How to plan and run an engaging virtual breakout session

Thomas Paris
August 18, 2021
How to plan and run an engaging virtual breakout session

Staying in one place for eight hours at an in-person conference can be exhausting, and that same feeling can set in at virtual events. A thoughtful breakout session creates a space where guests can experience something different, then come back to the main seminar feeling refreshed and inspired.

In this guide, we’ll take a look at breakout sessions and how they can make your virtual event more engaging. We’ll share our tips on how to plan a successful breakout session, plus cover some great breakout group ideas to inspire you.

What is a breakout session?

Breakout sessions are simply small moments within a larger event. They're designed specifically for people to step away from the main topic or activity and catch a break. While you should still schedule regular breaks in your agenda for a long event, a breakout session is a mix between a rest break and an opportunity to learn, engage, or discuss.

People usually meet in small groups in a breakout session. These might be optional, or you might request your attendees to choose between several depending on the size of your event. These small group sessions or workshops allow attendees to decompress, further their learning, explore their interests, or talk more openly in a cozy space — without the pressure of a large group atmosphere.

Breakout sessions can be a welcome relief for your attendees — especially after a long keynote or an in-depth seminar about a challenging or technical subject. The chance to step back and network with others, play virtual games, or take part in a roundtable talk helps guests return to the main event with greater focus and enthusiasm than before.

One of the best reasons to introduce breakout sessions is to help with audience engagement. At most virtual events, attendees have to stay and listen to a speaker for a while — often with limited opportunities to get involved. Breakout sessions are more informal and open, so there are plenty of ways for guests to contribute ideas, ask questions, and further their learning.

How to host successful breakout sessions

A man gives a thumbs up while participating in a virtual breakout session on his laptop

Like all aspects of virtual events, the key to hosting effective breakout sessions is great planning. Here are some of our best tips to make your breakout sessions just as impressive as your main event.

Get your attendees involved

Involving your attendees when planning your event can help them feel closer to it so they’re more likely to show up excited, recommend it to friends, and stay engaged throughout. For an easy way to do this, ask your event planner to survey attendees for breakout session ideas.

Offer your event attendees the opportunity to shape the event through a series of questions, polls, or a virtual suggestion box. Ask them for ideas on any speakers they’d love to see in mini talks or workshops, or request their thoughts on any games or wellbeing activities you might include. Not only do they immediately feel more involved, it’s also a great way to make sure your event caters to exactly what guests want to see.

Prepare your guests

In addition to letting your guests steer the direction of your breakout sessions, you’ll want to make sure they’re fully prepared for them. Breakout sessions can be fun and informal, but they shouldn’t be a surprise in the middle of your event.

Clearly lay out breakout group options on your event agenda, with details on how guests can pre-register if they need to. It’s also helpful to include a mini explainer on what the breakout session covers, plus the group size, format, facilitator, and any other details you think your guests might need. This is especially important if you’re running multiple sessions at the same time so they can make the right choice for them.

Sometimes your guests might need extra materials to participate in a breakout session activity, especially at a hybrid event where you’ve introduced a hands-on element. In these moments, Hoppier virtual cards are a great way to give your guests a balance to order materials without worrying about the logistics of shipping and catering for personal tastes.

Choose the right host

Successful breakout sessions rely not only on a great topic, but on a confident meeting host too. Look for a breakout session host who can captivate your guests so they leave the break feeling refreshed and fired up, ready to return to the main seminar, talk, or workshop.

For a smaller event, your facilitator might remain the same throughout. In these cases, make sure you choose someone who's comfortable running workshops, webinars, or talks in multiple formats, and someone who knows how to engage your audience the right way. They don’t need to be a virtual event expert, especially for an internal event or small event — enthusiasm, passion, and great communication go a long way toward helping your guests feel welcome.

Stay on time

It’s easy to get carried away when you’re lost in a subject you’re passionate about, but a successful breakout session should start and finish on time. If it doesn’t, there’s a risk that your whole event schedule will fall behind and people will miss content they wanted to experience.

Make sure your breakout meeting moderator keeps a close eye on the clock and prompts any speakers or guests when it’s almost time to move on to the next event session. While there’s no walking from one room to another with a virtual event, it’s still easy for people to get carried away with chatting when they should be at the main meeting already. Give your guests a few minutes to finish up their conversations within the session time, or schedule a break for after your workshops instead.

Select the best format and technology

At an in-person event, breakout sessions usually take place in a different space than the main event. This helps create a distinction between the two and means that the breakout rooms can be set up exactly how you want them. This looks different for a virtual event, but the same principle applies.

Choose a virtual event platform with breakout sessions in mind. Look for software that allows you to host a webinar or talk in one virtual room, then split participants into separate, smaller breakout rooms for additional sessions. Think about your format, like whether you want everyone on the screen or even in a video game style virtual world. Consider any event technology you’ll need to make your sessions more engaging too — like live polling, virtual whiteboards, interactive games, and more.

7 of our favorite virtual event breakout session ideas

A man meditates as part of a virtual breakout session

Breakout sessions are a must-have for large virtual conferences, but they’re equally appreciated for smaller, topic-focused get-togethers. If you want to introduce an engaging breakout session for your next event, here are some of our favorite ideas.

1. Virtual roundtable

Roundtables are an effective way to bring your event attendees together and give them a platform to discuss a specific topic. These smaller group discussions mean people can talk, share opinions, debate, and have an in-depth conversation about one idea, challenge, or situation.

For example, you could host a roundtable to discuss how technology might change the future of your industry or debate the best way to solve an internal structure challenge. It’s a setup that allows for reasoned debate and contributions from everyone, so it’s ideal for those who want to get involved but may struggle in a larger room where there’s no automatic platform.

2. Virtual lunch and learn

Some of your event guests might want to use their lunch break to rest, catch up with family, or go for a walk. Others will appreciate the chance to continue learning while they’re enthused about the topic. Give them the option to do that with a virtual lunch and learn.

A virtual lunch and learn combines a lunch break with an engaging workshop, seminar, or hands-on activity that can be related to your main topic or completely different. For example, you might host a lunch and learn to follow a software tutorial together or to discover new ways to relax in the workplace.

3. Virtual party games and activities

For something a little out of the ordinary, try adding a virtual party game session to your corporate event schedule. This is a great way to bring people together, liven things up, and introduce some friendly competition.

Look for interactive party games that most of your audience is likely to be interested in, or host multiple breakout sessions so they can find the perfect game for them. Games like Mario Kart are easy to pick up, or you could opt for virtual versions of tabletop games like Scrabble or Pictionary. Trivia quizzes and scavenger hunts are also fun team building games that could work as a breakout session.

4. Virtual mini talks

Like large in-person conferences, virtual events can be great ways to introduce your audience to industry leaders and fresh voices. Instead of having just one speaker at your event, create mini keynotes — or lightning talks — where people can enjoy mini presentations on interesting topics.

A lightning talk adds a lot of value for your attendees because it's a time efficient way for them to level up their learning. Instead of showing up to multiple virtual events, they can hear from multiple experts at yours. Plus, if you want to source sponsors for your event, giving them the chance to host a mini keynote can be a great way to secure the deal.

5. Virtual meditation session

Our work days can be hectic, and sometimes the chance to step away from the main room to relax and unwind can make a huge difference. Create a calming break in the middle of your virtual event or conference schedule with a meditation session.

Invite an expert along to host your virtual meditation session, and look for someone who's great at communicating and helping your guests feel relaxed and welcome. This works great as a breakout session at a larger event or as part of an internal event themed around employee wellness. To make this even more special, treat your guests to a Hoppier virtual card loaded with a balance they can spend on wellness themed products and gifts after the event.

6. Virtual "ask me anything"

“Ask me anything” chats remain popular on websites like Reddit, and they’re a fun format to bring to your virtual events too. AMA chats are all about uncovering interesting details from someone's life — whether that’s about their career, personal life, or interests.

Invite an industry thought leader, expert, or celebrity to take part in an AMA-style breakout session to offer your audience an unmissable, intimate workshop with an influential person. You could also tweak this for an internal event and ask each of your team members to answer questions from each other, AMA style.

7. Virtual speed networking

There’s no better way to get to know a large number of people quickly than with a few rounds of speed networking. This is a great breakout session idea if you’re bringing people together who have never met, but virtual networking also works well as an icebreaker for multi-team internal get-togethers.

For this to work best, choose a virtual event platform with built in functionality to support one-to-one virtual meeting spaces away from the main room. You’ll want people to be able to rejoin the main breakout space easily and move from one conversation to the next without too much of a pause — this ensures the tempo stays upbeat, and you don’t run behind.

Hoppier: A fun way to add hybrid elements to your breakout sessions

One thing that virtual events struggle with is atmosphere in those casual break moments. It’s harder to have a casual catch up over coffee or enjoy a hands-on lunch and learn if you’re not in the same space together.

With Hoppier, those limitations don’t need to be a concern any more. Our virtual cards allow you to set a balance and distribute it to your event attendees so they can order drinks, snacks, meals, and materials to their home — to enjoy during your event.

Easy to manage

Virtual events require careful planning and expert execution to be a success. Hoppier lets you keep the focus on your content and audience engagement with an easy setup and simple dashboard management system to make sure your guests are catered to.

It’s simple to set up a program for your event. All you need is a few details, then you can move on to what’s important — like setting a balance per card, scheduling redemption dates, and adding your card recipients. To get those funds to your event attendees, all you need is their email address.

A food and drink budget for guests attending a virtual breakout session

With Hoppier, there’s no worrying about finding the perfect snack baskets or goody bag items and shipping them to guests. Instead, you can email a Hoppier virtual card to your guests and they can spend the balance on exactly what they want. Plus, any unspent balance will be returned to you afterwards — helping to reduce waste from both unwanted perishables and unspent funds. It’s an easy way to simplify your event logistics and create great experiences for guests.

Highly customizable

A virtual credit card used to provide food and drink to attendees at a breakout session

No two virtual events are the same, and at Hoppier, we recognize how valuable it is to be able to customize your guest experience. That’s why our cards are highly customizable — from the design and colors to the vendors your guests can shop from.

Once you’ve created your program, you’re free to personalize the way your virtual card looks. Choose from our color library, or use your own custom color codes to match your event branding perfectly. There’s also space to add your company logo or event logo for extra brandability.

Vendors that virtual credit card recipients can purchase from

As well as visual customization, you have options when it comes to allowable vendors. You can keep the vendor list completely open so your guests can spend their balance at any participating retailer. There’s also the option to set limits by vendor type or specific vendors for a more personalized experience. This works great if you want to limit options to only food and drink vendors, or if you have big brand sponsors that want spending limited to their retailers.

Host impressive breakout spaces to engage your audience

Successful breakout sessions can help your event guests feel more engaged. Roundtables, gaming sessions, and lunch and learns all provide fun ways for people to get to know each other, discuss the event’s themes and topics, and participate in an activity together. With the right format, activities, and hosts, your breakout sessions will get your guests excited to head back to the main event.

If you’re ready to make your breakout sessions even more engaging, give Hoppier a try. Our virtual cards give you a unique way to add a hybrid element to your virtual events by allowing your guests to order coffee, lunch, or materials straight to their home or office. It’s the perfect way to help your event stand out, give your guests an extra treat, and simplify your event logistics.

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