Give customers something to look forward to by hosting virtual video events to keep them informed and engaged.

On the evening of April 3, our garden center held a cocktail party that was attended by over 200 people. But before we’re accused of being irresponsible in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, know that this cocktail hour gathering was virtual, held using Zoom software.

Hyannis Country Garden is located in Massachusetts, and in our state, we’re classified as an agricultural, essential business. Yet even though we’re allowed to remain open, business is down in the season when we most depend on sales. We are challenged to keep our community safe by sanitizing our store regularly, providing protection for employees, and hand sanitizers for customers. Curbside pickup and delivery services are available as well, and many of our customers are taking advantage of these so they can complete yard tasks while they’re laid off from work.

While safety is our primary focus, sanity and stability are also important. Plants and flowers help people to stay sane, and we’re all concerned with how to keep our businesses stable. Since all of our spring events were canceled, I wanted a way to keep our customers excited about plants and gardens, even as everyone hunkers down. Zoom software has provided a way for us to keep in touch with customers and help them get through these times in good spirits.

Knowing that people need something to look forward to, I started a Country Garden Virtual Cocktail Hour, to be held for our customers every Friday night from 5 to 6 p.m. We had 200 people join the first one and despite a few glitches, it was a roaring success. The simulated party has not only been good for our customers but has also benefited our business.

Party prep

Like any good celebration, this one starts with advance planning. If you’re expecting many people, you’ll need a version of the Zoom software that accommodates a crowd. The biggest mistake I made with our first event was scheduling it as a meeting, not a webinar. With the level of Zoom that I have, a meeting is limited to 200 people, while a webinar accommodates 500. Zoom allows you to sign up for a paid plan that allows for a big group, and then cancel the plan if you don’t need it later in the year.

Once you have a Zoom account, become familiar with the setup before an event. It’s smart to set up your webinar so that attendees can see you and your materials while their audio and video are turned off. This prevents attendees from hijacking the gathering with unwanted sounds or visuals, and keeps the party in your control. Those attending can be invited to put their questions and comments in the typed “chat” area, and this free-flowing conversation makes it seem more like a party than a lecture.

I prepared slide presentations to share with attendees while I talked. They could see my face, but they also enjoyed photos of the topics and plants I was speaking of. If the slide referred to a plant that people aren’t familiar with, I wrote the name on the slide, but otherwise I avoided text in the presentation since people can’t read and listen to my voice at the same time. It would just be confusing to attendees to put words on the screen. Although I didn’t record the first call, the following events were recorded, including the chat so that questions asked that evening could be answered on future blog posts.

Agenda for the evening

Zoom software allows you to host webinars with large groups of people and the links are easily shareable.
LAPTOP © Chris Hepburn, Getty | IstockPhoto

Being a cocktail party, our virtual gatherings started with beverages. Every week I prepared two cocktails, one alcoholic and the other not, that use herbs or flowers in the drink. I took photos of them in advance, and had one prepared to lift in toast at the beginning. Later, the recipes for these cocktails were put on our company blog, along with selected images that I shared during the evening.

After discussing beverages, I spent about 20 minutes showing my yard and garden activities at the time. In our first week, I included tips on pruning roses, spotting rabbit damage early in the season, starting tomato seedlings indoors and forcing Forsythia branches in the house.

To conclude, we looked at great plants and products at the garden center. I took photos of shrubs and perennials in stock and talked about these plants. I also showed a few shots of summer flowers that will be planted later and explained how to grow them successfully. The most popular of these seemed was the sunflowers; I showed photos of the flowers from my gardens last summer and pictures of the many packages of sunflower seeds that people can pick up now in preparation for planting.

Benefits for our business

Because we are sending out the event links in our weekly newsletter, these virtual cocktail parties have grown our mailing list substantially. We have a different link for each event and people must be on our mailing list to receive them.

Throughout the evening, people asked for ways they can shop for plants safely, so the event helped spread the word that our business was making deliveries, offering curbside pickups and keeping register areas sanitary. I answered questions about which plants could be found outside and how purchases can be made without going into the store. So, it allowed for addressing our customer’s concerns and interests in an informal way.

Best of all, these virtual cocktail hours reminded everyone of the joy that plants, flowers and gardens bring. It kept people excited about the growing season and allowed them to plan for happier times in the future. And who knows … these virtual events might prove to be something that’s popular for seasons to come.

C.L. Fornari is a speaker, writer and radio/podcast host who has worked at Hyannis Country Garden, an IGC on Cape Cod, for more than 20 years. She has her audiences convinced that C.L. stands for “Compost Lover.” Learn more at