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Heather Wines | GNS

Move over Norman Rockwell, the holiday reunion has a new face

By LARK BORDEN | Gannett News Service

Immediately after Christmas last year, former President George Bush and first lady Barbara mustered nearly two dozen family members representing four generations and headed out to sea for a three-day cruise to the Bahamas.

The ruling clan of the land was illustrating what Americans of all ages, faiths and cultures are doing in record numbers — reuniting. It is a staple in the national fabric — the Norman Rockwell portrait of families sharing and making holiday memories.

So why are the travel industry, communications companies, entertainment conglomerates and Internet providers trying to convince us this is a new phenomenon and asking us to get on the love train to the annual family reunion?

Easy. This is no longer a Rockwell world and big business has discovered:

— The nation has popped out of its cozy nests for these gatherings and the era trend prophet Faith Popcorn labeled "cocooning" in 1981 is over. (Popcorn defined cocooning as "the need to protect oneself from the harsh, unpredictable realities of the outside world," and foretold of the return to home arts of decorating, cooking and entertaining at home, opening the door for the Martha Stewart decades.

— The '90s were about "acquiring things," says researcher and consultant to major travel providers Peter Yesowich, who also produces the National Travel Monitor newsletter. Now, he says, "it's all about family."

— The annual holiday reunion now is not just a Thanksgiving-to-Christmas affair. Call them wintermissions or summerludes, but many busy families have gotten too big and too scattered, too multicultural and too multifaith to corral annually and exclusively at a time when school sports slip into high gear and extended families find their schedules under siege.

— Americans are taking fewer extended vacations from work, opting instead for several three- and four-day family holidays.

— We feel guilty. Yesowich says the urge to reunite for quality time is "a surrogate for the time we didn't spend together at dinner during the week or the soccer games we missed on Saturdays because we're all so busy doing many other things. As a result, there is this sense of parental guilt that has emerged in America because we feel a real yearning to spend time together."

Don't blame Sept. 11

Edith Wagner of Milwaukee began a small magazine, Reunions, 14 years ago. It was successful and Wagner was content with the venture's quarterly publication. But last year, editor Wagner realized demand for the magazine and an expanding all-ages audience required her to increase its frequency to bimonthly. She is also the author of "The Family Reunion Sourcebook" (Lowell House, L.A., $16.95).

Like other trend-watchers, Wagner agrees the "gatherings" trends were in place before the national tragedies of 2001. Sept. 11 just put the phenomenon into fast-forward mode.

Other signposts she has identified through readership, letters and surveys:

"The biggest change since I started the magazine 14 years ago of course has to be the Internet," says Wagner. "Families would not have the number of contacts they have now if it was not for e-mail and the Internet."

Even post-Sept. 11, Wagner says the reunions are traveling away from family homes and hometowns more frequently.

"What happened 9/11 affected everyone in some way, but it did not affect reunions in terms of travel. There are more reunions, there are more people thinking about reunions, particularly this time of year when the holidays come. Every Christmas party you go to is a reunion," says Wagner.

When it comes to traveling, Wagner says the family reunion has allowed many clans to create their own holidays.

"Not everyone can get home for Christmas or Rosh Hashanah or whatever your particular holiday is, but I've heard many reunion planners say 'I don't expect everyone here for Christmas, but I do expect them here for the family reunion.'"

Says Yesowich, "Within 24 hours of 9/11, we polled 1,000 people about their travel plans. About one-third said they were afraid to fly and 'I won't travel' and 'travel is too big a hassle with lines at the airport' and so forth. All of that was an issue. Today the percentage of people who say they are afraid to fly is infinitesimal. It's in the single digits and here we are only two years later. It's amazing how quickly we acclimate to these things."

Other reunion trends:

"Some reunions are getting so big that it is too difficult to have them in someone's outing of some kind is almost mandatory for any reunion that is a weekend long," says Wagner.

"I'm seeing more and more families having their reunions catered. They're too busy to prepare everything so it's only reasonable to get rid of as much of the grunt work as possible and spend (quality) time with family at the reunion."

Among the many generations jumping on the reunion bandwagon, Wagner says her surveys have shown that the only age group that is conspicuously absent is the gap between "20 to 28 or so - the older ones that are married with kids are the ones that get started because they are the ones who want their own children to join into their families."

She says today, "almost 50 percent of family reunions happen every year."

Who is doing the planning?

When it comes to the complex job of organizing family gatherings, "the planners skew older (over 50) and they skew female," says Wagner. "Although, I have to admit that when I find a male planning a reunion, they are far more into it and more passionate because they almost make it a job.

According to Yesowich, "Every nine seconds in this country, someone turns 50 years of age and there will be another 3 million fifty-somethings in the course of the next 12 months. What happens is that you pass that age marker and move into the 55 range, you get into a little more leisure time ... and it's great news for everyone in the travel business because not only is this the most well-traveled generation in our generation, but it is also the wealthiest.

"If you put those two together and ask who is typically assigned the task of getting all of this (gatherings) organized, the answer is probably an older member of the household," says Yesowich.

This is not lost on big business.

Michael Eisner, chief of the Disney empire who grew up in New Jersey, says "I remember the hassle of having 15 or 17 members of our family going on vacation together and trying to figure out how to make reservations for the restaurant, how to get hotel rooms anywhere near each other. ... We (Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.) learned from our weddings (business), where we transport and entertain (multiple) generations.

"I personally talked George Bush Sr., into using the cruise ship. The only difference for the cruise (and its other guests) was that a Coast Guard cutter followed them the entire trip. Other than that, it was exactly the same (reunion) anyone else would experience."