May 072019
 

This year, my birthday was just after the Easter weekend. Many friends were travelling and we too had only just returned from the Austrian Tirol. In any case, a significant proportion of my friends and relatives are widely dispersed around the world.

It occurred to me that I should try to organise a virtual birthday party. However, looking online, no-one seemed to have tried to have a virtual party with more than a few people.

In the event, around 30 friends and relatives joined the virtual birthday party online, with 3 friends joining in person. The furthest east was a friend in Bangkok, Thailand and the furthest west was a friend in Winnipeg, Canada. It was fun, at least for me, not only to see and hear everyone from so far afield but also to be able to bring together people who have been important to my life but who might otherwise never have the opportunity to talk to each other because of the geographical distance between them.

Of course, some things did not quite work out as planned. In particular, several friends and relatives tried to connect but were not able to do so, mainly because they could not find the connection link, which I had put at the very end of my invitation.

So, in case anyone else would like to organise a virtual party, here are the steps I would recommend:

Preparation

  1. Make sure you have a stable internet connection wherever you will be at the time of your party.
  2. Get a Zoom Pro licence (the minimum is for 1 month), which allows up to 100 participants. There are other video-conferencing options, such as Google Hangouts, but ideally you need the possibility to create ‘breakout rooms’. This requires a more specialised platform.
  3. Check that you have suitable equipment to allow people online to hear you and see you properly, even if you have others attending the party with you in person. This could be just a smartphone or a tablet but you may need to run the sound through an amplifier/speaker for everyone with you to hear those online.
  4. Create the Zoom session for the party.

Invitation

  1. I had thought of using an invitation platform such as evite or Eventbrite to make the invitation look attractive on any platform. I am connected with different friends and relatives in different ways (e-mail, social media, text messages, etc).

    Although I used Eventbrite this time, I don’t think I would do so again. Several friends thought the Eventbrite link would get them into the virtual party. In future, I would keep the invitation short and provide the Zoom connection details near the start of the text.
  2. Identify a period in your time zone which you can manage to be there yourself for the whole time and which allows everyone you wish to invite an opportunity to connect at a reasonable time in their time zones. For my virtual birthday party, I had invited people to join between 18:00 and midnight Central European Time. Those in the Far East could join in the first part of that period. Those in the Americas could join the last part of that.
  3. Send invitations 2-3 weeks in advance, including the Zoom meeting ID (and password).
  4. Send a reminder 2-3 days in advance to those who have confirmed that they will participate and to those who have not replied.
  5. Explain that those joining online should join the party with their preferred food/drink to hand.
  6. You could also mention the advantage of not having to worry about how to get home after the party ;-).
  7. I wrote individual messages to the friends I was inviting but this does take time. As I only had the idea a few days before my birthday, I did not manage to invite everyone I had intended to.

The party

  1. Test your technical setup (audio, video and internet connection) at least 1 hour before the first people are due to join.
  2. Prepare breakout rooms called ‘Living room’, ‘Dining room’, ‘Kitchen’ into which you could ‘Assign’ your guests during the party, if there are more than 4 or 5 guests online at the same time. [In a forthcoming update to Zoom, guests will be able to select for themselves which room they want to go into. Perhaps one day they will be able to do so based on who is in each room.]
  3. Make sure that you abandon neither those online nor those physically with you. This can be difficult. Ideally someone who is physically with you could switch with you from time to time between being the online host and the host in the physical venue.
  4. In principle, you should not tantalise your online guests with the food and drinks you are having at your physical venue. In practice, it is difficult to resist this temptation. The follow-up to the cake-cutting photo above was one of my friends showing those online in close-up  how delicious the cake was … .

Although it is difficult to make a virtual party as immersive as a real party, it does offer a way to bring together people who are geographically far apart and revive informal conversations with them. If you try this yourself (or if you attended my virtual birthday party – or indeed did not manage to do so [sorry!]), please add any suggestions for improvement in the comments below.

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