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[Feature] Virtual year-end celebrations are a hip alternative this pandemic year

Oh Bo-ram sets up her table for a virtual year-end celebration with high school friends. (Courtesy of Oh Bo-ram)
Oh Bo-ram sets up her table for a virtual year-end celebration with high school friends. (Courtesy of Oh Bo-ram)
December is a hectic time for those trying to catch up with friends and wrap up the year with colleagues. Bars, restaurants and cafes are typically crowded with people in a festive mood.

This year, however, the pandemic has effectively taken away that treasured time of the year. The unexpected surge in infection cases last month in Korea ended up shutting down all restaurants in the capital area after 9 p.m., and people are choosing to stay home.

Seeking alternative ways to interact with loved ones before the year ends -- many are gathering virtually for their year-end celebrations, bringing a glass of wine and finger foods in front of the computer, laptop or iPad. More people are sharing their new experiences via social media, claiming the virtual gatherings are more satisfying than they had expected. And some are already saying they will continue the virtual get-togethers next year.

Oh Bo-ram, 36, who lives in Asan, South Chungcheong Province, met up with old high school friends virtually last week. They had not been able to meet this year as their gathering kept getting pushed back due to the pandemic. They ended up planning their first-ever online year-end celebration -- not without doubts about the virtual merrymaking.

“It was actually really good because it was easier for us to get together as many of us have a kid at home and live in different cities,” Oh said. “We started to use Zoom at 11 p.m. and it continued until 1 a.m. It was such a good experience, and we will have another virtual New Year gathering next year.”

Online year-end gatherings are becoming prevalent at the workplace as well. While companies typically host a year-end celebration or workshop, which almost always doubles as an occasion to get together for food and drinks, to wrap up the year, this year they have been replaced by online celebrations.

A 29-year-old office worker in Seoul, who wished to be identified by her surname Kang, was satisfied with her first online year-end event hosted by the company. Kang said she used to be reluctant to join the year-end parties at work as she cannot hold alcohol well and feels anxious about mingling with coworkers on such occasions.

According to a survey by Macromill Embrain, a trend research company based in Seoul, 77.2 percent of 1,000 respondents who are salaried employees see the pandemic as a good excuse to avoid some year-end meetings they did not want to join.

Kang said each participant was allocated 30,000 won ($27) ahead of the virtual gathering to order food for the online celebration. Her team of six colleagues limited the virtual party to an hour and a half.

“Personally it was quite satisfying and it turned out better than I had expected. I did not have to drink keeping pace with my colleagues, and I could enjoy the food that I wanted,” she said. “We also got to introduce our family members naturally when they passed by the computer monitor. I think we became closer through the virtual gathering.”

While online year-end gatherings have turned out to be satisfactory for many, there are a few shortcomings, according to people who have experienced the virtual year-end party.

The online meetings can be fraught with technical issues. When multiple people speak at the same time, it is hard to identify the speaker although the video chat program indicates the speaker. Also it can be awkward to gauge the timing to end the virtual party, unless the duration of the party is predetermined.

A 41-year-old employee surnamed Won took part in her company‘s first-ever online year-end workshop, joined by more than 300 employees. The virtual workshop invited more employees than a typical offline event thanks to the limitless virtual space.

Finding the online meeting useful, she pushed ahead with organizing a couple of online year-end celebrations, including one on Christmas Eve. Won hints that the role of the host is particularly important for virtual year-end parties as it could feel awkward at first and some people may need to work up their courage to join such events.

“For the Christmas Eve gathering, I suggested a dress code for a festive atmosphere. Online get-togethers require preparations by the host, including what they will talk about, to avoid the atmosphere that can be a little awkward at the beginning,” she said.

Lee Eun-joo hosts a Christmas-themed online year-end party. (Courtesy of Lee Eun-joo)
Lee Eun-joo hosts a Christmas-themed online year-end party. (Courtesy of Lee Eun-joo)
Lee Eun-joo, a professional growth planner who authored a book on knowledge nomads and annually hosts a year-end party with people who share the same interest, threw an online party last week. As host, she sent out gifts in advance to each, including an aroma candle and refreshments, for the 24 participants, asking them to open them during the online gathering to create the Christmassy atmosphere.

“I wanted to amuse the participants satisfying their five senses although it was an online event,“ she said. “One of the participants also played a ukulele to enrich the time.”

By Park Yuna (yunapark@heraldcorp.com)  
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