2021 Is Officially the Year of the Destination Family Reunion
With families planning elaborate get-togethers after a year apart, a new vertical within the hospitality sector has emerged
In the throes of the pandemic and an overall dismal year, Bobbie and Bill Kilberg ushered in their 50th year of marriage. Typically half a century of being married to the same person warrants an opulent celebration; needless to say, the circumstances last year were anything but typical, and the Kilbergs had to put their big day on hold.
It wasn’t until very recently that the couple was able to celebrate in the manner in which they’d long envisioned: at Exclusive Resorts’ “Real Del Mar” in Mexico, where the Kilbergs are members, and with their entire immediate family. And so 24 far-flung family members, including 13 grandchildren, all of whom had been previously separated in some capacity, reunited at a private resort in Mexico and feted Bobbie and Bill’s anniversary with dinners on the beach and swims with dolphins. It’s one of nearly a thousand seemingly similar events that Exclusive Resorts will host this year.
According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, almost 90 percent of Americans reported experiencing a negative change in their lives stemming from the pandemic — an unsurprising statistic. But according to that same study, the single-most common cause for those feelings was “missing family and friends and worrying about losing touch with people they used to see in person,” which explains the precipitous uptick in family reunions over the course of the last eight months. More specifically, destination family reunions.
A luxury vacation, members-only club geared towards families, it’s no surprise that the Kilbergs entrusted Exclusive Resorts with the oversight of their anniversary blowout. Between January and July of this year, more than 200 members had booked 500 trips — all for more than one private, single-family vacation residence. Another 180 members have made around 400 reservations through the end of the year.
“The team has received more requests to book multiple homes within one destination to house extended family and friends than ever before,” says Exclusive Resorts CEO James Henderson. “Many of our homes offer ample room to accommodate more than one family, so the increase in requests from our Members to book multiple homes within one destination suggests that larger family reunions are taking place.”
In fact, there’s been such a notable increase in family reunions and adjacent events that it’s created the need for new positions within the hospitality sector dedicated solely to orchestrating them. The Westin Cape Coral Resort at Marina Village, for example, recently debuted a Chief Reunion Officer (CRO) role, and both the Sesuit Harbor House and Chapter House in Cape Cod now employ something called a Reunion Designer.
Silvia Baxter and her husband Phil have worked in the hospitality industry for over 30 years, at both large branded hotels and boutique properties alike. They now operate Baxter Hospitality, the umbrella company under which Sesuit Harbor House lives. It is there that Baxter now serves as Reunion Designer. They’ve hosted eight family reunions so far on the year, including one full property buyout of family and friends.
“My main responsibilities include arrangement of rooms and an exciting itinerary of experiences tailored to each group’s desire,” Baxter says. “Prior to guest arrival, we speak with the host on what they hope to get out of the trip. From there we arrange group outings to town [and] experiences on the water. On property, I work to set up family dinners outside by the grills and activities for kids.”
Similarly, Tosha Wollney functions as both the Chief Reunion Officer and the Senior Catering Sales Executive at the Westin Cape Coral Resort, a hybrid role that developed organically to service the growing number of large groups at the property.
“With this new CRO role, I arrange for families to participate in several on and off-property experiences, from golf tournaments and fishing charters to sunset cruises and banquet dinners. [It’s] truly about enhancing the overall guest experience,” Wollney says.
“Some families have requested customized menus to incorporate family favorite recipes, while others have created family-named signature drinks to be featured at our dining outlets. One family even partnered with a local distillery to host a rum-tasting event,” she adds.
Wollney believes that the creation of positions like CRO will become increasingly commonplace as the demand for family reunions and other large group gatherings continues to rise.
“The experiences and programs groups can participate in become much richer and more meaningful when there is a team member at the resort committed to arranging the ultimate reunion,” she says.
While the range of responsibilities differs slightly from resort to resort and across positions, the one thing that everyone agrees on is this: the desire to travel as a family, or in generally large groups, is here to stay. At the risk of sounding morbid, people have a heightened sense of respect for their own mortality, and want to make up for lost time. For all that has been lost to the pandemic, so too has the trope that family reunions are tedious obligations that get in the way of other, grander plans. Why not kill two trips with one booking, and celebrate them to the fullest extent?
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