In Good Company

Reunions: Shared vacations are a great way for old friends to remember the past while enjoying the present.

May 14, 2000|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff

"Welcome conventioneers!" said the sign at the Albuquerque airport, and I felt a flush of pride. Could it be that the Red Chair Convention had finally received the recognition it was due?

For a heady moment, I had visions of cities vying for this biennial meeting of Northwestern University alumnae, offering us discounted hotel rooms, bargain fares and free supplies of peanut M&M's, the official snack of the Red Chair Convention. After all, it has been estimated that Red Chair injects a whopping $1,000 into the economy of its lucky host city. No, that's not a typo. The Red Chair Convention is a forerunner of an increasingly popular trend in travel -- non-family reunions, where far-flung friends rendezvous on a regular schedule.

Travel agents have been arranging such trips for years, for everyone from World War II veterans to former sorority sisters. But the mobile baby boomer generation and the end-of-the-alphabet generations that followed have sparked an even greater demand for such trips, says Chip Wanek, owner of Towson Travel. "We specialize in groups, so we get a lot of these requests from all over," he says. "Cruises are popular, because you can fly in from so many gateways. Other people like all-inclusive resorts, in places like Cozumel and Cancun."

The trend is so prevalent that it's even featured in Oprah Winfrey's new magazine, O, which provides a how-to for girlfriend getaways.

But, for once, my friends and I were ahead of a trend. We have been vacationing together every other year since we graduated in 1981. In 1984, we first began calling these meeting the Red Chair Convention, or RCC, for a set of four famously uncomfortable folding chairs from our kitchen. I think the rules we've learned -- and the way we applied them on our most recent journey, to a Santa Fe spa -- will work for those interested in planning reunion trips.

Rule 1: Know thyself

The prototype for Red Chair was a weekend trip to Port Washington, Wis. At the age of 22, we established a routine that continues to work for us as we enter our 40s: Talk, Walk, Eat, Repeat. Sometimes, we vary the order -- Eat, Talk, Walk or Talk, Eat, Walk. But we are more interested in each other than the scenery, no matter how breathtaking.

So cities that demand exhausting sightseeing or serious pub-crawling are not for us. We long ago determined that the best venues for Red Chair are places where we can rent a condo or beach house, allowing us to prepare our own meals -- and, not insignificantly, save some money.

Money can be a sticking point among the closest of friends, so it's best to address it head-on.

I remember worrying darkly, at the New Orleans RCC (1983), that I didn't have enough money to chow down at the city's favorite restaurants and still get my car out of the airport parking lot. For that trip, we actually pooled the total cost of plane fare and split it five ways, so no one felt unduly burdened.

That fling with socialism became unnecessary as we began piling up frequent flier miles through our jobs or credit cards, but we still had to consider distance. Two of us live on the East Coast, one in Chicago, one in Albuquerque, N.M., and one in San Francisco. So Red Chair alternates sides of the Mississippi, to make sure no one's stuck on a five-hour flight every time.

Recent RCCs have been held in Edisto Beach, S.C., Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Las Vegas. (No kitchen at the MGM Grand, alas, but Las Vegas' buffets made it easy to eat cheap.)

Santa Fe's Ten Thousand Waves, however, proved to be one of our most inspired destinations, an almost platonic ideal for a five-girl getaway.

Ten Thousand Waves is usually a day-trip destination, but the spa has five rooms and three cottages, which sleep two to five people. For $205 a night, we shared Tsuki, a spacious one-bedroom cottage that came stocked with coffee and tea.

It was a bargain for the price, although I think Ten Thousand Waves was generous in saying the cottage sleeps five. The two double futons were fine, but the futon chair required one to sleep corpse-like, never moving.

Rule 2: I'm in charge here (the Al Haig rule)

If you're not going to go through a travel agent, someone in your group has to take responsibility for planning the trip. If you have a willing sucker -- um, make that, incredibly responsible, organized individual -- great.

If not, spread the joy. Leslie, our Albuquerque-based conventioneer, was in charge of our Ten Thousand Waves visit. She knew the spa well and, better yet, qualified for a discount as a New Mexican resident. Spared plane fare, she even volunteered to chip in for the groceries for our trip. It's not always easy, getting five people to agree on a destination, but we've managed over the years. We've chosen some of our accommodations through sheer serendipity -- Lisa knew the people with the Edisto beach house, my wedding provided a convenient time to visit Annapolis and Washington.

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