After the experience of my first virtual birthday party last year, as well as a virtual New Year’s Party a few months ago, I decided (rather late) to organise another virtual birthday party. In spite of the short notice, between Kaberi and me, we managed to invite at least double the number of friends compared to last year. Of course, since everyone we know around the world is in lockdown, we knew that everyone would be at home … !
I changed a few things from last year, in particular by not sending the invitation via an intermediary platform (EventBrite). That had confused several friends and relatives last year when they had tried to connect from their phones. Instead we had sent invitations personally. Kaberi had also included a request to prepare some kind of performance in the invitations she had sent.
As a result, some of the friends and relatives joining from India had prepared something they could present to the other guests. In the photo above, you can see an image of the dance performance given by my niece Rimi in the living room of her home in Kolkata.
Here, you see Auntie Rita (in Kolkata) dancing first to the song Ye banks and braes o’ Bonnie Doon , and then to the song it inspired Rabindranath Tagore to write: Phule phule, dole dole. Kaberi’s cousin Kumkumdi, also in Kolkata, performed a song for me.
We also had Enrique wearing a mask and sitting with his guitar against the backdrop of a Spanish Castillo, ready to sing me Happy Birthday! We learned later that he has re-learned how to play the guitar during the lockdown.
As last year, friends joined in phases from different time zones. So we had at most 22 guests at one time but around 100 guests overall in the course of the party.
Most of our first guests were Bengali-speaking while others were English-speaking. So I assigned them to different language groups in our virtual living room. They then took the opportunity to discuss how they knew me.
Originally, I had intended that Kaberi and I would also connect from our mobile phones so that we could “mingle” with the guests in different rooms. Unfortunately, we both settled down in front of our main computer. This would be something I would do differently next time – it is closer to how we would host a physical party and would also have given us a chance to have dinner!
Of course, this would require a wifi network strong enough to sustain three devices connecting to the same video conference. Fortunately, I recently installed a ‘wifi mesh’ at our apartment, which has increased our internet speed and its reliability.
However, I learned from the experience of the virtual New Year Party that I cannot assign guests to different virtual rooms if I manage the video conference from a tablet or smartphone – the ‘breakout room’ feature is not available in the Zoom mobile app.
After leaving some friends in the virtual living room groups, I brought them back to the main room, where more friends had joined. Toa, the daughter of one of Kaberi’s classmates in Santiniketan, had prepared a pencil sketch for me.
We then played a quiz I had prepared about foods from different parts of the world. I had set it up using Slido but, in practice, most of our guests were connected from mobile phones and it was too challenging for them to keep open the video conference and also reach Slido, so I encouraged them to post their answers in the chat.
Later, with most of the friends and relatives from India signing off as they reached their bedtime, we discussed different approaches to lockdown in the different countries we were all living in. We also joined the applause for healthcare and essential workers at 8pm Central European Summer Time and, an hour later, UK time. We heard how various friends had joined initiatives to support their communities through this crisis.
From time to time, we would show those guests who were online the birthday cake which Kaberi had prepared.
Of course, Kaberi had prepared more but we didn’t manage to sit down for dinner, away from our main computer, until later! Both of us really enjoyed seeing and chatting with all the friends who joined, some of whom we had not been able to meet in person for years, in between our various travels.
Then we settled down for the delicious chicken biryani, fish chops and raita which Kaberi had prepared especially for the occasion. She had also made a special sandesh topped with mango.
Our friend Raju, who works for the NHS in London, joined us as we were having dinner (finally connected on my mobile phone). As we hadn’t had a chance to chat to him for some months, we had a unique opportunity to catch up with him … until all of us were ready to go to sleep.
It was probably the longest birthday party I have ever had: just over 8.5 hours! But it was fun, also to be able to introduce friends across continents. I even managed to introduce two friends living in Madrid to each other as well as two friends living in San Francisco.
So … for the next time:
- Make sure you have a stable internet connection wherever you will be at the time of your party.
- Get a Zoom licence (the minimum is for 1 month), which allows up to 100 participants. There are other video-conferencing options but you will need the possibility to create ‘breakout rooms’. This requires a more specialised, ‘virtual classroom’ platform than most ‘video meetings’ platforms offer.
- You will need a desktop/laptop from which to manage the session and hear the ‘doorbell’ as each new guest arrives in your virtual waiting room. Then you can check that you recognise them before you ‘admit’ them to the party.
- You will also need to join the session from a smartphone or a tablet which will allow you to move around freely. Check that your internet connection is strong enough to support your desktop/laptop and your smartphone(s)/tablet(s) connecting at the same time to the session.
- Make sure you have read the latest guidance to secure video conference sessions, eg for Zoom.
- Create the Zoom session for the party.
- 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 this virtual birthday party, I had invited people to join between 16:30 and 23:00 Central European Summer 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.
- Send the connection details through a secure medium, such as Signal. In the absence of other options, send them in individual e-mails. Do not publish them in social networks such as Twitter/Facebook, otherwise you are likely to have unexpected guests.
- Ideally, send invitations 2-3 weeks in advance. Explain that those joining online should join the party with their preferred food/drink to hand.You could also mention the advantage of not having to worry about how to get home after the party ;-).
- Like last year, 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 (again), I did not manage to invite everyone I had intended to.
- Send a reminder 2-3 days in advance to those who have confirmed that they will participate and to those who have not replied.
The day of the party
- Test your technical setup (audio, video and internet connection) at least 1 hour before the first guests are due to join.
- 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. You may need to create additional rooms for separate language groups among your guests.
- Ideally, nominate at least one other co-host so that you and your co-hosts can mingle with your guests in the different virtual groups you have created, while also keeping an ear open for new arrivals.
- Avoid tantalising your online guests with the food and drinks you are having at your physical venue (without skipping food and drinks!).
My thanks to all the friends and relatives who joined my virtual birthday party last week, most of whom connected for over an hour. Some were connected for several hours – special mention to Thomas!
Thanks also for all the positive feedback. With more practice, it seems to be feasible to replicate the atmosphere and dynamics of a physical party online, even when all the guests are in lockdown in different places around the world.