Like just about everything in 2020, the holidays are probably going to look a lot different this year. With public-health experts anticipating a surge in COVID-19 cases this fall, the CDC has recommended against traveling long distances or congregating indoors to celebrate Thanksgiving — which means that, if you live in a colder climate or have friends and family spread out across the country, a virtual Thanksgiving may be your safest bet.
But what does a Zoom Thanksgiving look like, exactly? According to the event planners we spoke with, it could be as simple as setting a time to eat a meal with friends or family, even if you can’t be together in person. Or, you can take the current circumstances as an opportunity to try something different — like a family recipe swap or Zoom cooking lessons.
Still, if the thought of hosting a Zoom Thanksgiving makes you cringe, you’re not alone. It will probably be weird, but so is everything else. We reached out to event planners for tips on how to pull off a virtual holiday gathering that might actually be enjoyable.
Here’s their advice.
Designate a host.
For a virtual event to run smoothly, someone has to take the lead. “You need one person who’s going to take charge, not only to welcome everybody but also to steer the conversation throughout the Zoom,” says Jared Reichert, the co-founder of the digital-events start-up Kiki Kit. “Otherwise, it’s just going to be a messy experience.”
It doesn’t necessarily have to be you: “If you know you have someone in your group who is outgoing and likes to direct or is the actor of the group, ask them if they want to be the emcee,” recommends Jessica Carrillo of Art & Soul Events. Or you can split it up, and have different family members host the beginning, middle, and end.
Depending on your group, you may also want to consider designating a “tech captain.” That person can teach your less-tech-savvy relatives how to use Zoom in advance and help sort out any technical issues that arise day-of, so they don’t derail the entire event. “I think it’s smart to send a reminder 30 minutes before you’re going to start with the link to join and the password, and let people know that, if they have any issues, they can call or text the tech captain,” says Carrillo.
Keep it short.
Set start and end times in advance so that things don’t drag on. You probably want to keep it shorter than a traditional Thanksgiving gathering — the event planners we spoke to recommended planning for an hour or two max. “I think that people’s attention spans become a bit diluted after about one hour,” says Reichert.
And think twice before inviting everyone you know. “The more guests you have, the more complicated it gets,” says Carrillo. “At a dinner party with a lot of people, it can be really hard to connect. That’s not going to be any different at a virtual dinner party — it’s going to be even more challenging.” She recommends keeping your guest list under 20, if possible.
You can still decorate and dress up.
Even if no one is coming over, you shouldn’t forget about décor, says Desireé Moore Dent of Dejanae Events. “Setting up your table, and adding some flowers or balloons or even a homemade backdrop can definitely get you in the spirit of the holidays,” she says.
Thanksgiving also gives you a reason to change out of your sweatpants. “For me, even if it’s a virtual event, I still want people to dress up,” says Jung Lee. “There’s something really proper and fun about getting your home ready and getting your table ready, and that anticipation should be just as enjoyable as the actual event.”
Another way to make things feel festive is to mail items to your guests in advance, such as a homemade dessert, a bottle of champagne, a cocktail kit, or custom T-shirts.
Have a plan.
Even if you’re hesitant to plan something too formal, it’s helpful to have an agenda. “It’s got to be organized. It can’t just be a free-for-all, because that’s when the clock feels like it’s lagging, and the interest isn’t there,” says Lee.
For Thanksgiving, one obvious option is to eat dinner together. But sometimes it’s nice to have a more structured activity, so you’re not just staring at your face in the little box on the screen the whole time. Some suggestions:
A few days before the event, Reichert recommends asking your guests to write down a favorite family recipe. Then, draw names from a hat so that each person (or family) ends up with a different Thanksgiving recipe to make. On the Zoom call, everyone can share what they made and how it turned out.
Even if you can’t be together in person, you can still plan to spend time cooking with family. “My mom and I are actually planning to cook virtually,” says Moore Dent. “For my family, we usually start cooking holiday dinner a couple of days beforehand, and I’m definitely going to miss that. And I’m going to need some help to make sure my entree turns out as good as I know my mom’s will. Even if you’re cooking virtually, you can still have those conversations, you can have music in the background, sip libations, and feel like you still have family there, rather than just being by yourself.”
If there’s a particular family recipe you’re going to miss this year, you can also set up a Zoom cooking tutorial in advance to learn how to make it.
Toast with a signature cocktail
“It’s really fun to send out a signature drink recipe, so everyone can feel connected from afar,” says Carrillo. If you want to do a toast, consider sending out a prompt in advance. You can ask guests to reflect on what they’ve learned in 2020. Alternately, there’s always the Thanksgiving standby — what are you thankful for? — which may feel especially poignant this year. (While you’re at it, you could also suggest relatives read up on the real history of Thanksgiving.)
If you want to get really creative, Reichert recommends a centerpiece competition. “We actually did this for a friend’s wedding that got canceled,” he says. “He was a florist, so a day in advance he sent out flowers and a vase to everyone, and then, on the Zoom call, everyone had ten minutes to create their own masterpiece, and then you can vote on the winner.”
Organize a scavenger hunt
“One of the best things I’ve seen on Zoom is a scavenger hunt,” says Moore Dent. “Everyone is running around their house, searching for 15 to 20 items — and whichever team comes closest to gathering all those items wins some kind of prize.” This one works especially well with kids.
Watch the parade
If your family usually celebrates Thanksgiving by watching football or the Macy’s Day Parade, plan to watch together virtually. Reichert recommends using Airtime.
Even if you’re on Zoom, you can still take a family photo — hopefully one that will make you laugh when you look back at it in years to come. Carrillo says this can be a nice thing to do as your event winds down, to end things on a high note.