Each year in September, we hold our beloved AssistU Homecoming weekend-long event, and all of our Virtual Assistant community members are invited to attend. The purpose is to deepen relationships, celebrate our entire community as well as individual accomplishments from the past year, and learn and grow together in person. We call it Homecoming, because, for each of us, it’s like coming home to a big extended family where every single person is delighted beyond measure to see you and spend time with you.

I’m just back from this year’s gathering in Reston, VA, and I wanted to share a bit about it because I’m sure that some of you have built online communities, whether in private spaces, or maybe Facebook groups. And you probably find it remarkable how people come together to support one another there. I think it’s magical, really. But have you ever considered what happen if you organized an in-person gathering for them?

In case you haven’t, here’s some of what having Homecoming does for us; maybe something here will help you decide if offering an in-person could be right for you.

At AssistU, our virtual community of VAs is vast and widely geographically dispersed (as you might imagine it would be), and although we have virtual community events, smaller regional chapters, and Special Interest Groups who gather around specific topics so that we spend a considerable amount of time together on a regular basis, nothing touches what happens when we pair that virtual connection with the in-person connection at Homecoming.

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As a person who is an introvert and has made it her business to work virtually and build connections that way, I don’t often miss the in-person. Or, I should say that I didn’t until we started gathering once each year and I saw their smiles, hugged them close, shared laughs and tears, and learned things about them that I probably would never, ever have learned from a distance. Now, Homecoming is absolutely one of my favorite things.

It’s nice to have the immediacy of connection using Internet tools, but something truly outstanding happens when people share meals, room together, swim and hot-tub together—and discover who minds and doesn’t mind getting splashed, smell each other’s scents of choice, watch non-verbal gestures, and learn about things like music choices, preference for gelato or sorbet, who likes taking pictures or being completely in the moment, and who craves being touched (hugged).

Coming together is a joy; leave-taking is close to distressing. But what we gain during the time we’re together carries each of us forward, changes our businesses, and makes our lives far richer, and that’s what makes it worth doing for me.

Cause I’m here to tell you that on the other side of all that lovely emotion it’s a crap-ton of work! This is the flip side of it all. 😀

Here’s our format for the weekend we just spent in Reston, VA:

Thursday evening: People tend to arrive, find one another, and casually arrange to spend the evening together.

Friday afternoon: Everything begins with our having arranged some sort of learning event; this year, my beloved Zentangle teacher, Laura, came and taught the group to Zentangle, with an emphasis around what tangling can bring to a person’s well-being (being well is always a good thing for a small-biz owner!). Besides realizing that they can create beautiful things, I think the biggest takeaway was that we can all do the same thing, but do it differently and equally beautifully.

Friday evening: Dinner together at a local restaurant

Saturday afternoon: We do our version of the Academy Awards, the Community Recognition Awards (CRAs) at a beautiful luncheon, and give awards to those who have stood out in our community over the past year. We also give our highest award and honor the person voted VA of the Year—this year that’s Amy Hood.

Saturday after the CRAs: We do something, often a tour of the place we’re visiting. This year, we did an evening tour of the DC Monuments—beautiful, and oh-so inspiring!

Because it was an evening tour, there wasn’t much time for fun afterwards, but usually our tours are during the afternoon, which leaves people the evening on their own to plan whatever kind of fun they want to plan for themselves.

Sunday morning: Farewell breakfast, followed by hanging out together until the last person leaves to catch a flight. Officially, Homecoming ends at 12n. I’ve never seen that happen, and sometimes, people are still together until sometime on Monday.

We have a secret Facebook group for attendees, and it’s used a lot from the weeks leading up to the weekend, for coordinating impromptu gatherings during down time over the weekend, and for literally months after the event.

The work is in the arranging of details, events, hotels and other spaces, the nomination and voting process for our awards, and planning the CRA ceremony. While events are fee-based, the fees really only cover costs. This isn’t a profit center for us, but a labor of love, so I always need volunteer help, which I’m fortunate to have always had.  We generally start planning early in the year, and things come together through the spring, opening for registration early in the summer.

Your time together and what you choose to do would be specific to your group and what they value; we most value time together, so that happens a lot over the weekend.

If you already do in-person events with your community members or the markets you serve, what do they look like and what’s the most important thing they say they go home with (ours is love!)? And if you are considering doing an event, what questions do you have that we might help with?