Virtual holiday family gatherings: Creative ideas from an event planner

The lessons of virtual event planning can be applied to digital family gatherings to make them more fun and less stressful
The lessons of virtual event planning can be applied to digital family gatherings to make them more fun and less stressful

With the holidays around the corner, many families find themselves caught between wanting to respect family traditions and stay connected while recognizing the shifting restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Celebrating with family while following travel and quarantine guidelines might seem challenging, but the lessons of virtual event planning can be applied to digital family gatherings to make them more fun and less stressful.

One of the most common pitfalls of a large virtual gathering is that it can feel awkward or chaotic as everyone struggles to be heard.

Applications like Google Meet, FaceTime, Zoom, and Skype have become increasingly popular over the last year as a means of video chatting and conferencing. Breakout rooms—smaller curated sub-groups and sub-meetings within each platform—have become familiar to many people.

However, platforms like AltspaceVR, Gather, Rambly, and Spatial.Chat provide an alternative option: map-based video chat. With time and planning, an organizer or moderator could even create a map in which every guest can move around with digital avatars, catching up with different family members and trying different activities in each room.

Jennifer Clark, co-owner of Emerge Events in Hattiesburg, Miss., said that much like having a host for traditional holiday practices, a holiday video chat can benefit from a moderator, even informally.

“A moderator can simply guide the conversation so that everyone gets to speak,” Clark said.

A gift exchange can help a moderator to create structure within a virtual holiday. “Draw names and mail gifts before the gathering. Everyone can open their gift on camera,” she added.

Clark also said each household might show off a special ornament, piece of holiday décor, or decorated section of the home and share why it is special or unique. This could even extend into an in-home holiday scavenger hunt.

Food and refreshments are always major party draws and important holiday experiences. To incorporate seasonal foods, Clark suggests a recipe exchange. This could include everyone posting in a shared Web document the recipes of dishes they would have brought to an in-person family meal. Everyone can make items from that menu in advance and share their results on camera.

There is also a smaller-scale option to create a shared activity: “Have a virtual recipe or cocktail demo of a family favorite,” Clark said. “Send out a list of ingredients needed beforehand and have everyone make it at the same time.”

Another group entertainment option is homemade video programming.

“As many virtual meeting and event planners have realized, pre-recorded videos can take away some of the stress and chaos of virtual events,” Clark said, adding that video experiences can be a great way to celebrate too.

Some of her ideas for pre-recorded videos include grandparents reading traditional holiday stories, children and musically-inclined family members turning music recitals into music videos, and relatives recording videos of holiday messages, greetings, and special gifts.

Ultimately, Clark said honoring family and relationships is a top priority of holiday parties. “Remember: The most important part of virtual gatherings is the focus on connection,” she said. “Keeping it simple, having someone help moderate live gatherings, coordinating recordings, and focusing on the traditions that highlight a sense of connection will help keep virtual gatherings meaningful, fun, and low stress.”

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