A few weeks ago I had my 28th birthday. As this was, unsurprisingly, the first birthday I’ve had in lockdown, it made for a strange day which included my nephew singing ‘Happy Birthday’ from the end of the driveway. Approaching the day, I decided to make the most of it and organised a big Zoom birthday party, inviting friends from all over the world. I was quite nervous beforehand, but it turned out to be a great success. One attendee said it was “truly the strangest and best zoom experience ever”, while another said it was “one of the best birthday parties I’ve ever attended, Zoom or not”. It helped transform what could have been a very depressing birthday into the best one I’ve had in awhile, especially considering I did nothing the year before.
While lockdowns are starting to be partially lifted in certain countries, it seems likely that we will be under some form of restrictions or social distancing for the next few months at least – and we probably all have friends around the country and indeed the world. So in case your birthday does fall during lockdown, I decided to write some tips for Zoom parties, to help you have a very memorable day.
1. Don’t Worry About Numbers
I tend to get a little overexcited when inviting people to events, often thinking that I’ll feel guilty if I don’t invite x person and then inviting all the people they know as well. Sure enough, I invited too many people to my Zoom birthday party. At least this time I had an excuse, I saw it as a great chance to reconnect with people that I hadn’t seen in a long time, or who live in different places. I also knew that no one was busy.
A big guest-list can be intimidating, but Zoom has features (covered below) to help deal with big calls. One of the beauties of a Zoom birthday is that people can drop in and out as they want. There’s no pressure for people to stay a long time, like there might be at a house party. I also found that the call was manageable until we passed 25 people – at which point I had to use more games and Zoom features to stop people talking over each other. But I was surprised that we could have mostly clear conversations with more than 20 people. Ultimately, while many people won’t come, you might get a few surprise attendees giving you a chance to catch-up even if it’s just for a few minutes, so invite away!
2. Prepare Some Activities
One of my most important tips is to plan some activities beforehand. You will need some games to give the party structure and prevent it devolving into awkward silences. There are various articles online discussing the best games for Zoom calls. I won’t repeat the lists here, but read through them and think about which of these activities would best suit your guests. Then – and I can’t stress this enough – trial them.
On the Monday before my birthday, I had a Zoom call with some friends where we tried out a few of the online games I’d seen recommended. Thanks to this, we discovered that Pictionary was good for up to 12 people, and Scattergories was simple and fun. Remote Insensitivity – the unofficial Cards Against Humanity game I’d been recommended – was very confusing, and allbad.cards was a better choice. Playing a few rounds of these games helped us understand how they work, so we could explain them to new players. We also learned the player counts for each game so I could plan the best times to play them.
3. Prepare to be Roasted
If you are inviting people from many different friendship groups, they will only have one thing in common; you. As such, be prepared for your embarrassing stories to be traded. I had already given my reluctant consent that when people joined the party they would 1) introduce themselves 2) say how they knew me and 3) tell an embarrassing story. I added the caveat that it could be a nice story, and thankfully I managed to change the topic enough to avoid the worst of it.
If there is something that you really don’t want a friend to share, maybe message them beforehand and ask them to say something else. Booking a special guest can also help turn attention away from this.
4. Get Zoom Pro
Zoom Pro is $14/month. If you’re hosting a big Zoom party, I highly recommend signing up. It may be a little pricey, but how much would you spend on food and drinks if you were throwing a house party? Getting a Pro account means that you aren’t thrown out of the party every 40 minutes, an annoyance that would see many guests not return. It’s one less thing to worry about and will help ensure the party runs smoothly.
5. Breakout Rooms Are Your friend
When planning for the party, I discovered the breakout rooms feature on Zoom. This feature splits the call into separate, smaller rooms. You can manually decide who will be in each room, or you can get Zoom to randomly assign people to rooms. This is a great way of cutting down unwieldy calls and forcing people from different friendship groups to interact. You can learn how to use breakout rooms here.
6. Book a Special Guest
A few days before the party I saw this article on CNN, discussing the ‘goat 2 meeting’ initiative from Sweet Farm in California. The initiative allows people to pay for Sweet Farm’s animals to join your call. At first I dismissed it – especially as it cost $100 for ten minutes – but it gradually wormed its way into my mind and I decided it was just what the party needed. I told everyone that we would be getting a special animal guest at 10:30 and it really brought the party together. Everyone was asking about it and trying to understand the novel idea of animals in a Zoom call (this also helped keep the roasting to a minimum). We got an influx of people returning to the call before the animals showed up, and we were given a tour of Sweet Farm by one of the volunteers before spending some quality time with their goats. Having a central special event like this is my most important tip. Without it, the party would not have worked nearly as well.
If the ‘goat 2 meeting’ initiative is too expensive, other farms have started offering cheaper alternatives following the scheme’s success. Cronkshaw Fold Farm in Lancashire is offering goat guests for just £5, although only till 9:15pm. Or you can book an equine guest through Peace N Peas Farm for $50. Finally, you can also set up a PayPal money pool, where guests can give a little money towards the animal guests. I did this and raised just under £60, making the goats far more affordable.
7. Normal Party Rules Apply
There are also some things that would apply to running a normal, physical party. Set a dress code, even if people won’t keep it. I said smart casual or onesie and dressed in a suit myself. You could also make it a pyjama party, which is always fun.
Read the room and be flexible. If people are getting restless or bored with the activities, move on to the next. I closed the breakout rooms when one person messaged me saying his room wanted to return to the meeting.
8. Have Fun
Lastly, enjoy it. Remember that everyone is there for you and they will understand any technical issues or Zoom-based problems. Everyone is in the same boat and they will probably just be grateful for a social event to look forward to. So don’t worry too much about how everyone is feeling; relax, have fun, and have a very happy birthday!
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