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What are the characteristics of a special event?

The special events sector of the industry broadly consists of private events, sporting events, public events, and fairs & festivals. They are considered ‘special’ events because they are outside of the host’s normal business, program, or activity.

Special events are generally hospitality or entertainment-based, and are therefore of a social, rather than business, nature. That’s not to say they don’t still have business objectives; while some are purely celebratory, many are held for the purpose of marketing, advertising, promotion, and sales.

Each of these broad categories within special events is actually made up of many different types of events. Let’s look at each one individually.

Private events

Parties and celebrations

Typically, when people think of private events they just think of parties and celebrations; receptions, dinners, birthdays, bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings, and anniversaries.

Yet, technically, a private event just means one that is aimed at a specific audience of invited guests, i.e. not open to everyone. Therefore, within the private events category of special events, there are also several sub-categories.

Brand communications events

Certain types of brand communications events are private events, such as retail events, launches, fashion shows, award ceremonies, openings, and premieres. These are, for the most part, held for invited guests only. So while brand events make up their own sector of the event industry, they sit under the umbrella of special events; some in the private events category and others, as we’ll see below, in public events or fairs & festivals.

Charity / non-profit events

Similarly, charity events and fundraisers make up another large sector of the events industry, but these also come under the umbrella of special events. Some, such as gala dinners, are private events aimed at a particular group of major donors, while others, as we see below, are public or sporting events, such as bike rides and marathons.

Therefore, private events can be used to encompass many different types of events; from parties and celebrations, to brand marketing, promotional, and launch events, and also fundraisers and charity galas—all of which are considered private special events.

Public events

Public events are generally held in public spaces, open to the general public, and free to attend or spectate. They typically require the permission or involvement of public officials, such as the Mayor or local council.

Community / national events

These types of events might be small local community events, such as a street party, or large-scale national events, such as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Sometimes, in the case of the Olympics, they are even international events.

Local council / government events

Some public events are local council or government-organized events, held for celebration or entertainment purposes, such as Royal weddings, Presidential inaugurations, New Year’s Eve celebrations, official commemorative events, street parties, and town festivals.

Parades / festivals / demonstrations

Others, such as parades, public performances, non-commercial festivals, rallies and protests—everything from Gay Pride to World Zombie Day and Chinese New Year Festivals—might be organized by community groups or political, religious, and non-profit organizations in order to celebrate, educate, or demonstrate.

Fairs & festivals

Conventions / exhibitions

While some public events are also fairs and festivals, not all fairs and festivals are public events.

When a convention, exhibition, fair, or festival is aimed at consumers rather than trade, such as Britain & Ireland’s Next Top Model Live in the UK or the various international Star Trek conventions, it is classified as a special event.

While you could argue that these are still a type of public event because anyone can attend, as long as you pay the entry fee, many of these events are held in private venues—convention centers or exhibition halls—rather than public spaces. Therefore, because they are neither free nor held in a public space, they sit within their own category of special events known as fairs and festivals.

Commercial festivals

This category also includes commercially-operated festivals. These events might take place in a public space, but are created as for-profit events, often by a private company who has simply hired the location from the council. Some of these events will be free to attend, and so are often considered public events, but the primary purpose is for the organizers to make a profit by selling products, food & beverages, or entertainment.

Sporting events

National events

The sporting events category of special events includes many nationally and internationally renowned events. In the US these include the NFL Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby, and the US Open, and in Europe, the Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix, Wimbledon Tennis Championships, and Le Tour de France.

Local events

At a local level, there are also many different types of sporting events, such as boat races, rodeos, bike rides, marathons, and equestrian events, all of which come under the umbrella of special events.

Characteristics of a Successful Event

Event success is mixed. The nonprofit sector is full of legend about tremendously lucrative events and stories of unmitigated disasters.

What makes the difference in event success? Here are seven things successful events have in common:

Solid objectives:

The most successful events start with clear objectives in place. You have to know exactly what you are trying to accomplish and how this event fits into your strategy before you create the event. Are you hoping to get new donors?  Do you want to improve your donor retention?  Are you looking for support for a new initiative?

The skinny:

Make sure you include the objective of the event in your initial planning. It will help you create the most effective and efficient format.

Adherence to your brand:

While “brand” isn’t a word used we use very often in the nonprofit arena, it is more important than ever to distinguish the personality and values of your organization. And your events will only really work if they embody that ethos. If your brand is about being a cutting edge organization on environmental policy, you wouldn’t hold a golf tournament fundraiser, right?

The skinny: The design of your event has to carry through your brand in order to attract supporters that will turn into prospects for longer-term support.

The right resources: Events are an expensive way to raise money.  Return on investment numbers vary wildly, but one thing is for sure: they are almost always more expensive than you think. Once staff time is included in the calculation, many events actually lose money. And the opportunity cost is high. Events take valuable staff and volunteer time away from other kinds of fundraising.

The skinny: Make sure you have budgets in place before any event details are even considered. These budgets should include staff time and direct costs, as well as revenue projections so that you can calculate an expected return on investment from the beginning.

Volunteer involvement: While staff can carry the ball in many forms of fundraising, events need volunteer involvement in order to really thrive. Not only does this reduce the investment of staff time, but it also activates people who really believe in your cause to inspire others to come to your event. It feels more authentic, more social, and frankly, more of a fun time if there is peer-to-peer involvement.

The skinny: For nearly any event, consider having a host committee. This isn’t about arranging the flowers. It’s about knowing the right people who will get the right people in the room for your cause.

Keeping to your plan: It’s so easy to get caught up in the excitement of an event and add or subtract things as the momentum grows. But your event can’t afford to be everything to everyone. For example, if you are having an event to thank long-term donors and improve retention, it’s tempting to add a paddle raiser or silent auction while this group is together. But that sends mixed messages that could really backfire on your original goal.

The skinny: Keep you original objectives front and center. Don’t add or delete any details without first going back to measure against your original goals.