by Dan McCarthy
When you think of a gala, you probably imagine a formal, regal event. This might mean a black-tie dress code, catered dinner, live band, and speeches or presentations on the guest (or cause) of honor.
Sometimes, though, galas can also describe a casual social outing or festival with a large guest list.
Either way, gala events can really boost your brand reputation, especially if it’s a corporate function designed to impress potential investors, donors, or high-end clients.
Here are a few tips and tricks to help you kick off a lavish gala that will showcase your company or organization in a positive light.
Explore the Best Fundraising Gala Event Planning Ideas
Now, explore inspirational gala planning tips to impress attendees & drive fundraising.
1. Form a committee of designers, venue managers, and caterers who are also personally or emotionally affected by the focus of your event.
Because they’ve experienced these issues on a personal level, they’ll be more willing to commit their all to the event. If you don’t already have anyone in mind, post on your social media or email your network list about the opportunity and see who responds with the most enthusiasm. You can also take a peek at past event attendee lists and see if any of those guests are also events professionals.
2. Livestream the event online.
If your gala has special meaning to a large group of potential remote attendees or involves any big reveals/announcements then you should at least consider livestreaming it. If you do, make sure to only livestream interesting action (like presentations and fundraiser counters) and double check that speakers or guests are comfortable with being on camera.
3. Invite people who have benefited from your organization to mix and mingle with donors.
This tactic is especially effective if you plan to raise funds at your gala. If their story is particularly emotional or memorable, invite them to give a short speech.
4. Pair a financially focused activity with one that’s just for fun.
For example, if you do a silent auction make sure you include something entertaining like a stand up comedy performance so donors don’t have to feel like every part of this event costs them more and more money.
5. Add classy event decor that adds to your brand.
Gold, silver, and copper accents elevate any gala color scheme or decor item and can be used for logo displays, event-specific marketing materials, and branded take home gifts. Make sure to also include plenty of candles, fresh flowers, and upscale dishware in colors that match your company.
6. Use past event data to help determine your gala theme.
Were certain events more well attended than others? What did your most popular events all have in common? Find and exploit these similarities in your gala design. You can also pull feedback from past attendee surveys and apply their notes directly to your new event.
7. Consider partnering with a corporate sponsor.
Not only will this save you money, you can also strategically choose who to align your own brand with. And if you’ve never reached out to potential corporate sponsors before, be sure to follow this great guide.
8. Streamline your check-in process.
Paper and pencil lists can fluster event staff as crowds tend to arrive in waves. Use event software that makes it easy for employees to update attendee info with details like additional party members, new donations, and captured photos of VIP guests for future event promotion.
9. Gifts, prizes, and goodie bags should all support the main theme and meaning behind your gala.
Examples of well done swag bags include branded merchandise paired with luxury blankets, candles, or books (coffee table photography books related to your primary charity or event theme are always a hit). If you have the budget, try finding these items at high end department stores like Neiman Marcus or Saks Fifth. Or you can make them (sites like Shutterfly allow you to create your own hardcover photo albums with premade templates).
10. Choose an unconventional event venue.
Art galleries, theatres, and even arcades can be the next location of your gala. As long as it fits the theme, charity, or brand, the sky’s the limit.
11. Provide group ticket packages.
Here are some tips for maximizing ticket sales for any event type, including ones where tickets are bought in bulk.
12. Allow guests to donate through their phones.
Cutting edge donation apps (like the ones on this list) offer custom branding and digital security.
13. Integrate physical representations of your association’s main cause into your event design.
For example, if your non-profit or business works with children, create a photo backdrop entirely made up of drawings and thank you cards made by charity recipients.
14. Use event software to gather, assess, and analyze the success of your event.
Just don’t base it on just one dollar amount. Galas are also helpful for building your brand, spreading awareness, and building long term relationships. All of these benefits can be measured through guest polling, attendee registration input, and ticket sales analytics.
15. Take time to acknowledge how far your organization has come.
This gala could be the first time some of your attendees have ever interacted with your organization so reminding them of where you came from (and, consequently, where you’re potentially going) will help provide proof that their investment of time and/or money was well placed.
16. Consider how your event lighting will set the tone for the evening.
Expert event lighting suppliers recommend dimming or eliminating overhead lighting. Then add some color splashes or highlight interesting decor pieces with LEDs. Add some string lights, GOBOs, or 3D mapping if you really want to get fancy.
17. Use a gala planning timeline template to perfect your process.
18. Surprise guests with celebrity speakers, jaw-dropping decor, or a touching experience.
Ubuntu Pathways famously used giant portraits of the children they’ve helped (dressed up as what they want to be when they grow up) at one of their galas. Thoughtful, out-of-the-box touches like these make your event even more memorable.
19. Theme your catering menu with special event cocktails and specific audience considerations.
For example, if your gala celebrates fair animal treatment, you should probably focus on offering a vegan menu. You can also create some craft drinks with unique straws or glass decor. And if you go that route, make sure they have some proudly displayed punny names.
20. Choose an event date just before a national holiday or cultural event.
21. Use video marketing to engage potential attendees on social media.
Every gala should include the following types of videos in their marketing content:
A short and sweet introduction to your company as a whole.
A story that symbolizes the meaning behind your gala and why it’s so important.
An awareness video that highlights your main cause.
22. Let guests know that if they can’t make it you will donate their ticket to another worthy attendee.
Guests can still feel great about having donated to the cause or your business while giving someone else (who normally wouldn’t be able to afford it) the chance to enjoy the event themselves. Raffle the extra tickets off on social media or publicly present them to worthy attendees and tag or shout out the person who made it all possible.
23. Send handwritten invitations through snail mail.
It’s a really thoughtful gesture that will catch the recipient’s attention better than an email. If your gala will have a very large guest list, you can always outsource some of the letter writing using sites like Fiverr or Upwork.
24. Create a surprise scavenger hunt.
Follow in the footsteps of Disney’s Hidden Mickey and stash some “Easter eggs” throughout your event venue. Attendees can hunt for them, share hashtagged pictures on social media, and collect enough images to be entered into a grand prize drawing at the end of the night. Use brand mascot plushies or logo symbols for the items.
25. Make dessert a networking opportunity.
Interactive dessert experiences are a great way to help guests mingle and meet once they’re all comfortable and settled into the gala. Set up DIY cupcake, hot chocolate, or even mini pie stations. Or have pastry chefs prepare share worthy desserts on narrow, buffet style tables.
26. Add a door prize.
Delight guests with a special gift the minute they arrive. Fill it with something that will excite them or make them really happy. It sets the tone for a fun-filled evening and can encourage them to be even more generous. If you also plan to hand out swag bags later on, make sure the door prize item goes well with what’s in the larger gifts too.
27. Feed guests as soon as the event begins.
Noone, in the history of events, has ever enjoyed waiting for their food to be served. Happy, well fed guests are more likely to donate money than “hangry” ones. So keep the appetizers flowing or start the buffet right away to make sure everyone has a chance to nibble whenever they want.
Now, Here’s How to Plan Your Amazing Gala Event from Start to Finish in a Few Simple Steps:
1. Set your sights on your gala event goal.
What’s the purpose of your event? Are you trying to recruit new clients? Are you planning on unveiling your latest product? Perhaps this is a charity event, and you’re trying to raise funds for a noble cause.
Make it clear what your goal is for anyone helping you with the planning process, and craft a strategy to get to this end. Your objective should be clear and be more specific than just achieving a certain number of ticket sales.
Goals should include multiple objectives, such as:
Raising $X for your chosen cause
Acquiring X number of sales leads within Y number of weeks of the event
Achieving a new benchmark ROI
Reaching a certain number of social media shares (i.e. making your event hashtag trend)
While goals are important, don’t focus all of your efforts in reaching an arbitrary number. What’s more valuable is that you still have an impact on your business or charity through this gala. If you missed your goals slightly, extract whatever lesson to be learned from it so you do it even better next time.
2. Venue selection is key for your gala to be a success.
If you’re hosting a formal event, a high school gymnasium isn’t probably going to cut it for your venue. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of high-end venues, especially in major U.S. metropolises — whether you’re going for a historical vibe or a modern flair.
You also need to decide between a “blank canvas” venue or a venue already built to suit your style and event. The former a bare (and “theme-ready”) facility that you can freely decorate to suit the gala.
New York’s Madison Square Garden, for example, is a top venue that can be considered a contemporary blank canvas facility. By contrast, The Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Denver is an open-air venue designed specifically for music concerts or music-themed events.
Galas may also take on a festival-like structure, meaning that some portion of the event may take place outdoors. Consider a venue known for its exterior space if you want your guests to be able to soak in nature on top of your indoor spaces. Here are a few ways to get started finding a venue online.
3. Choose complementary entertainment for your gala.
A gala is not complete without some form of entertainment. If you’re holding a formal event, a rave dance probably won’t be a good fit. More fitting, however, would be something along the lines of a string orchestra.
You can pair musicians of any type with dancing for a fun affair — especially with themes that lend themselves well to a dance floor pairing (like a masquerade ball!).
DJs are appropriate, too, if it’s a better fit for your theme or audience. There’s a misconception that DJs only perform for more informal events, but this is absolutely not the case. DJs are versatile and can play an array of classical beats fitting for black-tie events or electric/funk/hip-hop music for a more groovy crowd.
4. Wow guests with food and drinks at your gala event.
It goes without saying that you should serve up memorable food at your gala. Cheeseburgers and hotdogs won’t suffice for formal galas.
Look for catering companies known for serving formal events, such as weddings and corporate functions. You will also need to decide between a buffet-style dinner or a plated meal depending on whether you want guests to mix and mingle or get to know their table neighbors.
You can also serve light refreshments during the reception if your event spans a few hours — and if you’re looking to make sure guests have enough fuel to dance the night away. Typical finger foods like pigs in a blanket and mini cheese bites, all served by a formally dressed server carrying the appetizers in a silver tray, are a fun pairing that guests will love at late-night.
As for the drinks, setting aside a martini bar, make-your-own margarita station, or another twist on traditional bar service will leave a lasting impression. Or, hire a mixologist who can create customized cocktails on the spot.
5. Plan your PR and maximize your marketing for the gala.
Galas need to be marketed just like any other event. While you need to be active on social media, you shouldn’t completely eschew offline methods, either.
For social media, try all of the following:
Using an event hashtag that showcases your cause and theme
Creating an official event page on social media to gain organic reach and new attendees
Using multiple social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and so on, to match your target attendee. Try LinkedIn for corporate events targeting certain companies or relevant professions.
Your social media marketing should also include assistance from brand advocates, affiliates, sponsors, and influencers who can leverage their own followers to help you pack your venue with enthusiastic attendees.
For offline methods, one good strategy is to send out traditional flyers in the form of an invitation. Cordially invite the guest to your gala in a themed hand-out that feels special and exciting. And make sure it gives all the necessary details about registering online, buying tickets, and more.
6. Find the perfect theme for your gala.
Gala themes deserve a section all their own! Galas are so much more vibrant when there’s a theme your guests can get excited about.
This also gives you more room for some creativity as an event planner and helps you navigate details like food selection, music choices, and decor. Themes can be specific to a season, like a winter wonderland for a December event. You might also opt for a theme that complements a certain industry, such as a travel theme for an international organization or cause.
The theme will also dictate the type of activities you can provide guests to keep them occupied all night long. For a casino night, you’ll need tables for card games and roulette, and maybe even award prizes for the night’s biggest winners.
Brainstorming gala ideas is all about creating a good time for the guests and making sure you provide a fun escape from run-of-the-mill events or parties. With a carefully planned event, not only can you achieve your goals of fundraising or brand awareness, but you will also uplift your brand’s image and drive a bigger following in the aftermath.
Fundraising galas are one of the most lucrative and effective event types, bringing in an average of $275,000 in profits for even the smallest, low budget versions. The gala planning tips and tricks below will help you maximize your investment and create a killer attendee experience that guests will be talking about for the rest of the year.
Now You’re Ready to Bring an Amazing Gala to Life!
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