Reunions Become Big Business

As supply of women volunteers dries up, entrepreneurs step in. SCHOOL, FAMILY, MILITARY

THE function room at the Plaza Inn is filled with balloons, shrieks, and nostalgia. The shrieks are from women who haven't seen one another in 20 years and can't believe how they look with short hair. The nostalgia - '60s songs and collages of blown-up black-and-white photos of high school students with long hair - is provided by Reunions By CDI, one of a growing number of reunion planning companies that have hit the market since 1982.

High school reunions used to be done by women classmates. But the exodus of many women from home to workplace has left those ranks thin. Enter entrepreneurs.

Ellen Shalek Engel and her sister-in-law, Maxine Marder Shalek, run Reunions by CDI. They've been doing this for two years, after reading about it in an in-flight magazine. Mrs. Engel was experienced in booking hotels in a business she ran with her husband, and was looking for work she could do with a new baby. The two women took a seminar from a couple who started the business, Shel and Judy Norris, and have been hopping ever since.

This reunion, the 20th of the class of '69 of Sharon, Mass., happens to be Engel's own, so she's not working as hard as she usually does. But she and Mrs. Shalek and their two husbands are greeting guests, giving out name tags, checking on the DJs, and making sure that the photo sessions are going smoothly.

Selling nostalgia is becoming big business. Some 10 million to 15 million people attend a family, military, or high school reunion, according to one planner.

For $35 to $40 per person (more than $50 in big cities), planners provide invitations, name tags, a hall, DJs, a meal, flowers, group photographs, and a ``memory book'' with names, addresses, numbers of children, etc.

What you don't get are lots of long speeches. Nobody wants those anymore. Who has the most kids? Forget it. But that's not to say it doesn't get pretty silly. Former cheerleaders get up and do old routines; classmates sing the school song. And some planners take pictures of the high school and juxtapose them with pictures from the school yearbook to come up with such gems as so-and-so smoking in the john. Cute.

The key to success? Lots of people. ``No one cares about the music, the food, or anything else,'' says Engel. ``All they want is to see people. They want to know if so-and-so's coming.''

Getting people is their main job; their profit depends on it. Starting with the high school yearbook, planners check phone books and tax records, then access a national data base. For this reunion, they found 98 percent.

BUT that doesn't mean everybody comes; usually only half. ``I have to talk people into coming sometimes,'' says Engel. They say, `high school was so cliquey.' I tell them, `that was 20 years ago, people have changed.' The biggest loser of the class will often show up in a rented limo. He looks wonderful, he's dressed wonderful, and he's with someone really cute. Sometimes it's the popular people who may not look as good now.''

``I didn't go to the 10th - too shy. So this is a big deal for me,'' said Susan Stein Newell, one of Sharon High's classmates.

A 50th reunion at Boston English High School was ``really exciting,'' says Engel. ``Out of 700 classmates, 120 showed up. In that class there were 11 people that had really gone far. One guy talked about how, during World War II, his parachute didn't open up and a friend caught him!''

The first official reunion planner was Shel Norris, who started in Skokie, Ill., in 1982. ``It was never meant to be a business,'' he says. ``My own reunion was a little fouled up. I mentioned to my wife that it was a shame that there wasn't a committee to organize things properly, like a wedding consultant.''

Intending it to be part-time, the business exploded, employing both him and his wife full-time within nine months. They now do 100 a year. Class Reunions Inc. is in 60 major markets, here and in Canada, and the Norrises have formed the National Association of Reunion Planners, consisting of about 50 planners.

``One advantage of being in the national association is, we can share reunions,'' says Mr. Norris. ``I can give my reunions out to my affiliate in L.A., who will check all the phone books there. We use other publications, too, medical and law journals.''

What they do, basically, is a high-class version of skip tracing. ``The one difference here is, the people we're working for want to be found,'' he says. ``So people are generous with information about other classmates.''

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