For some people, working remotely has lost its luster, becoming a lonely and boring experience. But this is not the case for InterNations members in search of connection. In the world’s largest community for people who live and work abroad, they can get access to a virtual co-working space where they sip their coffee and work alongside fellow expats and global minds. This is only one example of how online events enrich and empower global communities — and the feeling of isolation is just one reason for organizing them. We’ve interviewed our Senior Community Engagement Specialist Melody for her expertise in using online events as a vital tool in community building.
Now and Then: Two Very Different Birthday Celebrations
The InterNations website went online in September 2007. Since then, numerous birthday celebrations have taken place in our communities worldwide every year. September 2020 was the exception to this rule. Due to the twists and turns of the COVID-19 pandemic, the usual parties were canceled. Instead, we hosted our first Global Online Anniversary Festival. Fortunately, our communities have reopened in about 390 out of 420 cities across the globe. Most members had the opportunity to toast the 2021 anniversary in person.
Nonetheless, an online gala was part of the festivities. The virtual birthday bash wasn’t just another one-off event in honor of the occasion. We have now established a regular online format, the InterNations Global Groups. They were officially launched in spring 2021, as a wide-reaching, high-quality online event offering, most of which is open to all members. In-person events for expats and global minds remain the backbone of local life in our 420 communities — but online events help connect them in a different way.
InterNations team member Melody has been instrumental in creating the new format. Asked to describe her ever-changing role as a Senior Community Engagement Specialist, she sums it up very succinctly: “I’m exploring how online events can empower global communities.”
So, in what ways do they enrich our community? And what can other event organizers learn from our experiences?
Online Events: An Easy Way of Overcoming Isolation
The InterNations Global Groups can be traced back to the local online events that kept springing up in 2020. The latter helped tide our members over through various lockdowns. “These events served as a place for our members to be social when many were feeling lonely and isolated,” Melody remembers. “Towards the end of last year, we reviewed this format. We decided to keep online gatherings for the future, but on a global level. It was eye-opening to see that a lot of people were craving more social interaction, not just because of COVID-19. We felt that the benefits of online events outside of social distancing were obvious.”
There are various reasons why expats might be feeling a little lonely, even beyond the isolation imposed by the pandemic. Maybe they have moved to another country on their own. Maybe they don’t speak the local language yet. Or perhaps they work from home a lot. All these factors make it harder for them to re-build their professional and personal support networks.
And there are just as many reasons why InterNations members might be unable to attend in-person events aimed at the international community. Some expats have moved to rural areas or live in the suburbs near a major city. For them, attending regular events downtown might mean getting stuck in traffic jams or on overcrowded trains. They might suffer from health issues or have mobility impairments, preferring to relax at home after work. Their job might be rather stressful, with the local event offering not fitting into their busy schedules.
Online events are a convenient alternative. We have made them available according to relatively widespread time zone brackets, rather than on a city or country level. That way, there will always be plenty of attendees around, be it 20 or 200.
How InterNations Does It: The Global Groups
Among the 13 InterNations Global Groups set up so far, “there’s even a Coworking Group,” Melody says. “You can just jump in and work alongside other members during the day. It features a breakout room where you can listen to classical music together while working. Another one is for sharing the occasional coffee break. It helps the group members socialize during their working day, especially if they’re freelancers or part of a remote-only team.”
Other groups related to professional and personal development are also very popular. “The Business Group addresses many topics that are relevant to members globally — diversity, productivity, accountability, business ethics, and different habits for success. Sometimes, there are online professional networking events as well, and it even has a business book club,” Melody explains.
“Then there’s the Personal Development Group. It covers a wide range of topics related to exploring something new and improving yourself. This could be yoga, for example, or meditation, mindfulness, self-care, personal values, and so on.” But InterNations Global isn’t just all work and no play! There’s plenty of room for our members to share their personal passions.
Creating a Sense of Community through Online Events
Online events shouldn’t “only” offer a convenient way of overcoming isolation, though. Ideally, they create the same opportunities for genuine connection as in-person events, like in the following example described by Melody: “A Consul — i.e., someone who hosts regular activities for our members — contacted me the other day. She wanted to organize an InterNations Global Event where attendees could talk about personal challenges and how they’ve tackled them.”
“The Consul would open up herself about some challenging times that she’s had recently. She wanted the event to be about sharing the positive aspect of moving on from difficulties and inspiring each other. I think it can be empowering to understand that others are going through similar issues in different parts of the world. Finding a way to move forward together results in a sense of community.”
Best Practices: Finding the Perfect Hosts for Online Events …
To offer a welcoming environment at online events, it isn’t enough to just install video conferencing software throughout a platform. Not everyone is well suited for the role of host, and even good hosts benefit from plenty of personal support. After setting up an application process for the InterNations Global Groups, Melody knows exactly what kind of person to be looking for.
“Consuls should be well versed in the video conferencing tool we’re using. But moderating an online event is about much more than technical know-how, such as using different software features. They should also be good role models for the community. In a video call, everyone will see everything that the host says and does. The Consuls address members from all over the globe, from different countries and cultures, with different ways of communicating. It’s important to keep these differences in mind. But the hosts also need to recognize when they might need to step in and moderate a potentially difficult situation.”
Having a creative personality and coming up with great ideas for events is the cherry on the proverbial cake. “I think the Consuls of the InterNations Global Groups are generally very talented and motivated people,” Melody points out. “They really put their thinking hats on and brainstormed some great suggestions for our anniversary celebrations. We even had a virtual masquerade ball, for example. It’s exciting to see how well they’ve been working together and inspiring each other.”
… and Providing the Hosts with Continuous Support
It is Melody’s responsibility to make sure that her Consuls get all the help they need. Offering support for technical issues is only part of it. Various resources explaining how to organize online events, moderate them, and keep the audience engaged are just as — if not more — important.
“There are lots of seemingly tiny things to consider if you want everything to run smoothly,” Melody explains. “For example, if a host invites a guest speaker, both should check their camera and sound setup beforehand. If lots of people have signed up for an event, the host must be able to handle a large crowd. They could choose to have a co-host, for instance, just to answer questions in the chat.”
These tiny details add up fast. This is why the Community Engagement Team provides helpful checklists and advice in a dedicated Resource Center. And Melody does not only give one-on-one support via private messages and calls. She also organizes monthly engagement sessions with a peer-to-peer discussion round. “A session usually covers a specific topic, based on issues that I noticed the hosts might need help with or that they brought up themselves. To be honest, they are the experts. So, I always include a brief workshop where they can share what they’ve experienced and what works well for them.”
That Magic Moment: Getting Connected at Online Events
In the InterNations Global Groups, there is now an average of 60 to 100 online events a month. Melody makes sure to attend at least a couple of these events herself, drawing inspiration from what she observes. “Sometimes, you don’t need any special elements to get this perfect feeling of connection,” she says. “One of my favorite events ever really impressed me with how simple the setup was.”
Two Consuls talked about the history of Turkish coffee, giving detailed advice on how to prepare the perfect cup of coffee and sharing their personal memories — how their mother used to make it or which of their coffee cups had belonged to their grandmother. “There was no special element to engage the audience. It was only the attendees talking about their love of coffee or reconnecting with their cultural heritage. But the flow of the conversation felt completely natural. It was almost magical. So many people from across the world, from Turkey to Ecuador, were connecting over such an ordinary topic.”
Hybrid Experience: From Online to In-Person Friendships
On the one hand, online events can reach and develop new audiences. “We have noticed a recent uptake in activity in smaller communities with few in-person events,” Melody explains. “I’ve also received applications from members who’d like to become Consuls in one of the InterNations Global Groups, and it turns out that they have attended only online events so far.”
On the other hand, online and in-person gatherings complement each other. Some new members might prefer to attend one of the Global Newcomers’ Events online. They don’t know yet what InterNations is all about, and it’s easier to dial in from home and find out. Afterwards, they might feel more comfortable with signing up for an in-person event in the nearest community. Others, living in remote places, make online friends through the new format and set up the occasional in-person meeting later.
“I’ve already heard stories of members who happened to be traveling to someone else’s country and decided to meet up. Some even went there specifically to see someone they got to know through our online events. A lot of these online friendships are transferring quite smoothly to meetings that don’t take place in front of a screen,” says Melody. “Hearing such amazing anecdotes makes me feel pretty good about my job!”
Image Credit: InterNations, Pexels, iStockphoto