A grid of people from a ZOOM class from a previous virtual event. A graphic to the left of the frame says "waiting out winter" on a light blue background with snowflakes falling.

How do U… host a fun virtual event?

During the pandemic that has isolated many from friends and family, connection is crucial. Although it’s difficult to capture the electricity of in-person gatherings, a well-planned virtual event can still be fun and interactive.

“Event planners always have to be creative, but we’ve had to be really creative during this pandemic,” said Ashlee Christofferson, assistant director of programming at the A. Ray Olpin University Union.

Christofferson advises the Union Programming Council (UPC), a group of student directors who organize campus activities throughout the school year. The UPC, Union staff and many volunteers worked hard to create engaging COVID-friendly social functions. You can find upcoming U events at https://getinvolved.utah.edu.

Christofferson shared some tips for virtual event success:

Security, security, security!

“Zoom bombing” entered the global lexicon in 2020. It refers to internet trolls that hijack a video conference call by flooding the channel with obscene, offensive material. Many groups across the U learned to take precautions the hard way.

“It’s really heartbreaking—for our first virtual event, the student leaders had put all this work into organizing and these people just ruin the fun for everybody. After that, we really increased the security,” Christofferson said.

To avoid a zoom bomb disaster, consult the U Information Security Office’s advice for how best to secure video events in AtTheU.

Pick-up kits

Many of UPC’s popular events included pick-up kits—bags of snacks and supplies pertaining to the event. For Bob Ross Paint Night, students put together paints, paint brushes and canvases that attendees picked up in the Union Building ahead of the event.

“They spent hours pouring gallons of paint into travel-size shampoo bottles. The kits were gone in the first few hours,” Christofferson said. “Not everyone who gets a kit attended the event, but we had a good turnout.”

Attendees set up the art supplies at home, then followed along as an art teacher led everyone through the steps to paint a scene. Normally this is an in-person event, but this virtual version is actually closer to how the real Bob Ross broadcasted his show on TV to bring “happy little trees” into viewers living rooms.

Build collaborations

Planning virtual events fostered collaborations across campus groups. The Feed U Pantry, which is run by the UPC, partnered with the Sustainability Office to host ZOOM cooking hours. Sustainability canceled their farmer’s market this fall, so they repurposed their $5,000 donation from Harmon’s Grocery to buy supplies for food kits ahead of each cooking class, and made 30 kits available to pick up. Different groups hosted the meals—one night, the Portuguese club invited a Utah County chef to teach a class entirely in Portuguese.

In February, UPC will partner with the Black Cultural Center, who will host a Q&A with author Tommy J. Curry during Martin Luther King Jr. week. The Union will provide the author’s book, “The Man-Not: Race, Class, Genre, and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood” for the pick-up kit..

Adjust your metric of success

A big lesson for Christofferson was that attendance numbers couldn’t be the goal—it’s unrealistic to expect the same participation as for an in-person event. Crimson Nights is usually one of the biggest events of the year. They did their best to adapt the experience; created pick-up kits with snacks, crafts and bingo cards for interactive games. They set up a suite of ZOOM links for the different programming, including a trivia night, bingo games called by President Watkins, ASUU President Ephraim Kum, and Swoop, and musicians that live-streamed performances via YouTube.

“Usually Crimson Nights pulls in about 6,000 people. Probably about 400 came through, which was way beyond what we expected,” Christofferson said. “Instead of attendance size, we adjusted our mindset that this was a great event that helped the people who came. One student commented, ‘I really missed live music. Thank you for that.’ Even if it’s only 30 people, it’s what they need at the time.”

Utilize social media

One of the biggest successes this year was a virtual art show. It was so popular, they’re likely do it again next year.

“We put out a call for students, staff and faculty to submit their art and we got 74 admissions—we were going to be really happy if we ended up with 30! But we got 74 of all kinds of different mediums, from paintings to photography to dance videos.”

Every day, UPC posted 13-15 art pieces on Instagram and had different judges each day that picked their favorite submission. The judges posted a video announcing their winner, who got a prize. They also did a popular vote.

“We received really good feedback. For some of the artists, art was a hobby for them and never get a chance to be in a show,” Christofferson said.