It can be a struggle to make a digital party feel special or celebratory. PEOPLE asked celebrity party planners what they recommend for throwing a Zoom celebration that feels special, meaningful, and most of all, fun

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Happy couple on a video call, celebrating birthday
Credit: Getty

More than a year into the global coronavirus pandemic, we’ve gotten pretty good at doing things online. From virtual school to watching brand-new movies, most things we do on a day-to-day basis have made the transition to digital life in some way.

That includes celebrating big milestones— think birthdays, anniversaries, wedding showers and the arrival of new babies. However, as convenient these digital parties may be, for many, celebrating major life events on Zoom can quite literally feel like just another day at the office, which is not exactly the festive vibe you’re going for.

The truth is, it can be a struggle to make a digital party feel special or celebratory; many of us working from home find it hard to muster energy for another hour staring at tiny faces on the screen. Not to mention, all the spontaneity and surprise that makes a real-life party enjoyable doesn’t translate well to Zoom; it often leads to people talking over each other and long, awkward silences. In other words, a poorly-planned Zoom party can be no fun at all.

But just because we can’t gather for milestones in person quite yet doesn’t mean there aren’t better ways to celebrate. PEOPLE asked celebrity party planners what they recommend for throwing a Zoom celebration that feels special, meaningful, and most of all, fun.

Appoint a Leader

The easiest way to make an online party feel special is to have someone in the host role— and not just a person who sends out the link to the room, but an actual master of ceremonies.  “There’s someone in every group,” says Melissa Andre, a celeb party planner and the founder and creative director of Melissa Andre Design Company. “That person will usually stand out— it could be the maid of honor, or another family member who's great at public speaking.”

If you’re organizing a party, say, for your parents’ anniversary, but being the leader isn’t in your skill set, feel free to ask your uncle who is a natural at it. “It’s just like a bachelorette party: sometimes the maid of honor is on point and will have everything scheduled, but sometimes childhood best friend Jill is the amazing planner and the MOH turns it over to her,” says Troy Williams, a celebrity event designer and founder of Simply Troy Lifestyle + Events. “Know your strengths in the situation.”

Pandemic Parties
Credit: Courtesy Melissa Andre

Make a Plan

Once you have your host figured out, there needs to be an activity of some kind if it’s going to feel like a party. It doesn’t have to be complicated— you can send out a cookie or cocktail recipe ahead of time so everyone is eating or drinking the same thing (you can go the extra mile by sending out cocktail kits from  Mouth.com), play a game (you can stream fun online games for a group at sites like Jackbox), or go around and make toasts about the person or people you’re celebrating. “So many people think planning a party now is easy because it’s in our home,” says Williams. “But you need to set a strategy, and maybe even have a little outline.”

Do a Test Run

The last thing you want at a Zoom celebration is to be in the middle of a toast about your sister, only to find out your grandma missed it all because she still hasn’t logged on (and you know she’s going to ask you to start over).

“This isn’t just about older people— if you have anyone on your list who doesn’t typically hang out on Zoom, you should have a dress rehearsal,”  says Andre. “Assign someone to be your tech support and have them go to anyone who feels like they need help and walk them through [the program].”

Williams agrees, suggesting sending out a cheat sheet with information on how to change your display name, use a different background, or otherwise prepare for the main event. You should also test-run the room you’ll be Zooming from: Make sure you’re well-lit so the party guests can see you!

Keep It Small and Short

The more people in a Zoom, the harder it is to keep the flow of conversation going, especially if not everyone knows each other. (Aim for about 10 people, max).  But if your celebration needs to have a bigger guest list, try to keep the main “event” (like a ceremony, or speeches) to about 15 minutes, and then create breakout rooms for groups of people who know each other, like work friends and family. Andre suggests stopping by each room for 15-30 minutes, depending on how many groups you have, almost like a bride making rounds at a wedding. “Think of it like assigning tables you would have sat people at,” she says. (Andre also says about 45 minutes total is the sweet spot for a digital event. “One hour of staring at a screen is a really long time,” she says.)  

Do Some "Normal" Party Prep

If you treat your event like a party, it will feel like a party! Start from step one: “Hire an independent artist to create beautiful PDF invitations,” says Williams, who likes using upwork.com to find artists all around the country.

Make sure to dress up before you log on. Create a menu— even if everyone isn’t eating the exact same thing, if people can coordinate their meals and drinks the whole event will feel more cohesive, says Andre, who created the decor for a mostly remote party, above. And make sure the person being celebrated doesn’t have to lift a finger, Andre suggests: “Break up the list of things you’ll need for them—balloons, a cake— and assign everyone an item to send to the guest of honor.”

Pandemic Parties
Credit: Courtesy Minted

Think About the Person (or People) Being Celebrated)

This one might be the most important, no matter what kind of event you’re planning

“One of the things I get asked the most often is ‘How do I make my wedding feel like a celebrity wedding?’ ” says Andre. “What makes celebrity weddings feel special is they have a different kind of attachment to the event. They’re photographed all the time. They wear designer gowns all the time. They wear $3,000 shoes all the time. So they don’t make their weddings as much about themselves. They make it about their guests.”

So whether you’re throwing a birthday party, or a baby shower, or an anniversary party, focus on making your guest(s) of honor feel really special. “Think about quotes or catchphrases of theirs and get them printed on cardstock to hold up to the camera when the moment is right. There are apps that make custom crossword puzzles that you can send to everyone ahead of time. Or you can send everyone a custom puzzle with a special photo from a site like Minted [pictured above],” suggests Williams, who helped create the box below for a client. “If you can, don’t be afraid to spend a little bit of money to send people things— you’re not getting a venue, so if you can put together something and ship it off to everyone’s house it really makes a difference.”

Pandemic Parties
Credit: Courtesy Troy Williams

If your budget is more limited, Williams suggests making a Spotify playlist tailored to the person’s tastes and sending it out. “You can listen to music, drink, and talk about how this person has impacted your life— make sure everybody answers,” he says “It really makes the person feel special.”