Award Banquets: How to Take Them Virtual

awards banquet

Award banquets went virtual in the spring of 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Universities around the U.S. wanted to make sure they still had the change to appreciate and recognize students. Professionals shared what they did and give their advice in creating an online ceremony.

Florida Southern College

The staff at the college put together a video to be sent out as the banquet on April 15, 2020. Alicia Rossow, the director of Wellness, said the banquet consisted of professional staff talking and giving out awards, a senior video to honor the seniors on staff, and a powerpoint. Plus, plaques were mailed out to the winners.

“The two things we focused on was doing whatever we could to celebrate the seniors and this year’s accomplishments,” said Rossow.

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She gave two pieces of advice for other rec centers looking to pull off something similar for their award banquets:

  1. Task someone on your staff who is best at editing and creating video but use other staff to pull content. Rossow said they have one person gathering all the photos, one doing the opening and closing videos, and one pushing out digital ads to remind students of the banquet.
  2. Students want to be recognized, so do whatever you can on a minimal budget. Florida Southern is sending plaques and letters to each student, thanking them for everything. Rossow said due to the budget being frozen, she will have to mail everything to students with her own money. But to her, it is worth every penny, because the students deserve it.

Iowa State University

Typically, the end of the year award banquet at Iowa State consists of several parts that also include families of the nominees. In 2020, this wasn’t possible.

Instead, Michael Giles, the director of Recreation Services, said their initial plan was to have staff create video nominations for each student staff member nominated for the department awards — Employee of the Year and the Legacy Award. Plus, they put together videos for seniors that included photos/videos they submitted.

The team is also looked at creating a social media campaign recognizing the area award winners. All in all, the goal is to host a banquet where students and families can celebrate seniors and award winners.

Tulane University

Campus Recreation is celebrated students virtually.

Christie Sanchez, the senior program coordinator, said there were two video slideshows — one with all 13 award winners and one with all of their seniors. The slides featured a headshot, classification and major, and how long they worked for Campus Recreation.

The staff also collected multiple 30-second videos of students discussing or showing their favorite memory of working for the department. Sanchez said they took the videos and pieced them together to share on social media.

“We are doing our best in being innovative to keep our students engaged during this time,” she said.

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Sanchez gave a few tips on planning virtual award banquets:

  1. Work with your team to discover innovative ideas on how to host virtual events.
  2. Have realistic expectations that some students may not respond due to the current climate.
  3. Figure out your “why” and use it to translate into the digital world.
  4. Plus, going virtual has prompted thought on how to continue highlighting students digitally for future award banquets.

University of Central Florida

Scott Mauro, the marketing and communications manager for the Recreation and Wellness Center, said they made two recommendations to their leadership team on how to host the end of the year award banquet.

The first option included a one-hour prerecorded show to be streamed on Twitch. Then due to the limit on Zoom participants — without paying for a large meeting upgrade that is — they would do breakout groups on Zoom based on the various areas of the department, like Member Services or Fitness. The second option they recommended takes the chat to Twitch’s chatroom instead of Zoom.

Other ideas included:

  • Putting the banquet video on YouTube.
  • Sending out digital invites and asking students to send in pictures of what they were doing in quarantine.
  • Multiple hosts in the video, including a “microphone handoff.” Participants decorate hairbrushes or other household items, pretending they are microphones.

“No. 1 is our top choice and we came up with a backup plan as No. 2,” said Mauro. “Our committee is made up of student staff and professional staff, so students were instrumental in our choices.”

Weber State University

Rebecca Mabile, the Aquatics and safety coordinator, explained they reworked their original award banquet plan. But, some things stayed the same.

For example, the award banquet typically has a theme and activities. For 2020, the theme is Disney+ and activities will include a trivia game via Zoom’s chat function. Mabile said the first person to get the answer got their name put in the raffle an extra time. Raffle winners were picked between awards as well.

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Plus, since seniors’ graduation was postponed, Mabile said they wanted to honor them as much as possible. She noted highlighted their contributions to the department and had each senior share advice for underclassmen.

In terms of advice for other campus rec professionals when it comes to virtual award banquets, Mabile said it’s key to not only get creative and prepare for the worst, but get students involved in the planning process.

“My student committee has been amazing at coming up with new ideas and applying our original plans to the virtual setting,” said Mabile. “The first year we had a banquet, it was planned by myself and another pro staff and it was enjoyable, but when we started having students help us, we got so much more buy-in and the students had more fun attending.”

Illustration courtesy of Shutterstock

Heather Hartmann is the editor for Campus Rec Magazine. She can be reached at

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