Modern Life

Mix it up this holiday season with these 7 ideas for hybrid parties

Tips for planning holiday festivities that include everyone, in the room and from afar.

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg — November 11, 2021

Last New Year’s Eve, Christina Cho and her daughter, Eliana — whose birthday falls on the same day — watched the San Francisco Ballet’s performance of The Nutcracker on Zoom while Eliana’s friends joined virtually from home. Before the event, Cho dropped off a box at each guest’s house filled with chocolate, fruit, hot cocoa bombs, charcuterie, and fairy flower headpieces so the group could feel “together” for the experience. “We even played Nutcracker Pictionary on the Zoom whiteboard during intermission,” she says. 

This year, although many people will be gathering in person again, less than half of US adults say they plan to travel, which means creative ideas for gathering from a distance will still be key to helping friends and family celebrate together. That rings true for office parties, too, with some employers sticking with virtual events and others hosting in-person activities. There is a happy medium: The hybrid party, in which some people gather in person and others connect virtually to celebrate together. 

“People still are a little hesitant to gather,” says Russell Pinto Jr., founder and executive creative director of the New York City-based events company Little Red Bean Productions. “It’s looking like it’s going to be more hybrid parties this year,” he says.

Illustration by Yiffy Gu

Technology and a new suite of apps and services geared toward virtual gatherings can help create communal experiences and level the playing field between in-person and online guests.

Hybrid events may look and feel different, but they can still be fun, festive, and memorable with a little thoughtful planning. Los Angeles-based Kristin Banta, creative director at Kristin Banta Events, says hybrid events have their perks, because there’s no limit to who can join in the fun. 

“During the pandemic, we’ve really harnessed technology and figured out how to make hybrid events a more normal way of interacting,” she says. “Now, there’s no reason not to have inclusivity at all times.”

Whether you’re planning a family Hanukkah, Christmas, or Kwanzaa celebration or an office holiday party, here are seven fun, creative ways to bring everyone together this year, wherever they are.

Share the ambience

Engage your virtual guests’ senses to create an experience that feels delightfully different from their day-to-day Zoom meetings and mimics what’s happening in the room. “Memories are formed that way,” Banta says. For example, if your in-person decor includes snowflake lights and fake snow, send virtual guests smaller-scale versions for their home office and have them download festive winter-themed Zoom backgrounds. Download and print holiday craft activities and decorations for in-person guests on a high-quality home printer like the ENVY Inspire, and send links to the same activities to remote guests so everyone can get creative together. Create a custom candle as a gift for all attendees, with scents like Grandpa’s eggnog or a walk in the woods. If you’re serving a special cocktail in person, send virtual guests the ingredients so they can make it themselves.

Illustration by Yiffy Gu

Hybrid events may look and feel different, but they can still be fun, festive, and memorable with a little thoughtful planning.

Make Instagrammable moments with photo booths

For large company office parties, VideoBooth Systems has traditional photo booths and virtual ones that put guests in front of fun locations or branded backdrops. SnapBar offers a hybrid photo booth software that integrates with in-person event apps and virtual event platforms. Guests can make digital images and GIFs with Brandmatic’s web-based photo booth. Keshot creates virtual photo mosaics that populate in real-time, and that a business can print to hang in the office as a shared memory. For smaller gatherings of friends and family, try VirtualBooth, which lets you customize an online photo booth background and share with guests to use on any device.

Pre-record holiday-themed videos to watch together

Pre-recording content can help create communal experiences and level the playing field between in-person and online guests. A company might record an uplifting holiday message from the CEO, or an executive revealing a talent for singing Christmas carols. For family get-togethers, ask a family member to film themselves reading a cherished holiday story in front of the fireplace or baking a family favorite holiday dessert.

Host a hybrid trivia or karaoke night

With New York-based Interactive Entertainment Group, a live host runs 60-minute games for corporate events from a shared screen platform, with guests answering questions using their smartphones. TriviaHub offers a similar service for smaller family gatherings, and TriviaMaker offers hundreds of games to choose from. Use Watch2Gether to create a karaoke song queue, and host a hybrid karaoke party over Zoom. You can even mail virtual guests their own karaoke mike.

“During the pandemic, we’ve really harnessed technology and figured out how to make hybrid events a more normal way of interacting.”

— Kristin Banta, creative director at Kristin Banta Events

Organize a multi-location gift exchange

Draw names or use the free Secret Santa generator Elfster to match up gift givers and recipients. Ask everyone to mail their gifts well in advance  — no peeking! — and then have everyone open their presents during your live event. Play a Spotify  holiday playlist with suggestions from all of your guests during gift opening.

Book a hybrid or virtual experience everyone can join

Or, instead of physical gifts, “give experiences people can do together,” says Amanda Masick, an event manager at Events Solutions in Santa Monica, California. Set up a cocktail tutorial with a company like New York-based Liquid Lab or Pour Up Atlanta, and provide non-alcoholic versions for non-drinkers. Helen Daily, owner of the Houston-based The Party Architects says charcuterie workshops are a fun way to include everyone in a holiday activity they can then enjoy together, while apart. Guests can post pictures of their creations on social media, and the one with the most likes wins a prize. AirBNB Online Experiences offers high-quality virtual events like a murder mystery escape game or a sandwich masterclass. Other experiences to explore include a sing-along dueling pianos show, a hybrid cooking class, or a virtual glass blowing demonstration.

Get everyone in the same virtual room

With Gather, you can host a virtual holiday rooftop lounge party or Tiki bar event for friends and family in any location. For larger corporate parties, Spatial.Chat lets guests gather around virtual tables like at a cocktail party. The virtual events platform ExVo by AllSeated features a game-like interface that makes virtual attendees feel like they’re in-person in luxurious virtual living rooms or stylish event halls. Make sure everyone has the right technology to participate and tests it out before the big day. “Once people start getting frustrated, the event no longer becomes enjoyable no matter how good your content is,” says Pinto.

Whether you’re imagining something immersive or trying simple touches like festive Zoom backgrounds and a shared holiday playlist, event planners agree that the most important consideration for 2021 holiday parties is getting an early start. “Start planning a lot sooner than you’re used to,” Masick says.

And even if you’re planning an all in-person event, have a hybrid or virtual plan as a backup just in case.

“If 2020 taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected,” she adds.