How to Offer Virtual Hospitality

Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.” -Romans 12:13

On October 29-31, CFI hosted its annual Fall Executive Forum, an event that offers Christian business leaders a chance for connection and renewal. With over half of participants attending virtually, our team was presented with unique opportunities for innovation as we considered how best to engage and serve those who couldn’t physically be in the room with us. 

We tend to think of hospitality as something we show when we are physically present with others. Hospitality teams at church are those who greet guests and show them to their seats, or those who set out the coffee and pastries. But with the pivot to virtual engagement as a result of COVID-19, our definition of hospitality needs to be expanded. 

At CFI, we see this need as an opportunity for Christian innovative thinking, and we saw our Fall Executive Forum as the perfect opportunity for exploring these questions: How do we follow the command of Romans 12:13 in an age of virtual engagement? What might virtual hospitality look like?

To think through these questions in preparation for the Fall Executive Forum, we created a Virtual Experience Team and arrived at a few principles of virtual hospitality that guided our preparation for this event. 

First, virtual hospitality means thinking about experience holistically. 

Just because faces appear on screens does not mean they don’t inhabit a physical space. We didn’t want to think of our virtual participants as minds and social beings only, but as whole persons. The best event planners know that in their planning they must anticipate the needs of the whole person: intellectual, emotional, spiritual, social, and physical. The Forum’s presentations, networking sessions, and Christian community anticipated the first four needs, but in virtual engagement the physical component of holistic experience tends to suffer. Eyes become blurry, bodies become restless, and no one quite knows the etiquette for eating on screen. 

For in-person guests, offering coffee, tea, and refreshments during breaks is an easy way to show holistic hospitality, but virtual hospitality requires a little more creativity. 

We took three steps towards offering virtual hospitality that acknowledged the physical experience of our participants:

  1. In the swag bag we mailed each virtual participant before the event, we included local coffee and tea so they could remain refreshed and energized throughout the day. 
  2. We made time in the virtual participants’ schedule for meal and coffee breaks. During sessions that overlapped with the lunch hour, we clarified that eating on screen was not a problem, as in-person participants would be enjoying lunch then too.
  3. We welcomed participants to turn off their Zoom cameras as needed, so they could turn away from the screen and give their eyes a break as needed. 

Second, virtual hospitality means creating a virtual space for community. 

One of the primary reasons our participants attend the Fall Executive Forum is for the chance to connect with other Christian business executives. We didn’t want this opportunity to be lost for virtual participants. Without a physical space in which to mingle and chat between sessions, we knew we would have to be intentional about creating a virtual environment of community and connection for all participants.

To this end, we built multiple networking sessions and points of connection into the virtual participants’ schedule:

  1. We set up a Virtual Registration to offer the same friendly greeting you’d receive at a registration table. Two of our team members hosted a Zoom call where virtual participants could drop in for a few minutes of registration and welcome as it was convenient for them. We chatted, confirmed the proper functioning of all necessary technology, answered questions, and allowed participants an early chance to connect.  
  2. While in-person participants were mingling in the conference room, we hosted a Virtual Networking Session. This gave virtual participants extended time with each other in Zoom breakout rooms. 
  3. We also facilitated breakout sessions in which all conference participants co-mingled, so that virtual and in-person participants could engage with one another. To do this, we invited all in-person participants to join the Zoom call and sent everyone into breakout rooms.
  4. We opened each Zoom call five to ten minutes before the session began. This created a virtual space for participants to join early, chat with one another, and ask questions of the CFI team. 

Third, virtual hospitality means clear communication before and during the event. 

When all guests are in the same physical room, it is easy to show hospitality by answering questions, making announcements to clarify the schedule, and responding to problems in the immediate physical environment. Good in-person hospitality involves scanning the room for opportunities to help and being ready to serve your guests. All of this is more challenging over a Zoom screen. We were mindful of the fact that our virtual participants would not be able to nudge a friend and ask when the next session is, or ask a nearby staff member for help finding the Zoom link.  

Our team felt that a crucial component of virtual hospitality, then, was clear communication before and during the event so that confusion and communication barriers would not get in the way of a participant’s experience. 

We took several steps toward clarifying our communication before and during the event: 

  1. We created an event app using Whova and encouraged all participants to use it actively. This app housed a live schedule, session details, Zoom links, a list of attendees, and discussion boards where participants could post questions and interact with each other. 
  2. We sent virtual participants their own Virtual Schedule with Zoom links and clear communication about when their schedule differed from that of in-person participants. 
  3. We set up a Virtual Concierge so that virtual participants could call our Virtual Experience Team at any point in the conference. Our team was ready to help resolve technology problems, answer questions about the schedule, and offer support as needed.  
  4. We spent considerable time before the conference testing Zoom functions and anticipating any technological challenges that might arise. We saw this time as an act of service and love toward our participants, because we were able to avoid much confusion on the day of the conference and offer our participants a (relatively) seamless experience. 

It turns out that virtual hospitality is not so different from the in-person hospitality that comes to mind when we read Romans 12:13. It just requires a little more creativity. Christian virtual hospitality is motivated by love of our neighbors and service to God. It uses innovative thinking that stewards the resources at our fingertips, allowing us to provide virtual spaces and opportunities for genuine Christian fellowship. Though our team continues to brainstorm new ways of showing virtual hospitality in the age of COVID-19, we are optimistic about the possibilities for genuine hospitality in an age that desperately needs it. 

— Jenna Watson, English Literature ’20

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