Happy hour may be far from many peoples’ thoughts right now (or alternatively, top of mind) but being homebound in a health crisis doesn’t necessarily mean we can’t still enjoy good company with a drink in hand.
With much of the world indoors, enterprising drinks enthusiasts and beverage professionals have begun hosting their own boozy get togethers online, with virtual happy hours taking off everywhere from New York to New Zealand. Along with offering a welcome respite to the cabin fever that’s likely starting to set in by now, these laptop parties provide an opportunity to gather friends you may not get to see very often, or through this temporary shut-in.
Belinda Chang, sommelier and entrepreneur, believes these gatherings are “crucial to combat the backlash and problems with social distancing,” as she sees service industry members suddenly unemployed across the country. She hosted her own virtual happy hour on Wednesday, connecting friends from New York City, Chicago, and Denver, and believes the format can serve not only as social interaction but benefit those who are without work.
On Thursday, Chang appeared on the already-popular virtual happy hour, Dani & Jackie’s Virtual Happy Hour, which launched on Monday, March 16. The online series schedules bartender showcases and spirits brand partnerships, giving drinks professionals a much-needed “shift” and Venmo tips, while digital patrons enjoy an elevated home drinking experience.
For many of us, though, planning an online soiree is unchartered technological territory. Below are some tips and tricks for organizing a successful online get-together.
Pick a software.
Zoom is the virtual meeting room de rigueur, as well as the most recommended.
Skype is second-best option, although it has received some criticism. Of course, there is FaceTime for iPhones, and other mobile video call options, but it’s not much of a party if you can only see three-quarters of someone’s face, or have to squint to see what they’re sipping.
While Facebook Live and Instagram Stories can be a good place for a solo showcase, these don’t allow the same face-to-face interaction of other meeting platforms (and – oh, right! – real life).
Choose an event type or theme.
Before sending out invites, decide on what type of happy hour you’re hosting. Is it a beer tasting? A cocktail hour? A dinner party? Picking a theme will provide structure, as well as help those who are new to virtual hangouts navigate this new medium.
Some ways Chang has planned experiences are creating a tasting menu that each person orders and plates themselves, with coordinated wine pairings. This Sunday, Chang will launch Boozy Brunch With Belinda, set to happen weekly for the foreseeable future. She also plans to kick off nightly happy hours Monday through Friday, each featuring a different bartender, sommelier, chef, or other educator.
Treat it like a party.
Rather than treating a virtual happy hour like any other video conference call, Chang recommends pulling out all the stops. Step one is creating a simple invitation. “Invite people in any way – get an account [for a meeting software], send out a link that your virtual guests click at the appointed time, and everyone shows up on your screen.”
Chang also recommends giving guests a dress code. “Make everything feel like a real cocktail party or real dinner party,” she says. “It’s fun and reassuring.”
One person (or household) should host.
“One of the challenges with digitally hanging out is you can only have one person speaking at a time, so pick one person to be host and moderator,” Chang says. This might mean muting everyone and “calling” on people to chime in, or making use of a “raise your hand” feature available in certain software. That way, “you don’t have a bunch of voices on top of each other,” Chang says.
Drink for a good cause.
Chang, along with Dan and Jackie, anchor virtual happy hour experiences around “bringing on a bartender [or sommelier] who really needs a shift,” Chang says. “Everyone who participates can Venmo tip the bartender for doing what they do… It’s a small but impactful way to get dollars into their pockets right away.”
Manage the guest list.
Is this virtual happy hour for beer friends? Yoga buddies? Coworkers? The group of people you decide to virtually hang out with will dictate what you’re wearing, drinking, and discussing. Also: Try to keep the number of people within a reasonable amount, or within the parameters of the specific software you’re using.
“Grabbing a drink” is easy to do in person, when there’s presumably a bartender to order from, but video calls can make first-timers feel stiff. To guide guests before sign-in time, decide on what you’re drinking. For a group of beer friends, instruct everyone to bring a local beer from a brewery you’d normally be visiting in person. Or, dig out the barrel-aged stouts that have been crammed in your “cellar” for two years too long.
Scotch geeks, it might be time to take that Islay out of the box. When Wine Wednesday rolls around, dust off an especially nice bottle you’ve been saving for a special occasion — this week qualifies.