Big city, southern hospitality and a brilliant CVB by Jacky Runice

In the daily struggle we call life on earth, some things are, without question, really easy to figure out. The best long-distance bicyclist? That’s a no-brainer: Lance Armstrong. If you want the very best on your table, get Bohemian crystal from the Czech Republic. And in a dead heat, the best-looking couple currently walking the planet is either Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston or Will and Jada Pinkett Smith. If you check just the facts, ma’am, you’ll realize that Atlanta, Georgia, is the one of the best corners of the world to hold a reunion, especially for African Americans. The southern city was named “America’s most popular city for African American travelers,” by the Travel Industry Association of America in 2004. It must be a nice place to visit because so many African Americans like living there, too. Atlanta was selected as the top city for African Americans to live, work and play by Black Enterprise (2004). Add the facts that the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau (ACVB) offers an annual multicultural tourism Heritage Guide, innovative reunion workshops and it’s home to the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. Here you have a slam-dunk, ideal spot to gather and celebrate family heritage.

Of the more than 17.3 million visitors to Atlanta last year, as many as 25 percent were African Americans, and family reunions accounted for a significant portion of those visiting.

The ACVB designates a sales manager who specializes in family reunions, booking more than 25,000 room nights in 2003. The help provided to Willie Tucker for the Tucker Family Reunion is typical for Atlanta CVB standards. “I called the Atlanta CVB to help me plan a family reunion and was told I hit the jackpot,” Tucker explained. “Lydia Douglas (the aforementioned Sales Manager whiz) sent our information to hotels, t-shirt vendors, car rental agencies and more. I received tons of literature, from hotels to bottled water companies.” The Tucker Family meets every other year and the July 2004 gathering was Tucker’s turn to step up and host the event. Tucker, who lives in McDonough, an Atlanta suburb, decided upon using the adjacent Holiday Inn and Country Inn and Suites. “The CVB got a contact for a Friday family fish fry,” he said. “Lydia Douglas helped to reserve a pavilion at the International Beach that was made for the Olympics, where our children played games and enjoyed kiddie pools. We played horseshoes and had a catered barbecue.” The roughly 60 family members ranged in age from infant to mid-60s and a good time was had by all. “Atlanta is a city with a lot of history, especially African American history,” Tucker explained. “We did a heritage tour and came down to see fireworks at Centennial Olympic Park.”

Atlanta is home of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, the annual National Black Arts Festival and the largest collection of historically black colleges and universities, and is a top destination for African American family reunions. The city’s annual multicultural tourism guide is available in print or online at

Classic overachievers, the ACVB thought even more could be accomplished to attract family reunions to the beautiful southern city, so Family Reunion Workshops were born. Lydia Douglas got the word out to the community and the first Family Reunion Workshop was held at Wyndham Atlanta, with 37 family reunion planners. After two years of Family Reunion Workshops, the ACVB assists an average of over 300 families each year. Workshops are held in January, June and September, and center upon a Family Reunion Packet, created by Douglas, that could be called the bible for planning an Atlanta reunion. A typical workshop now averages about 100 to 125 planners from all over the country. It begins with a warm welcome, an introduction to the host hotel staff and a jump into the deep end of the reunion planning pool. You’ll get details involved in planning a successful gathering. The ACVB enumerates all its services offered to planners and describes the city’s wealth of attractions, cultural activities and venues. A speaker follows. The June 2004 workshop, for example, featured the Rev. Terry F. Walker Sr., who discussed “Philanthropy and the Family.” Rev. Walker is the Vice President of Institutional Advancement at the Interdenominational Theological Center. After a summary and refreshments, planners make a site inspection of the host hotel. Douglas expanded the site inspection idea and now takes planners to other member hotels at the conclusion of the workshop. The September 2004 workshop realized additional growth. “Representatives from several attractions had booths with give-aways to interact with workshop attendees,” Douglas explained. Greg Rancone, Director of Marketing, made a special presentation about the new aquarium set to open in late 2005.

What do attendees think of the Family Reunion Workshops? Comments from evaluation forms run from great to excellent:

June 22, 2003: “The overall presentation of this workshop was excellent. The material used was informative and put together very well.”

September 28, 2003: “This workshop has really helped me in my planning stage. Atlanta is just a great place — fun and educational.”

January 25, 2004: “This was an excellent workshop, with great ideas and suggestions — especially the scholarship fund and family film ideas — inspiring!”

It’s a snap to get your hands on the list of services the ACVB offers family reunion coordinators. Just go to or call 404-521-6600. Their services include the following: Assistance in hotel selection, welcome letters from the Mayor and Governor, name badges, and promotional items such as plastic bags, lapel pins, and peach stickers. There is a list of speakers, suggested activities for children and adults, brochures highlighting city attractions, genealogy charts, a list of parks, and consultation on using Steps for Planning a Family Reunion in the ACVB Family Reunion Packet. Planners can complete the Family Reunion Details Form right online or contact Lydia Douglas directly at 404-521-6640 for more information.

After reading a magazine story about how CVBs help reunion planners, Ronald Harrison of Tuskegee, Alabama, contacted the Atlanta CVB. “The meeting was with Lydia Douglas. I provided information from previous reunions held in Tuskegee, Alabama, Barberton/Akron, Ohio, and Long Island, New York. A questionnaire was mailed to family members detailing information and asking for their input about whether they wanted a reunion and if they wanted it in Atlanta.” Harrison was now officially the coordinator of the Sims Family Reunion. “The ACVB’s assistance was the impetus for the success of the Sims Family Reunion,” Harrison explained. “Living 125 miles from Atlanta, I was able to coordinate events with the assurance that businesses I was introduced to by the CVB were reputable and had already passed a litany of tests. If an organization or person contacted me referencing ACVB, I knew I could start the negotiation process instead of investigating their creditability.” Over 60 family members, ranging from four to 89 years of age, gathered in July at the Holiday Inn North, Atlanta, Georgia. Harrison chose the hotel because it was near the airport, had complimentary shuttle service and provided an economical food package for his group. During the Friday evening meet-and-greet reception, family members enjoyed a slide presentation of previous reunions and of family members in their “younger” years. There was a game of family trivia with small prizes for correct answers. Saturday, the group toured metro Atlanta’s historic African American sites and enjoyed a shopping excursion. A group photo, buffet-style banquet and a video of the “Sims Family History” wound up the evening.

Brunch and church services were on Sunday with the reunion sermon delivered by family member Bishop Gregory Tucker. The traditional family fish fry was held Sunday night at a family member’s home. What does a Tuskegee man think of Atlanta as a reunion site? “I would suggest Atlanta to others for family reunions because of the vast array of activities for all ages, ease of transportation to the city and it’s very economical for a large metropolitan mecca.”

Carmen Parker’s Parker-Coles Family Reunion chose the peachy city to visit family living there and to introduce Atlanta to family who had never been there. “Lydia Douglas was extremely helpful providing information about hotels, tours, promotional vendors, badges, and items for our reunion,” Parker said. “She also invited me to a Family Reunion Workshop that was most helpful in organizing our reunion in Atlanta.” A lucky 13 family members, from five to 82 years old, spent three days in August touring Atlanta and enjoying family traditions like the annual group photo, family picnic and a banquet where awards are given to the oldest family member, the family that traveled farthest and Atlanta Committee members. “Also, a family album was given to the oldest family member; it included documents from 1870 on: birth certificates, marriage certificates, family letters and family photos–to be added to at each reunion by all family members,” Parker explained. After the reunion, members meet to decide what went well, what needs to be improved and where the next reunion will be. Parker, who lives in the Atlanta area, suggested the city because of the wealth of things to see and do.