As restrictions loosen, families travel far and spend big
By Debra Kamin
Jeff Belcher, 41, wouldn’t necessarily have chosen Williamsburg, Virginia, as the destination for his family’s first vacation since travel restrictions began to ease. But when his extended family decided to travel to the American Revolution-era town for a reunion this summer, he knew that he, his wife and their three children wouldn’t miss it.
Their group of 18, which will include his parents, his sister, his aunt and uncle, and his mother-in-law and sister-in-law, will gather at the end of July and stay in several adjoining rented condos. There are plans to visit historical battlefields, check out the recreations of Jamestown Settlement ships, and enjoy outdoor meals while the family’s youngest generation — eight kids in total — play together after more than a year apart.
Far-flung families are combining traveling and being together — two of the most longed-for practices during more than a year of pandemic lockdowns — into elaborate new twists on the old-fashioned family reunion. In a recent survey by Wyndham Destinations, the nation’s largest timeshare company, 75% of respondents said they were planning to travel for a family reunion in 2021; in a March survey from American Express Travel, 71% of respondents said they planned to travel to visit loved ones they hadn’t been able to see during the pandemic, and 60% said a 2021 family reunion was in the works.
Properties that cater to large-scale gatherings are feeling the windfall. At Woodloch, a Pennsylvania family resort in the Pocono Mountains, multigenerational travel has always been their bread and butter. But bookings for 2021 are already outpacing 2019, with 117 reservations currently on the books (2019 saw 162 bookings total). “Demand is stronger than it has ever been,” said Rory O’Fee, Woodloch’s director of marketing.
Salamander Hotels & Resorts, which has five properties in Florida, Virginia, South Carolina and Jamaica, has seen 506 family reunions already booked in 2021, accounting for $2.47 million in revenue. In the full calendar year of 2019, they saw only 368 events total, worth about $1.31 million. Club Med said that 16% of its 2021 bookings are multigenerational, compared with 3% in 2019.
Guided tours are also newly becoming more popular with families looking to reunite: Guy Young, president of Insight Vacations, launched several new small private group trips — which can be booked for as few as 12 people and include a private bus and travel director — after noting that extended families accounted for 20% of his business in March and April, compared to a prepandemic average of 8%. “Coming out of COVID, with families separated for many months, we saw a significant increase in demand for multigenerational family travel,” he said.
Reuniting at long last
Traveling together will also offer families a chance to reconnect offline after many months of Skype and screen time.
Esther Palevsky, 70, lives in Solon, Ohio, and hasn’t seen her 7-year-old grandson, Sylvester, since before the pandemic. So this summer, she and her husband, Mark, 71, will fly to Reno, Nevada — their first flight in more than a year — and then drive to California’s Lake Tahoe. Palevsky’s daughter, Stacey, and her son-in-law, Ben Lewis, will drive with Sylvester from San Francisco to meet them, and the family will spend several nights at an Airbnb in the Sierra Nevada mountains. It will be a new experience for the Palevskys, who prefer to take cruises when they have vacation time. Neither has ever been to Lake Tahoe, and they have limited experience with Airbnb. The location and accommodations, said Esther Palevsky, didn’t matter much. She just wants to squeeze her grandson.
“Just thinking about hugging him again, I get teary-eyed,” said Palevsky, who has been reading chapter books with Sylvester over video chat throughout the pandemic in order to stay in touch. “I’m sure I’ll see Sylvester and think about how big he looks. On the tablet, you just can’t tell.”
Sandy Pappas, the owner of Sandy Pappas Travel, said that on an average year, 5% of her clients are booking family reunion trips. This year, that number is already between 15% and 20%.
“I do a lot of family travel but it’s usually just a family of four or five. Now I’m getting two adult kids and their families and grandparents, and sometimes both sets of grandparents. And everyone is spending more money because nobody ate out or traveled in 2020, so they have funds left over,” she said.
Not your old-fashioned family reunion
While the demand for travel across all sectors is high, family travel was predicted to eventually lead the way for the industry’s rebound after a staggering collapse. Travel advisers spent most of 2020 creating socially distanced itineraries for nuclear families that were already living together during lockdown. But now, they say, the most popular type of family trip is the reunion that brings far-flung relatives back into the fold.
Kate Johnson, owner of KJ Travel in Houston, says she has seen a sixfold increase in family reunion travel compared to last year, and she expects the number to continue to climb. She is also planning her own family reunion trip with 17 family members, including her daughters, their grandparents, cousins and aunts, to Disney World in Florida, in November.
“When I get requests and I see how tight availability is for accommodation, it definitely makes me feel a sense of urgency to get my own family to start planning,” she said.
Properties are leaning into the trend, rolling out packages geared toward family reunions and even hiring dedicated staff to shepherd the events.
After noticing that a nearly 20% spike in bookings was coming from seniors looking to reconnect with younger family, the Deer Path Inn, in Lake Forest, Illinois, relaunched its Gramping Getaway Package, which includes an outdoor scavenger hunt and an afternoon tea that can be enjoyed by all ages, including little ones as well as Gram and Gramps.
Meanwhile, the Westin Cape Coral Resort at Marina Village created a new staff position to oversee such group trips: chief reunion officer. Tosha Wollney, who was promoted to the position from her previous post of senior catering sales executive, will be busy: In 2019 the property had two family reunions, and in the last five weeks alone, they’ve booked five.
Private jets, budget-busting plans
And after using the act of planning for future travel to get many isolated families through the darkest months of the pandemic, many of the reunions on the books are truly budget-busting. Private jet travel, which surged during the pandemic, is increasingly popular among large families. Jessica Fisher, founder of the aviation marketplace Flyjets, said private jet bookings for families on her site have doubled since last year.
“There is this readiness to ‘move’ in safe ways among groups, especially for those who are choosing to reunite with extended family,” she said in an email.
Spending is up, as well, as families splurge on longer and more elaborate trips together than they might have prepandemic.
“During the worst of COVID, when people were unable to see their grandparents, what started happening was clients planning these epic, complex itineraries for the future,” said Brendan Drewniany, communications director for luxury-travel company Black Tomato. “The rise of multigenerational is the biggest trend we can track.”