In this section we'll look at special event planning, including: What is a special event? A definition of special event planning/management, examples of the different types of special events, how to become a special event planner; a job description, career advice, employment information, and the pros and cons of special event planning careers.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Some mass-participation charity / fundraising events are also public events, such as a fun run or bike ride, which might take place on the city streets, involve road closures, and be watched by the public.
Finally, public events can also be organized by commercial companies and brands. The most common type of commercially-operated public event is a fair or festival—which we’ll look at in the next section.
Others are actually brand marketing and experiential events—such as roadshows, product demonstrations, and sampling events—that are looking to target a broad consumer audience and so take the form of a public event.
In this situation, a brand might hire a public space to create an event, but the actual purpose is to market, promote, or sell their product directly to consumers. These events are typically granted permission by public officials because they offer the public some form of entertainment, shopping, or leisure activity.
For example, Jack Morton Worldwide produced a Star Wars themed event for Lego that involved staging an interactive installation of the largest Lego model ever built in Times Square. Although the event was held in a public space, members of the public could attend for free, and it provided free entertainment, its primary purpose was as a brand marketing and promotional opportunity for Lego.
Often, the distinction between public events and other types of events can get blurred, because although the format of the event might mean that it is free and open to the public, the objective could actually be marketing or fundraising based. In which case, the event would generally be categorized by its primary purpose, rather than its format.
Sometimes, public events serve a dual purpose and so they span multiple categories of special events. For example, the New York City Marathon is both a public event (in terms of spectating) and a sporting event (in terms of participating), while a city’s Chinese New Year celebrations are both a public event and a festival.
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.
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.
For example, the Winter Wonderland festival that takes place in London’s Hyde Park is considered a public festival because it’s free to enter and is located in a public space. However, it has commercial objectives and makes money for a private company by charging for fairground rides and games, food stalls, beer tents, champagne bars, ice-skating, and by leasing stalls in its Christmas Market to arts and craft sellers.
Some commercial festivals, for example Nevada’s Burning Man or Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, although held on public land and accessible to members of the public (in the sense that anyone can buy a ticket), are ticketed, for-profit, commercial events and, as such, are categorized separately from free-to-attend public events.
Other commercial festivals, such as the UK’s Glastonbury and the USA’s Coachella music festivals, are held on privately-owned land and so are easily distinguished from public events.
Similarly, many fairs and festivals, such as Virgin’s V Festival, Innocent Smoothie’s Fruitstock, and Ben & Jerry’s One World One Heart festival, are actually experiential / brand marketing events created specifically by brands; they just use a festival format in order to market and promote their products/brand to consumers.
Other brands, instead of creating their own festivals, will simply sponsor existing festivals that are owned and operated by a separate commercial company or organization and run as a for-profit event.
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.
In addition to the main sporting event itself, these established events often include many secondary events as part of the official program, such as charity previews, opening ceremonies, closing galas, award ceremonies, sponsor parties, and other hospitality 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.
Like festivals, many brand-marketing events also take the form of sporting events, such as Red Bull X-Fighters, an international freestyle motocross tour. This brand-owned event is essentially a marketing and PR event for Red Bull, which just happens to take the form of a sporting event. Similarly, some sporting events are primarily charity fundraising events, such as bike rides and 5k / 10k runs.
Special events is a very broad umbrella term used to describe non-corporate and non-trade events.
As such, the four main categories encompass many different types of events—some of which make up entire sub-sectors of the event industry in their own right, such as brand marketing or fundraising events.
While many special events can be classed in more than one category, ultimately, an event should be defined by its primary purpose, rather than just its format.