how to become an event planner

How to Become a Special Events Planner

Now that we have a better understanding of Special Event Planning, in this section we'll look at how to become a special events planner. Learn which companies hire special event planners, the different ways you can work as a special event planner, and the pros of working in this sector of the events industry.

Become a Special Events Planner

As special events encompass so many different types of events, job opportunities vary depending on the category. Let’s look at each of the four categories separately.



1. Private Events: Parties, Weddings, and Celebrations

In the case of personal celebration events; birthdays, weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs etc, these are typically organized by party and/or wedding planners.

Often, these are individuals or small companies consisting of just a handful of staff, which can make job opportunities scarce. 

A very small number of these individual party / wedding planners grow to encompass an entire team of designers, planners, and production staff, such as Colin Cowie, Mindy Weiss, Preston Bailey, and David Tutera—but even then they are still relatively small companies and so competition for jobs is fierce. 

Job titles at these companies are generally variations of party, wedding, or event planner / coordinator / assistant / manager, although some use party / wedding designer.

80th Birthday Party red flowers and tables
Photo: 80th Birthday Party by Colin Cowie

The majority of other private special events; retail events, launches, fashion shows, award ceremonies, openings, premieres, and gala fundraising events are organized by special event companies. Examples of special events companies in the US include Along Came Mary, Chad Hudson Events, and Sequoia Productions, and in the UK, GSP, Rouge Events, and my company Left Field Productions.

Job titles at these companies are generally variations of event planner, such as coordinator, assistant, manager etc, although many use the title of event producer, and it’s variations such as assistant, junior, and senior, instead of planner. Producer is typically used at companies where the planner has more involvement in the technical production, content, and staging of the event, in order to distinguish themselves from planners, which is sometimes considered more of an admin role.



2. public events

Small public events held at a local level are often organized by volunteer committees. In the case of events such as town festivals, these committees will be made up of members of the local community and businesses, sometimes with representatives from the local council. Other events such as parades, public performances, non-commercial festivals, rallies, and protests are often organized by political, religious, and other non-profit community groups and organizations. Volunteer committees can be a great way to get experience early on in your event-planning career.

Large public events, such as New Year’s Eve celebrations or Marathons, are either planned in-house by the local city council; who then out-source the production and delivery to event production companies, or by associations and similar organizations; who then liaise closely with the city council.

New Year's Eve fireworks Big Ben
Photo: New Year's Eve celebrations, London, by Jack Morton via Creative Pool

For example, The New York Marathon is organized by The New York Road Runners, an association that plans the event and works in conjunction with local city officials. Whereas, London’s New Year’s Eve celebrations are planned by The Mayor of London’s office but produced and delivered by Jack Morton Worldwide. Therefore, event-planning opportunities exist with both the organizations that plan public events, and also the event companies that help deliver the event.

Public events that are primarily brand marketing events are typically organized by large experiential agencies, such as Jack Morton, Imagination, and George P Johnson, or smaller special event companies.



3. Fairs and Festivals

Fairs and festivals are often run by commercial event companies as for-profit events, which they then sell tickets to.

London’s Winter Wonderland festival mentioned in the previous article, is owned and operated by PWR Events, who specialize in creating their own large-scale events in public spaces and historical sites. Similarly, the US Star Trek conventions are owned and operated by Creation Entertainment, who also produce Twilight, Stargate SG-1, and Xena conventions, by licensing the brand name from the TV and film studios. Companies such as these will generally employ event planners in-house to work on their events.

Alternatively, fairs and festivals might be organized by an association that represents a particular industry, for example, The Miami International Boat Show is organized by the National Marine Manufacturers Association. In this case, an association will have their own in-house event planners, although they might still out-source the event production and delivery to an event production company.

For fairs and festivals that are essentially brand-owned events, these will be organized by special event or experiential agencies.



4. Sporting Events

Most large-scale national or international sporting events will be organized by sports associations. For example, the US Open is organized by USTA, the United States Tennis Association. As these annual events require year-round planning, the association will employ event planners to work in-house, although they might also out-source production and delivery to event companies.

Like fairs & festivals, many local sporting events will be owned and operated by commercial sports event management companies, such as Pacific Sports who run the US Open Triathlon Dallas, Brooklyn 15k Run and the Rose Bowl Half Marathon, and these companies will employ events planners in-house.

In the case of brand-owned sporting events, such as Red Bull X Fighters, these will be generally be organized by special event and experiential agencies appointed by the brand.

Long Beach Triathlon  runners on beach
Photo: Long Beach Triathlon by Pacific Sports

Being a Special Events Planner


Why Work in Special Events?

Most people who choose to work in special event planning do so because the types of events are often more creative and exciting—sometimes even glamorous or high profile. Call me superficial but I’m just far more interested in planning creative, glamorous events than I am working on meetings, conferences, and exhibitions—and I know, because I’ve done both.


Creative Aspects

Ironically, a lot of the day-to-day aspects of the job are actually very similar—regardless of the event. Whether you’re planning a movie premiere or a corporate meeting, you’re still going to spend most of your time number-crunching budgets, creating schedules and timelines, managing suppliers, reporting back to clients, and overseeing logistics.

It’s just that with special events there are other aspects of the job—small ‘modules’ if you like—which, although they only make up a small percentage of the overall workload, are really interesting to work on.

A Russian church recreated inside a tent for Elton John's White Tie & Tiara Ball
Photo: A Russian church recreated inside a tent for Elton John's White Tie & Tiara Ball by Leftfield Productions

These might include interior design, décor and set build, managing a celebrity guest list, or working with headline acts. Or it might give you the opportunity to work in unusual and challenging venues, develop attention-grabbing invitations / event marketing campaigns, or work with interesting media clients and brands. Or it might involve experimenting with hot new trends and technology, focusing more on catering and hospitality, or generally just working on events that strive to be original, innovative, and entertaining. Unfortunately, many of those aspects are often missing from a lot of corporate events, which, although they can be quite luxurious, tend to be more ‘safe’, tried and tested, or traditional.



Anya Hindmarch show at London Fashion Week
Photo: Anya Hindmarch show at London Fashion Week by INCA Productions

Combining Other Interests

The other great thing about working on special events is that you can combine a love of event planning with other fields of interest, such as fashion, music, film, the arts, sports, fundraising, charity, marketing and publicity, politics, or community work.

One of the things I love about having my own special events company is that I get to dip in an out of lots of other sectors; I might go from working on a retail launch for a fashion brand, to a movie premiere, then a literary festival, or a fundraiser for a charity that I have an affinity with.

Similarly, Charlotte Saynor, the former Vice President of Brands and Events for FremantleMedia Enterprises, commented that she gets a lot of satisfaction out of her job because she gets to combine event planning with her interest in the TV industry.


That’s not to say you can’t do the same with corporate events and meeting planning—in fact many people work on corporate events because they enjoy the travel opportunities involved—it’s just the options are more limited. I can understand if someone wants to work on events in field of technology, but I’ve yet to come across a planner who works in corporate event planning because they love the law, banking, or oil & gas industry!



The Down Side

The downside of course is that the fun stuff never pays as well. Not only are salaries lower than in the corporate sector—and that also means few or none of the great benefits either—but budgets can be too, meaning you can’t always do all he creative things you’d like to.

Consequently, you often end up having to take on far more of the 'grunt work' compared to corporate event planning—where you often have the luxury of being about to outsource pretty much everything to suppliers.

I often find myself spending weekends schlepping around shops or industrial estates to pick up materials and supplies to ensure I can pull something off in budget. Or I find myself on my hands and knees on-site rolling out a carpet, or up a ladder pinning some curtains in place. Whereas, when I worked in corporate events, the comfortable budgets meant everything was generally outsourced to a supplier.

In special events, there are a lot of ‘one off’ or random things that need to be sourced and it’s often just not cost-effective to outsource these tasks to a supplier—which means they typically end up the event planner’s responsibility.

Photo: Donna Summer, Barry Manilow, and Elton John perform at the White Tie & Tiara Ball by Leftfield Productions

Working with Celebrities

Finally, one of the things I’ve witnessed a lot with people just getting into the industry is that they’re attracted to special events because of the chance to meet celebrities—who doesn’t want to work on a red carpet event with Chris Hemsworth, right? (or any Hemsworth for that matter). Believe me though, after a short while working in the industry, you’ll lose all interest in working with celebrities.

Those events might seem glamorous when you’re not used to working with celebrities, but they won’t when those celebrities are barking orders, talking down to you, or expecting you to be at their beck and call. Or else they’re turning up two hours late, making impossible demands, refusing to do what you need them to, and generally being difficult prima-donnas.


Pros of Being Special Events Planner

To recap, some of the reasons why people choose to work in special events are:

  • Variety of different types of events
  • Opportunity to work with interesting media clients and brands
  • To work on creative events that incorporate the latest trends and technologies
  • To combine event planning with other hobbies and interests
  • To work on high-profile and glamorous events or public and community events
  • To plan potentially large-scale events
  • To work on entertainment / hospitality based events and parties
What it Takes to Be a Special Events Planner

Creative Skills

The skills and qualities required for special event planning varies according to the type of special events you work on, but broadly speaking a creative streak is required for nearly all special events.

For private events, brand marketing, and celebrations in particular there is huge pressure on an event planner to come up with something new and original. That means keeping up to date with what’s on trend and discovering new venues, themes, décor, entertainment, and technology to incorporate into events—often before your competitors do or before a trend becomes tired.

Successful special event planners are the ones that not only do their job well, but are always evolving and looking to better their previous events by constantly seeking out fresh ideas and keeping abreast of what’s hot and what’s not.

That often means using your personal time to go and check out new or underground performers, bands, and DJ’s, or visiting galleries, art installations, festivals, design shows, restaurants, and alternative cabaret and theatre shows for research and inspiration.

Digital graffiti wall
Photo: Digital graffiti wall at Sarah Jessica Parker's Work of Art launch by Leftfield Productions

You really have to be plugged in to what’s going on in popular culture and be one of the first to discover or implement a new idea.


Resourcefulness

Fundraisers, charity events, and even public events also require you to be creative in others ways. Often you won’t have big budgets to work with, yet you’ll still be expected to deliver an engaging event to a high standard. Nowadays, it’s no excuse to just deliver a bog-standard event and cite lack of budget for the fact there’s nothing remarkable about it. You have to find ways to incorporate creative ideas on a budget, by thinking about any alternative resources you can utilize or by calling in favors and cutting corners—which can be pretty challenging.


First aid tent
Photo: First aid tent at The Color Run, London

Additional Health & Safety Planning

When it comes to public events, fairs & festivals and, to a degree, sporting events, there’s often an additional set of challenges that come with producing events held on or over large sites, public land, or outdoor locations that may impact on the general public. Often this means dealing with even more red tape and paperwork, compared to when working in private or indoor venues.

This may involve a greater degree of health & safety planning, insurance and liability issues, licenses, permits, and road closures. It means addressing public right of way, traffic, and people management issues, along with security, first aid, ground protection / weather related issues, and post-event cleaning and waste removal—not to mention the joy of dealing with conservative public officials who always seem to want to find a reason why you can’t do something!

So if you think special events is going to be all about creativity and glamor, think again. You really need to be prepared to deal with a lot of logistical planning, paperwork, and documentation to work on special events—even more so than with corporate events, which typically have little interaction with the general public.

How to Become a Special Events Planner

For more information on how to become a special events planner, check out this site's companion book Become an Event Planner: Secrets for Getting Hired from Employers, Recruiters, and Event Professionals. Topics covered in the book include:

  • The experience employers will be looking for on your resume
  • How to get that experience when starting from scratch
  • The core skills that employers are looking for you to demonstrate
  • How to present your experience on a resume in the right way—inc sample resume
  • How you should—and shouldn't—approach employers for work experience
  • The preparation you must do for an interview
  • What to say and do in interviews—and what not to
become an event planner book by matthew james



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Being a Special Event Planner

What does a special event planner do? Read a real special event planner job description by Chad Hudson, President, Creative Director, and Owner, Chad Hudson Events..

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