (is part of) the American immigrant mentality. What is new is the aging population so that there are more grandparents that have more of a desire and are more affluent." They want "to do something with the rest of their family.”