Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: September/October 2011
BM&T's Annual African-American Reunions Focus
By: Mary Bleier describes the word reunion as, “…a gathering of relatives, friends, or associates at regular intervals or after separation…the act or process of coming together again…” And it seems, that despite our turbulent economy, some Black families and associates are choosing to keep that commitment of coming together “at regular intervals” no matter what. Even when money is tight and expenses are cut, many tend to focus on things that are important in life, such as family and maintaining friendships, which is why the reunion business is still going strong in places like the Sunshine state.

Nestled in the westernmost tip of Florida’s panhandle, sits the beautiful beach city of Pensacola. Known for it’s sugar-white beaches and home to the Blue Angels, this city is a relaxing backdrop for reunions. Boasting about 350 reunions a year, with 75% of that number being African-American families, Pensacola’s rich heritage is a big draw for many. “It’s a really diverse destination,” says Laura Lee, director of Communications for the Pensacola Convention and Visitor’s Bureau (CVB). She adds that what makes Pensacola so appealing is that even in today’s economy, families can still gather without feeling the strain on their budgets. “Pensacola is affordable and people can drive here. And when times are tough, people might not do Disney World or cruises…but we have beautiful beaches. We are not as big as Orlando or Miami, but we can keep the price down.”

Lee says that 30 % of the city is African-American and many residents invite their extended families for reunions. Pensacola also has strong African-American roots, which makes it an educational place for family reunions as well. Much of that history is highlighted throughout the city’s African-American Heritage Trail with historical sites such as the home of Daniel “Chappie” James, the first African-American Four-Star General and Johnson Beach, named after Army Private Rosamond Johnson, Jr., the first Black Pensacola native to die in the Korean War. Pensacola also offers jazz, art, and entertainment, with many free festivals year-round. Lee suggests groups try planning their trip in the Spring or Fall when hotel rates are cut by as much as 50%.

Not only can the CVB help negotiate better rates for large groups, but also help with the planning process, registration, setting up tours, activities, and transportation. Besides assisting with families, the CVB helps with military reunions as well. Pensacola is an active military hub with impressive history and celebrates the Centennial of Naval aviation at the National Naval Aviation Museum in 2011.

Heading Northeast, another prime spot for military reunions, is the resort city of Virginia Beach, a picture-perfect playground for groups wanting to enjoy an oceanfront vacation. With three active military bases, the Virginia Beach Aviation Museum and the Veterans Memorial Park, many military reunion groups find this city especially welcoming. “The Military Reunion market is an important meeting sector for Virginia Beach. We are fortunate to be home for many of the military installations,” notes Al Hutchinson, vice president of Convention Sales and Marketing for the Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB). He adds, “Our commitment to grow this market segment is demonstrated by the CVB having a dedicated sales manager focused on this market, advertising in targeted military reunion publications and exhibiting at military reunion tradeshows.”

Currently, the CVB averages 17 military reunions a year and says this market is actually increasing, with many Vietnam Veterans planning reunions for fellow soldiers. The CVB also says that while they do book about two or three military reunions that are specifically African-American groups, most of the those reunions are geared towards former shipmates reconnecting. Typically these reunions are held April to May or in September and October, with groups arriving Wednesday and departing on Saturday. And since Virginia Beach is a military-friendly city, the CVB says most hotels offer competitive rates year-round.

The CVB also hosts approximately 10-15 family reunions a year. The groups usually stay two to three nights and since July is a peak month for reunions, a money-saving idea might be to schedule your event in the Fall/Winter. The CVB helps to assist in the planning process for all reunion groups, offering support in obtaining the best room rates, coordinating tours, attractions and welcome kits.

Staying in the southeastern part of the U.S., another destination that is very popular with large groups for its price, cultural/musical history, and Southern hospitality, is the great state of Georgia. About 85 miles south of Atlanta, Macon is one of the biggest cities in central Georgia and the reunion business is booming. “Families will meet regardless of the economy, and sometimes especially when things are challenging, to enjoy the support of being together,” says Robin North, vice president of Convention Sales and Services for the Macon-Bibb County, Georgia Convention and Visitors Bureau. 98% of the Macon-Bibb County’s reunion business comes from family gatherings and that area is also seeing a new trend – adding healthcare to the mix. Pammie Jimmar, the Reunion Workshop facilitator for the Bureau says some family reunion groups are requesting speakers and information on health concerns regarding African-Americans, such as diabetes, cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart disease. “It’s a community service, so there’s no charge to groups and you can make it like a little health fair, either at registration or at breakfast,” added Jimmar.

With so many people planning to visit the Macon-Bibb County area, the CVB offers the Family Reunion Workshop. It’s aimed directly at the non-professional planner. “We value the reunion market segment, “ says North. “The Family Reunion Workshop features general information on planning an event, checklists, and a small table-top trade show with local hotels, facilities, and other vendors. Our CVB sales reps are also present to answer questions and help planners with booking rooms for out of town guests.” North says the goal is to expand the workshop to include military, class and fraternal reunions with help in planning. The next Family Reunion Workshop is scheduled for August 2012. However, if reunion planners can’t attend the Workshop, the CVB provides PDF workbooks to help with the planning process.

North offers tips to planners, advising that planning should begin at least one year prior to the event, with a committee in place and contacting the CVB. Also, having a reunion during off-peak times, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, can save money. Another great way to save money is to head up the road to the Bluegrass State for your next gathering. Home of the exhilarating Kentucky Derby, elaborate derby hats and smooth bourbon, Louisville is an exciting place to visit and has lots to offer at great rates. “Planners are looking for cities that have unique attractions and affordable hotels which adds value to, and fits their attendees’ budgets during a down economy,” says Peggy Riley, director of Multicultural Sales for the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB). “They are also looking for cities close to home where people can drive to, which helps to save on traveling expenses, plus when people can drive at their own leisure, the attendance tends to go up.”

Centrally located for half the nation’s population, Louisville is a big city with a small-town feel, which is one of the reasons it attracts more than forty African-American family reunions a year, with about 2% of its reunion business coming from military and class gatherings. Riley says Louisville has seen the overall reunion business stay steady since 2007, with a slight increase in class reunions for 2011. Riley adds that while most reunions are about three days long and typically held during summer, planners can often get better deals by holding the event after the first week of May (after the Kentucky Derby) and also at the end of September. Riley says that the CVB offers free quarterly Reunion Workshops. These workshops are designed for anyone planning a reunion, introducing them to hotels, suppliers and vendors. It’s geared for first-time planners as well as the super-organized. “We also find that experienced planners attend the workshop to get new and fresh ideas,” says Riley. The next workshop series are scheduled for November 2011 and February, May, August and November 2012. The CVB also offers a free planning kit, which is another great tool that includes step-by-step advice and resource information. The CVB has a reunion team in place to help with details, including providing itineraries highlighting Louisville’s diverse history and all of the fun things to do. Besides plenty of fascinating Derby history, people can plan group outings to visit The Muhammad Ali Center, the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage, Waterfront Park, Fourth Street Live!, and participate in a self-guided Civil Rights driving tour.

However, if your groups are looking for fun, sun and colorful Caribbean flare without needing a passport, the United States Virgin Islands (USVI) are for most, a non-stop flight away. Beverly Nicholson-Doty, U.S. Virgin Islands Commissioner of Tourism since 2007, says while they typically don’t record union bookings by sub-categories, they have been receiving more inquiries recently from African-American reunion groups planning trips to the islands. Based on that information, Nicholson-Doty estimates that the Department of Tourism hosts about 10 – 20 African-American family reunions a year and most visit for much more than blue water and white sandy beaches. “The requests typically come from families with USVI and other Caribbean ties who are returning to the islands to trace their roots or learn more about their heritage.” She also adds that her department helps to provide groups assistance from the minute they land until departure time by providing personalized welcome kits and working with Destination Management Companies that offer comprehensive services for groups.

“In the last three months, we’ve fulfilled requests for tourism materials for three class reunions and I’m currently assisting with planning for a group of ladies from the Virgin Islands who are returning to celebrate their 50th birthdays,” says Nicholson-Doty. She adds that most reunion group trips last 5 – 7 days and that USVI, which consists of three islands – St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix – are so close together, attendees can make day trips out of each island. And while the USVI is sunny and warm year-round, some of the island’s best deals for planners/organizers can be found during the summer months. Besides all-inclusive hotels, resorts, shopping in Charlotte Amalie, and a variety of water sports, the USVI is also teeming with amazing history, such as the distinction of having the first African-American Governor and then later Federal Judge, William H. Hastie. Groups can learn more about Caribbean roots by visiting places like Fort Frederick on St. Croix, Emancipation Park on St. Thomas or the African slave revolt of 1733 in St. John.

For more information, visit:
• Pensacola, FL –
• Virginia Beach, VA –
• Macon-Bibb, GA –
• Louisville, KY –
• United States Virgin Islands –