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Anatomy of an Event
Part 1 of 3

by Sylvia Allen

Planning an event seems like a simple enough concept. Start with an idea, hire some talent, put out a little publicity and - voila - you have an event. For any of you who have done events, you already know that it is never that simple. In this article you will be provided with a simple program for event design and management and, following that, a specific timeline for an event, from start to finish. A detailed presentation of an actual event, Oceanfest '99, a 4th of July celebration that features sand, water, food, crafters, children's games, sports (hoop-it-up, etc.), entertainment and, of course, fireworks, will be spotlighted. And, although this event attracts in excess of 100,000 people, the fundamentals are the same whether 500, 5,000, or 50,000 people attend.

Where to Start

Start with a goal, an objective. Why are you having the event? Who do you want to attend? As a Main Street, your primary objective might be to attract people to your community to demonstrate that it is a great place to live, work and play. A secondary objective might be to reinforce your positive image with current residents and business owners. A third objective could be to raise money. And, finally, remember to have fun!

When deciding on an event, do your homework. See what other communities, similar to yours, have done successfully. Look at your competition ... is another community, close to you, putting on a similar or competitive event at the same time? Look at your own community ... what can it support? Be honest with yourself; don't plan something so grandiose that it fails. You lose credibility (and money) and future events could be more difficult to produce or get community involvement. What resources are available to you (volunteers, paid staff, municipal services, etc.)?

Then, be creative. What would work in your community? For example, eight years ago Aitkin, Minnesota put on their first annual fishhouse parade. It was held the day after Thanksgiving and, for those of you who don't know what a fishhouse is, consisted of a variety of floats all centered around the houses that Minnesota fishermen build when fishing on the ice in the winter. (In fact, it's not just Minnesota but any Northern climate that has cold winters!). The reason for the parade? They thought that there should be something the day after the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade that was more local and indigenous to the area! Aitkin, by the way, has a population of less than 1,500.

The first year, 1991, there were probably only 200 people in attendance. They had 60 units in the parade and the majority of the parade participants were from Aitkin or the very close communities of Crosby, Brainerd, and Deerwood. However, through good public relations, community involvement, clever marketing ideas, media sponsors and regular sponsors, the event has grown to be recognized statewide and, last year, 10,000+ people crowded the parade route! Plus, there were more than 100 units in the parade and they came from a wider geographic radius than before. The moral of this story? They had an idea, they started small, they approached it professionally and built on it, year after year, until it reached its current level of success. Good advice for all event organizers!

When to Start

Ideally, you should start planning your event one year in advance. This gives you time to solicit sponsors in a timely fashion, develop a strong volunteer organization and plan for success. In fact, once you have an event idea/plan/strategy in place your next step should be to get funding, whether it be through sponsorship, fundraising, grants, donations or municipal budget allocations. When soliciting sponsors be sensitive to their budget years and get to them before they start their budget planning process so you are included in next year's budget. One of the biggest mistakes consistently made by event organizers is waiting until the last minute before they start contacting sponsors. The reality? The shorter the lead time you give the sponsors the less money you will raise; conversely, the longer the lead time, the more sponsorship dollars you will generate for your event.

You should also start selecting your talent, soliciting food vendors and crafters, and recruiting volunteers. If you are having talent ... singers, dancers, bands, c lowns, performers of any type ... book them early (six to nine months before your event). Freehold, New Jersey holds a series of summer concerts every year. Those concerts are booked nine months in advance of the season since many of the groups are popular Jersey Shore bands and would not be available if they were contacted on short notice. And, where do you find talent? Call your local arts organization, high school band directors and music teachers, local clubs and theatres, local organizations (such as Kiwanis, Chamber of Commerce, Optimists, etc.), and fellow Main Street Managers. Contact the International Festivals and Events Association in Port Angeles, Washington (360-457-3141) to find out if they have a local chapter and can give you some contact names. When booking your talent take the audience composition into consideration. Are you doing family entertainment? Seniors? Boomers? Gen-X? Your talent mix will be different for each of these demographic markets.

If you are having food vendors and/or crafters, prepare your mailing at least nine months before your event. To attract more crafters, make sure your event is listed in Sunshine Artists as well as other local and regional event calendars. This allows you to reach people outside your market area that might want to participate in your event. Check out the various craft magazines at your local library and see which ones have event listings. Some of them are free; others charge a nominal sum for listings in their publications. For food vendors, always approach your local restaurants, delis and diners first. Remember, your job is to serve the local community and help those businesses. If, however, they don't want to participate, you can go outside your town for food vendors.

When recruiting volunteers look to your various service clubs within the community as well as church and civic groups. If you are working with a charitable organization ... United Way, the local hospital auxiliary, Rotary, Kiwanis ... look to their membership for volunteers. This is particularly viable when that organization has an opportunity to hitch hike on your event for fundraising of their own (selling t-shirts, hot dogs, raffle tickets, etc.). Develop a volunteer's workbook that carefully details the various volunteers needed and what their responsibilities will be. Don't overload your volunteers. It is better to have more volunteers, with each one doing a small bit, than a few volunteers who end up being overwhelmed with multiple responsibilities. The latter scenario leads to burn out and loss of a good volunteer. A great resource for a volunteer strategy is David Wilkinson's manual from The Event Management and Marketing Institute (416-510-1692). He has checklists, training techniques, flow charts, organizational charts ... everything you always wanted to know about how to put together a volunteer program but were afraid to ask!

Who Does What

Ideally you would have a staff for event management and administration and a revenue generating group. However, that's not the way it really is! What really happens is that you end up doing everything with, hopefully, a cadre of volunteers that can assist you.

  • Management and Administration

    Special events come in all sizes, from the simple car wash to raise money for the local church group to the Olympics. Though event sizes vary dramatically, the basic administrative and organizational components do not. In fact, organizing an event is very similar to setting up a small business. You need a plan with clearly defined goals and objectives, someone in charge, a budget and the operating plan (who is going to do what, when and where).

    The major categories of an event are management and administration, revenue generation, and on-site management. Within each of these categories are subcategories of function and responsibility. Note, too, that many of the functions overlap, e.g. sponsorship can be undertaken by the event manager, marketing person or solely by someone designated to sell sponsorship (or all of them, depending on their skills and the needs of the event.)

    • Event Manager

      The person responsible for the overall management of the event is the event manager. He/she is involved in event strategies, site negotiations, volunteer coordination, planning marketing strategy, determining the production time line, pre-event site surveys, talent selection and overseeing the day-to-day operation of the event staff.

    • Volunteer Coordinator

      The volunteer coordinator is responsible for ensuring that there are enough volunteers to make the event function efficiently. Many of your volunteers can be drawn from the community at large through service organizations, churches, local charity groups, residents and your business community.

    • Marketing

      The individual handling marketing is responsible for advertising and public relations, graphic design, production of collateral material (brochures, posters, flyers, bag stuffers, payroll inserts, billing inserts, etc.), sponsorship sales, sales promotion, exhibit space sales, program book sales, and development of cross-marketing relationships (in the community with other groups or with multiple sponsors). This person is responsible for generating sponsorship dollars to support the event for helping to ensure that enough funds, beyond costs, are generated to make the event successful. (See Revenue Generation that follows for the many other ways you can raise money, in addition to sponsorship.)

    • Finance

      The finance person is responsible for putting into place a system that effectively controls expenditures, as well as ensuring that income exceeds expenditures. (Works closely with the Event Manager and Marketing person in this particular revenue and expense area.) A simple numbered purchase order system, with two signatures for approval on ordering and a two-signature check payout system, are very effective in keeping an accurate accounting of expenses and revenues. With the general availability of computer spreadsheet programs, there is no reason that the finance person cannot update the income and expenses on a weekly basis. As in any business venture, this allows the management team to track and adjust the budget to accurately reflect changes in income and/or expenses.

    • Legal

      Whenever you negotiate a relationship - celebrities, sponsors, venues, teams, entertainment, performers, other organizations - you need a contract. The contract should be prepared by a lawyer. This ensures that all major commitments are clearly defined and there is no room for future misunderstandings. The contract should very clearly define areas of responsibility, limitations, confidentiality or nondisclosure, indemnification, individual rights, and recommendations for an equitable resolution if a dispute arises. (For more details on specific contract elements, an excellent resource is How To Be Successful At Sponsorship Sales, published by Allen Consulting, Inc., Holmdel, NJ, 732-946-2711. More than 100 pages of vital legal information - beyond sponsorship - written in simple, easy-to-understand language.)

    • Insurance

      Just as you need legal safeguards, you need to have insurance protection. Insurance can protect you against against greed, weather, accidents, violence, and human error. The types of insurance most common to special events include comprehensive, general liability, errors and omissions, accident, cancellation, spectator/participant coverage, sponsorship, workman's compensation, and weather. Several major insurance companies specialize in event insurance and can be contacted through your local insurance agent. Event insurance is usually expensive. However, when the extensive liability of the alternative is considered, one quickly realizes it is an essential investment (and component) of the event. Try to get your local community to add your event onto their insurance. It will save you a lot of money and the cost to them is minimal as contrasted to your having to carry all this insurance.


About the Author:

This article is reprinted with the permission of Sylvia Allen, President of Allen Consulting, Inc., an internationally recognized sponsorship and event marketing firm located in Holmdel, NJ. A much sought after speaker and sponsorship "guru", Sylvia has published a book on sponsorship - HOW TO BE SUCCESSFUL AT SPONSORSHIP SALES, produced a video - THE 12 STEPS TO SPONSORSHIP SUCCESS, and published The Sponsorship Newsletter, a monthly publication that is in its sixth year of publication. Of course, she has done lectures on sponsorship all over the country - to rave reviews!

You can reach her at 732-946-2711 to discuss booking a seminar or via e-mail at You can order her book, videotape and/or newsletter by visiting her website at or give her a call.

Also take a look at, Sylvia's website that specializes in development of Sponsorship Support Programs and Services for Festivals, Events, Mainstreet Celebrations, Chamber of Commerce Activities, etc. Make sure you sign up for the free newsletter, Hometown News Online.

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