If the Grinch stole Christmas, the pandemic has prevented us from fully celebrating the rest of winter’s holidays. As it turns out, ’tis yet another season for staying put. Per the latest government recommendations, holiday travel is being discouraged, and digital gatherings seem the most prudent way to connect with friends and families. 

Should you be hosting your own streamed soirée, there are dos and don’ts to bear in mind. And because Emily Posts’s literature doesn’t quite cover virtual events, we’ve reached out to four hostesses to give us their best practices for digital cocktail parties, jam sessions, and wine tastings. Chin up, bottoms up, and read on.

Rebecca Gardner sets a table with whimsy.
Rebecca Gardner sets a table with whimsy.Photo: Courtesy of Chia Chong
Rebecca Gardner On Hosting a Pre- and Post-Dinner Toast

As an event designer known for her more-is-more approach, Gardner has long been a resource for those party hosts looking to create a night to remember. Her philosophies include patterns-on-patterns, endless florals, and playfulness above anything else. This fall, she’s launched her Houses and Parties online shop where you can find all of her favorite things—Portuguese lines, Murano glassware, and paper hat tchotchkes to add to the fun. Gardner’s best practices, below.

What would be your ideal format for a virtual event?

I think it’s wonderful that party people all over the world are thinking of ways to keep holiday traditions alive come hell or high water. However, I am terrified by invitations to virtual events. There is the tech dilemma and then the trepidation that comes with sitting through a meal in front of a computer screen. I suggest keeping these virtual gatherings short and sweet, but no less memorable. Why not join friends and family on a call for a pre-dinner toast and a nightcap?

What program would you use?

We all know how to use Zoom by now. Keep it simple.

What is the run of show for the event?

Plan a special menu and encourage a group cooking effort and then arrange two Zoom calls before and after dinner with set times. Schedule them 30 minutes or so before dinner and later in the evening so it doesn’t interrupt your meal.

Do you expect people to be punctual?

Keep the Zoom calls to 10 minutes, max. And be on time—your older loved ones will certainly be.

What about the invitations?

Paperless Post has an entire category for virtual parties. You can include the Zoom link in the text. I love the options with Happy Menocal illustrations (she also made fabulous menu cards for my shop).

Do you set your own table? Use a creative a photogenic backdrop?

We’ve been staring at the same spaces for months and decorating the table is a great way to create a festive environment. Order flowers! Dim the lights! Dress up! Hang lanterns! Don’t let anything ruin your table-setting joy, no matter how small your group. You can show off your decorations on your Zoom call but please don’t use a “photogenic backdrop” unless it’s outrageous and hysterical.

Ok so everyone has logged on. What about opening remarks, should you welcome your guests?

I am a Priya Parker disciple (she wrote The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters). The host should always make the occasion clear regardless of the format. This is the way to make efforts meaningful.

Is everyone on mute? How do you encourage conversation and connection?

I would keep the group small and intimate so that you don’t have to put people on mute.

How do you ensure people are having a good time?

This year it’s key to plan ahead and make an effort because Zoom calls are for business meetings. Wear a wild hat, recite a sentimental poem, or have your children sing a funny song. Anything to add panache. It would be so fun to send silly party masks and hats or these party crackers which have costume jewelry and a funny parlor game like “pretend you’re a snowman melting.” Surely you have a relative that could do this with excitement.

When do you know it’s time to wrap up?

When your glass is empty! Use your party trick to end the conversation on a high note.

Aerin Lauder elegant at home.
Aerin Lauder, elegant at home.Photo: Courtesy of Simon Upton
Aerin Lauder On Hosting an Afternoon Tea

To attend an Aerin Lauder dinner is to be schooled in the art of hostessing. The designer, who inherited her grandmother’s eye for design and social graces, shares the wisdom in a new book Entertaining Beautifully (Rizzoli). Entertaining should be fun and effortless, she says, even if it’s a coffee in bed for two or hosting your immediate family for dinner. Lauder’s best practices, below.

What would be your ideal format for a virtual event?

The best way to host a virtual event is to keep it intimate and personal. If we have learned anything during this time, I think it’s the importance of attention to detail. I love to gather with friends and family for afternoon tea. It’s a nice and casual way to end the day.

What program would you use?

I can’t tell a lie, I am still not the best at using Zoom and my sons would probably have to help me set up the event. However, right now it feels like a great place for conversation, coming together and making new memories.

What is the run of show for the event?

For an afternoon tea, I’d recommend setting everything up that you might need in advance—your tea set, sugar and milk. I’ve recently been using my Ginori 1735 Granduca tea collection. I also always have a small vase full of seasonal flowers and a bowl full of Edelweiss mixed chocolates. I’ve been using our new Lattea vase throughout quarantine as it’s made out of glass and looks beautiful in any setting. I then suggest you boil your water just before the start time of the event so you can fully enjoy the time with your guests. You can communicate this with them in advance so no one is in the kitchen during the call.

What about invitations, what details should be provided?

I am very old-fashioned and always prefer an invitation that comes in the mail but for a virtual event, a digital invitation seems most fitting. I love to create custom digital invites to get people excited about the event. I like working with watercolor artists like Happy Menocal, Kinshippress, and Clementina sketchbook to make the invites feel artisanal and special.

Where would you take the Zoom call?

I am still getting accustomed to doing things virtually and learning best practices, but I think it’s most impactful to have a backdrop that feels warm and inviting. Whenever I have guests in my home, I want them to feel comfortable and enjoy. Therefore, I aim to create a virtual environment that is consistent with that concept. In hosting a tea, I would suggest Zooming in from your living room or kitchen. Place your laptop on a side table where you can also place your tea setup.

How long do you think is appropriate? Do you expect people to be punctual?

Punctuality is always encouraged no matter the event. We all have a lot going on in our homes, so any amount of time that guests are able to attend is appreciated.

Is everyone on mute? How do you encourage conversation and connection?

Whenever I entertain, interesting and fun conversation is key to an enjoyable evening so allowing everyone to speak is essential. This is one of the reasons why I feel strongly about keeping an event like this small and intimate. I think it’s very important to make those direct connections with your guests and make them feel special. I also always love to bring personal stories and memories into my events to make my guests feel welcome. You also want your guests to be able to engage with others.

How do you ensure people are having a good time?

I always say that as a host it’s important to relax and enjoy because guests will follow your lead. In my opinion, that still applies.

When do you know it’s time to wrap up?

I typically set aside 45 minutes for this but with any event, it tends to wrap up naturally. In my experience guests typically pick up on cues that it’s winding down.

How do you make this a shared experience?

I always like to leave a little gift at each person’s place setting. This is something that I learned from my grandmother, Estee. In order to continue that tradition, sending a small gift to all of the guests could be a fun idea, whether it’s a candle to light during the event, barware for them to make a drink or even monogrammed napkins. AERIN also recently partnered with Social Studies, a company that delivers all of the essentials for setting a beautiful table right to your door. I love the idea of every guest receiving the same plates, napkins, glasses, etc. in order to create the most cohesive experience.

Any other things to keep in mind?

Most importantly, as a host, you should keep it simple and enjoy. Hosts often strive for perfection, which doesn’t go unnoticed. Some of the best events that I have ever been to are informal and easy-going. Estee always said, “Everything can be beautiful if you take the time.” And this quote is still fitting in today’s virtual world.

Alex Schrecengost in her element.
Alex Schrecengost in her element.Photo: Courtesy of Alex Schrecengost
Alex Schrecengost On Hosting a Wine Tasting

As the founder of Virtual With Us, Alex Schrecengost organizes wine-centric programming for business colleagues and friends alike to enjoy. Her clients range from Fortune 500 companies to large nonprofits who are hosting galas. All her guests receive bottles and pairings ahead of the event and then log in for an evening of good conversation and a chance to learn about the wine they’re drinking. Schrecengost’s best practices, below.

Could your programming be adapted to a smaller scale?

Absolutely!

What program would you use? 

We do use Zoom, it’s very user-friendly and the learning curve is low for those who aren’t familiar. All you need is a laptop (or even just your phone) and a good light source so you can see everyone’s beautiful faces.  

How do you get everyone set up with the wine and spirits they need?

You can send out a shopping list for easy-to-find wines or better yet, use us! We build all wine, beer, spirits, and beverage (coffee/tea) lists in-house. I work closely with distributor, importer, and retailer partners across the country to find unique products and that I love and get them sent to you. 

Do you need a sommelier present?

We encourage having a sommelier on the call. We want guests to get comfortable with the wines and learn in an environment that is not pretentious, dry, or judgmental. If you’re hosting at home and don’t have access to a sommelier, you can assume the role and read off histories of the specific cocktail you’re drinking or take part in describing wines per the Court of Master Sommeliers’s Deductive Tasting Grid.

How much time should you allot for the tasting?

An hour has proven to be the sweet spot, although if everyone is having an exceptional time, they will stay on for longer and we absolutely encourage that. 

How do you recommend balancing conversation with wine tasting?

The best thing about wine is how easily it brings people together. It’s very easy to pair wine with conversation and so we talk about food and pop culture to make it more fluid and fun for everyone. Additionally, people also love a good story and narrative about the wine they are drinking so sharing some insights on the winery or the family that owns said winery goes a long way. 

How do you ensure people are having a good time?

As you would any party as a host, gauge everyone’s mood—and try to get everyone to turn their camera on. That makes a difference in the mood of the session holistically and helps to get everyone to interact. Plan a fun ice breaker session to get everyone in a festive mood, like: what’s the craziest hobbies people have taken up during COVID or what projects they are most proud of, even if it’s juggling work and school. Also, jokes! When in doubt, make it funny. If everyone can laugh together, everyone’s going to have a good time. 

When do you know it’s time to wrap up? 

Not unlike a table at a restaurant, we have an instinct for knowing when it has come to a close. It is about feeling out your virtual room and seeing if people are still chatty and interacting or if they seem tired. 

Should food be part of the program?

Definitely. You can recommend your guests have chocolate and cheeses on hand to nibble on between sips. It’s always more enjoyable to have a glass of wine with the perfect pairing.

Jasmine Solano all dressed up for a studio session.
Jasmine Solano all dressed up for a studio session.Photo: Courtesy of Patrick Struys
Jasmine Solano On Hosting a Dance Party

As the co-founder of Club House Global, Solano hosts weekly events on the livestream platform Twitch. Her programming showcases a variety of talents—DJs spin, artists perform, poets read, and video art is projected. Born in the pandemic as a way to support DJs and artists unable to engage with audiences in the traditional format, Club House Global is a club where all are welcome. Solano’s best practices, below:

Could your programming be adapted to a smaller scale?

Absolutely! The fun of it all is that streaming can be as casual or polished as you want, the range is wide!

What program would you recommend?

There are various platforms you can use for livestreaming. Twitch is great because it allows for real-time interaction, the ability to gamify your program, and showcases you to a vast community already native to livestreams. In addition, the more casual you are the better! The Twitch universe encourages intimate, unrehearsed behavior. This helps us to engage our audience and bring the party to them.

How do you recommend the host get set up with everything they need?

For most livestreaming apps, you will need good wifi and a device with a camera attached. Most people think the next step is as simple as pressing a “live” button; however, it can become more complicated based on the scale of your program. If you are DJing or hosting, you’ll typically need an audio interface such as a GoMixer or an iRig. And it would be best to install and learn OBS (Open Broadcaster Software). If you want to get super technical, as we are at Club House Global, you’ll need a tech switcher like my co-founder, Patrick Struys. If you have a live chat (whether on Twitch, IG Live, Facebook, or Youtube Live) you’ll likely need a moderator, which is someone who makes sure the convo stays positive and appropriate. My third partner and executive producer at CHG, Anjali Ramasunder, is a master at this. We all wear many hats because the livestream space is the wild west, and you need all hands on deck.

What about invitations, how do you handle start times? What details should be provided? A link?

When planning to promote your stream, you can apply a lot of the same IRL habits. Design a flyer, post on social media, and send the info out in a newsletter, text threads, etc. When deciding on what time you want your stream to start, think about the time zones of your audience as well as what other livestreams are happening at that time. And don’t forget to include the direct link to your stream!

How long do you think is appropriate? Do you expect people to be punctual?

Livestream viewership fluctuates and is unpredictable. It’s something you have to get used to. It doesn’t work like IRL events; folks will pop in and out and even come back to your stream later. Some programs last two hours, some for 24 hours. It depends on your bandwidth and the goal of the stream. For example, are you producing a fundraiser? Or just hanging with friends on camera? Do you have 10 DJs/artists ready to perform for an hour each, or is it just two of you? Sometimes the best way to determine what works for you is to just test things out!

Ok so everyone has logged on; what about opening remarks, should you welcome your guests?

Once you have an audience, whether it’s in your Zoom room or on a public platform you absolutely want to welcome everyone. Let viewers know what they’re tuning into and give them a map of the program. Remember that folks will be popping in at different times, and it’s always good to acknowledge that.

How do you recommend balancing songs with conversations? Is everyone on mute?

Livestream audiences react most when there’s someone on the mic. Especially if you’re talking directly to a chat, answering questions, commenting on the music you’re playing, etc. Think of it as a live podcast. A good host makes you feel like it’s just the two of you in the room. The audience will be muted, so most of the interaction will happen in the chat. Be open to the comments, and pay no mind to any trolls.

How do you ensure people are having a good time?

The best way to ensure your viewers will have fun is to ensure you’re having fun. Energy is contagious, and now you’re the vibe conductor. You won’t be able to see your audience, so you can always ask the chat if they’re having fun. Viewers convert into fans when they genuinely connect with you. So stay connected to yourself!

When do you know it’s time to wrap up?

Typically before you stream, you should have a rough time frame of the hours you’re going live. Especially if you’re promoting the program in advance. Also if you plan to stream consistently in order to build an online audience, you want to stream at the same time, for the same hours, each week.

After the party, do you send a thank you?

Absolutely! You always want to thank your viewers for attending, especially if you want them to come back for your next stream. Again, apply the same IRL habits for this—send a thank you via social media, newsletters, or texts. Shout out specific people that are loyal to your streams and cultivate your digital community.

Source: vogue.com