Host a Smashing Virtual Happy Hour (Getting Smashed is Optional)


The coronavirus has turned drinks at the bar into drinks at our homes, but that does not mean you have to drink alone.

This past Monday, on a whim, Jackie Summers, a liquor-brand owner, put out a call on Twitter for people to join him for a virtual cocktail hour. Since many of his friends in the hospitality industry were suddenly out of work, he felt that this was the perfect way to encourage social distancing while giving people a much-needed outlet to socialize.

15 people attended the event, which he organized with his friend, Daniella Veras. The next day, over 100 participants logged in. He plans on hosting virtual happy hours regularly until the coronavirus crisis resolves.

It’s understandable that people are looking to the internet to lessen feelings of social isolation. Not only does an evening “event” help give the day structure, but seeing friendly faces can be a lifeline for people who miss their friends and loved ones.

Whether you are having a cozy chat with your far-flung besties, or plan on dropping into a video chat room filled with dozens of strangers, here is what you need to know about having a successful virtual happy hour.


Keep it small

As co-hosts of the YouTube show Natalie and Tara Try Stuff, the Los Angeles-based friends Natalie Lynch and Tara Jayn naturally took to the internet as they observed social distancing guidelines. Even though they livestreamed a virtual happy hour for their online fans, Ms. Lynch thinks there is a benefit to keeping your happy hour fairly intimate.

“Too many people in a Google Hangout and it just becomes chaos,” she said. “More than eight to ten people, and conversations can’t really happen without leaving people outside looking in.” If more than ten people are attending your virtual happy hour, consider appointing a moderator to help the conversation run smoothly.


Get dolled up

Connecting online is also an excellent excuse to shake off rumpled clothes and shimmy into a snappy outfit. Jessica Lawlor of Chestnut Hill, Pa., applied makeup and put on a cute sweater for her virtual happy hour with three friends. She said the act of getting ready gave her a sense of normalcy.


Get comfy

Wherever you hold your happy hour, make sure the lighting is bright enough so others can see you. It’s also wise to keep ambient sound to a minimum, as barking dogs and shrieking children can affect the vibe. Backyard patios, kitchen tables and front porches can be suitable places to convene as well, as long as there is a stable surface to rest your laptop or device on.

“You should participate in the place in your home where you are most comfortable,” Mr. Summers said. “Not everyone has a home bar, but everyone should feel at home.”

Settle on food and drinks

“Most of the happy hours have a combo, which is a beer or a lager with a tequila shot, or a dark beer with a whiskey shot,” said Yolanda Baez, a bartender at Broken Shaker near Gramercy Park in Manhattan. To get into the happy hour spirit at home, she recommends creating your own version of this classic happy hour staple. Cocktails like an Old-Fashioned and a Bramble are easy drinks to whip up at home, she added. And mocktails like virgin Mojitos, Piña Coladas and margaritas can be good options for those who aren’t imbibing alcohol.

Many groups improvise with a “Quarantini,” which is basically a mixed drink containing whatever liquor you have on hand.

Ms. Lynch shared a cocktail recipe for a drink called the Smoky Irishman before her virtual happy hour so people could get supplies and drink along if they wanted to. While she did not have everyone in attendance drink or eat the same thing, she did name her virtual bar Steve’s Irish Pub ahead of time. The virtual location influenced people’s food and drink choices, she said.


Go for the grid

There are a variety of platforms you can use to get everyone together: Skype, FaceTime, Google Hangouts and Zoom, to name a few. Ms. Lawlor chose Zoom to host her virtual happy hour. She recommends using the grid view in any teleconferencing software, as it will let you see everyone at once in equal-size boxes.

This also allows her to see everyone’s facial expressions more clearly. “It truly felt like we were sitting around a table at a bar or restaurant,” she said. Because Zoom outlines the person speaking (or making noise), it became a helpful visual cue to let others know that someone was about to speak, which minimized people talking over one another.


Be a good listener

Mr. Summers encourages everyone who attends a virtual happy hour to be prepared to listen. “Everyone will try to talk, and there will be rooms full of people, and you can only really hear one person at a time,” he said. Let everyone participate.


Keep the conversation light

As chief experience officer of the Westfield, N.J., dinner club Fat, Drunk and Fancy, Kim DiGiovanni tried to introduce as much levity as possible while hosting her virtual happy hour. To get the conversation started, she encouraged people in attendance to share three new things that had happened in the last 24 hours that they were grateful for.

Jenny Wang, a licensed psychologist, also recommends these starter questions, if you want to drive the topic of conversion a bit:


Coping

What is something you have been putting off doing that you now suddenly have time for?

What shows or movies have been helping you cope during this time?

What is one small thing you are doing to bring a little joy or comfort into your day?


Work

How do you stay focused when working from home?

What is the most hilarious thing you have seen that distracted you from work?

If you had a mantra right now, what would it be?


Connection

Who do you see most now?

What is the most annoying thing about that person?

What do you love about being stuck with that person or persons?

Avoid topics associated with anxiety, panic or fear, Dr. Wang said. Finances, stocks and politics also can make people feel on edge.

If conversation drifts to more nerve-racking topics, she suggests redirecting the anxious energy by asking questions like:

What are you going to do today?

Who else are you video chatting with?

What exercises will you do?

What are you reading?

Highlight actionable items we have control over instead of dwelling on hypothetical and terrifying scenarios in the future. “If we can accept the uncertainty of tomorrow and embrace the ability to live in the now, I think this helps us live well despite chaotic and uncertain times,” Dr. Wang said.


End on a high note

Keep your virtual happy short and sweet, then make plans to do it again. It is a courtesy to include a set end time, but as with in-person happy hours, it’s likely people may continue gabbing if they are having fun. Although Ms. Lawlor scheduled her virtual happy hour for one hour, her friends chatted another 30 minutes because they were enjoying themselves.

In the future, she’ll plan to include more time in the initial calendar invite. And she will let people know they can hop off whenever they need to. However, she notes, if she were speaking with her best friend or her mother, she would not set a time limit. “We already have a super comfortable relationship where I’d feel OK with saying, ‘OK, I gotta go.’”

Ms. Lawlor is already planning on attending more virtual happy hours with other groups of friends. “It’s a great way to stay in touch, though I’m definitely looking forward to the day we can meet up IRL again,” she said.

By Anna Goldfarb Alexandra Petri contributed reporting.

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