Social distancing doesn’t mean celebrating special occasions without your friends and extended family, as more people turn towards virtual get-togethers as a way to stay close. Above all, it’s about physical distancing, rather than social distancing, says Joe Kornelsen, the executive director of Winnipeg’s West End Business Improvement Zone, which recently launched a “Distance Dinner Party” series—featuring food from local restaurants, delivered to guests’ doors (contact-free!), as well as trivia about the neighbourhood. Nineteen guests attended their first event via the video conferencing service Zoom. “It’s a great way to really bring in the social component while maintaining physical distance.”
Whether you’re planning a family dinner or a happy hour with faraway friends, here’s everything you need to know about hosting a virtual get-together.
It’s all about planning ahead
There’s a lot more room for improvisation during an IRL gathering—you can always bring in an extra chair or make a quick beer run. But when arranging a virtual get-together, it’s best to leave nothing to chance. Much like pre-planning your menu, doing your legwork in advance—including deciding on a platform, a time to log on and your guest list—will ensure things run smoothly.
If you and your family are meeting up with another family, it’s best to crowd around one device. If it’s just you making a call, carving out a quiet space for your online gathering is ideal. (Wearing headphones can also help mitigate distracting background noise.)
How to choose a platform
“It depends on what kind of software people have access to,” says Heather O’Brien, associate professor at the School of Information at the University of British Columbia.
There are a variety of platforms to pick from, each with their own pros and cons. Doing a bit of research on what’s out there and making sure that everyone you’ve invited can access your chosen platform is
Skype can host up to 50 people at a time for up to four hours, but each user has to download the app and create an account. <
Zoom’s free plan allows up to 100 participants, includes up to 50 breakout rooms—for smaller group conversations within your party—but there’s a 40-minute limit on group meetings. You need to download the app before joining a session, but you don’t need an account to participate (though you do need one if you want to host).
Google Hangouts is free to use for anyone with a Google account, but you can only see 10 people on screen at a time. You don’t need to download an app to use Hangouts, it will operate within your web browser.
Facetime is a quick and easy way to get a group of up to 32 together, but everyone needs to have an Apple device.
Houseparty is a free app that allows up to seven people to connect, automatically syncs your device’s contacts and has no time limits on calls. Everyone needs to have the app in order to participate in a call.
Send a checklist in advance
There’s nothing more frustrating than having your food get cold as your group waits around for Aunt June to get her tech set up.
Sending out a checklist and general chat etiquette the day before your event will help ensure that everything runs smoothly. In terms of etiquette, it’s helpful to remind everyone about start time and also about keeping their mics muted when they’re not talking. As well, ensuring that your guests know to have their computers/phones on, wi-fi connections established, webcams on and headsets in before your official start time will help avoid tech hiccups once the call starts.
Limit the guest list
The bigger the get-together, the harder it will be to actually talk to your guests. Large virtual gatherings (more than eight people) also tend to get awkward, with some people feeling like they’re on the outside looking in if they don’t get a chance to talk.
If you want to have a larger get-together, consider taking turns speaking in alphabetical order of everyone’s names. “There’s a bit of etiquette involved,” says O’Brien. “Turn-taking is going to be a little bit different because if you’re sitting around the table like you normally would, you might interrupt someone and pull back, but the other person can keep going.”
As awkward as it might be at first, having some conversation starters or ice breakers on hand will get the conversation rolling. You could also try doing a show-and-tell to start the party: have everyone show their meals to the camera and quickly explain what they’ve made will get everyone talking.
This is uncharted territory, so be open to new things
You could try cooking together on camera, or making the same recipe separately before getting on camera, or just sitting down with each other to eat the menu of your choosing, or meeting up just for drinks. The beauty of virtual get-togethers is that there isn’t just one way to do it.
“I think one thing that has made our Distance Dinner Parties so enjoyable is having content that people are able to learn from and that makes conversation come easy,” says Aurora Debreuil, the communication and marketing director at Winnipeg’s West End Business Improvement Zone. “This could be done with a group of friends as well.” Consider setting a theme–say, having everyone make their favourite pasta recipe—or creating a family trivia challenge.
“We’ve never been in this situation like this and everything is going to be new, so don’t be afraid to try things and see how it works out,” recommends O’Brien. As with any dinner party, it’s not about perfection, but about getting together with people you love.