Special Event Planning Tips

They say (whoever "they" are) that real estate is all about location, location, location.

When planning special events, it's a bit more complicated. It's all about location, timing, planning, follow-up, marketing and all the little details that can bite you on the backside of the equation.

Start at the Beginning

Successfully planning any type of special event can't happen without a thorough knowledge of the community, and even the surrounding communities. First, you have to know your constituency, then you need to know what's going on around you in adjacent cities and towns.

"You've have to know there's a need for it. Is your event addressing a need? What's the purpose? It goes back to the basic stuff -- what are you trying to accomplish and what's the need for it?" says Troy Cox, recreation supervisor for the City of Palm Bay, Fla.

"Then we have to look at the area. We're pretty diverse, but certain events might work somewhere else that wouldn't work here, based on our demographics."

Cox adds that it's important to understand the price threshold of your community and those in surrounding communities that may attend the event. He cites a festival that came to town and charged $10 a head, not realizing that all previous festivals had been free.

"They had all this stuff here, and they may have had 2,000 people over the weekend, when they were expecting 30,000-50,000. They didn't do their homework," recalls Cox.

"You better know your community. They were not going to spend $10 a head to walk in the gate with their family. Had they gone in for free, they were going to eat, drink and do some rides. They would've spent their 50 bucks, plus more."

Next on the list is timing. It's difficult, if not impossible, to schedule an event that doesn't conflict with something that's happening in the region.

Keep in Touch

The San Gabriel Parks and Recreation Department in San Gabriel, Calif., runs a Turkey Trot each year. As you might imagine, conflicts in the Los Angeles area run rampant, but there are degrees of conflict.

One year, San Gabriel's Turkey Trot was scheduled on the same weekend as the USC-UCLA game. Southern Californians may be relatively blasé about their sports teams, but this brings 'em out in droves. Needless to say, the Turkey Trot was scheduled for another weekend.

For Rebecca Anderson, assistant director of parks and recreation for San Gabriel, avoiding these conflicts is a matter of constantly scanning the Internet and local calendars.

Since the Turkey Trot is a running event, it's especially important to stay updated through various running clubs and running Web sites (San Gabriel also markets through these channels).

Anderson also works closely with its professional timing company, Runner’s Image. The company has become an important partner in all aspects of the race.

"The timing company (or Runner’s Image) is able to tell us what races are going on in the area. They are also a source for the best ways to run a race," says Anderson.

"It's not cheap to get a timing management company, but it's well worth it. We used to do itthe timing ourselves, but it takes so much stress off of you to have someone who's professional. I had never been in charge of a race before I came here, and it's a totally different world to have professionals who have the background and can offer suggestions. It's very positive."

Anderson adds that any vendors that operate as sponsors or suppliers of various services for the event needs are excellent information sources. Tap them for help, because there's a good chance they know things you don't that can make the event run even more smoothly.

"If I was looking for a calendar of events I'd go to the chamber of commerce and on-line. If it's an art show, for example, I would be talking to my local art-community people," says Palm Bay's Cox.

"The Melbourne Art Festival is a good example… I'll go there and find out when their events are, so that I'm not doing mine within a month of theirs, because the artists normally go to one a month, instead of one every other week."

Once you've made contacts with other area special events, identify those who have been doing it for a long time and pick their brains about how they're successfully running their event.

It's not enough to identify similar events as possible conflicts, but those that have a regular following and might draw some of the same crowd.

Cox mentions an Earth Day that coincided with the aforementioned Melbourne Art Show that was held 20 miles from the art show. Even though there wasn't a competing environmental event, the art show drew that demographic because it's a tried and true known quantity.

Cox also mentions a special baseball event he attended that had the misfortune of being staged simultaneously with an outdoor Lynyrd Skynyrd concert.

"There was blaring music, you're trying to play a baseball game, and you couldn't hear the mike because the music was so loud, which was actually pointed at the other stadium. Two different venues going on at the same time, and boom! That was crazy," says Cox.

The best thing to do is constantly network and stay in touch with as many people as possible who can keep you in the loop and provide direction where needed.

"In a metro area it's a little different than a rural area, where the majority of attendance is going to come from an immediate vicinity," says Art Anselene, parks and recreation director for the town of Herndon, Va. Herndon runs an annual festival that's one of the biggest in the area.

"We attract an audience from the Washington, D.C. area and people from other states. While the largest majority comes from a five-mile radius, we have multiple other communities in the area. We are working with multiple jurisdictions on event scheduling so that we're not competing with each other for vendors and entertainment -- not only other parks and rec departments, but other cities and organizations."

Event coordination is the proverbial two-headed dragon. Both heads –- representing internal and external coordination -– demand equal vigilance.

"Make sure there's a good vision about the purpose of the event. How are you partnering with other groups to carry on an event? Are there clear guidelines with the roles and responsibilities of each group you're partnering with so that there are no misunderstandings in the process?" comments Anselene.

"When you put on an event, it certainly effects a number of different departments and organizations within a community. Make sure everyone is involved in the process and knows exactly what's going on, whatever changes you work through the process, and make sure everybody has a buy-in to what you propose to do and how you propose to do it so it doesn't become a surprise to anyone."

Coordinating with all city departments is an absolute must. Police, fire and other emergency services need to be completely comfortable with the logistics.

Perhaps rule number one is to make sure there's more than one route of access to the event. Find that balance between too few and too many. And don't forget to have plenty of bathrooms.

Don't forget about sponsors. San Gabriel's Anderson set up a gold, silver and bronze sponsorship system based on how much each sponsor gives. It helped alleviate any sponsor confusion about what they were supposed to give and what they got for their money.

"The highest level was $300 and over, which included their logo on our t-shirt. If you just ask people to give, they're willing to give, but they don't know what to give, so it's good to have some set levels of what they can attain. They want to know what they're going to get for their money," says Anderson.

Begin at the End

A continuous refrain from these special event planning veterans –- Anderson, Anselene and Cox –- is the importance of doing immediate evaluation after the event to make next year's event better. Evaluate, then document and save that documentation for future reference.

"You have to do the evaluation right away when the event is still fresh on your mind. A month down the road you've had three other major things events happen and it's hard to remember specifics. If you can at least jot down suggestions -- what worked and what didn't work -- so that a year later, when you’re ready to do the event again, come back a year later you're able to somewhat remember what happened," says Anderson.

"I typically write up a description of the event itself and the key people involved -- volunteers and sponsors. We list specifics on sponsors, registration, how the date worked for us, and so on."

The Town of Herndon has an eight-inch-thick manual documenting all previous Herndon Festivals. The manual is divided up by each year, and further subdivided within each year by each aspect of festival operation -- police, logistics, entertainment, each committee, carnival, food vendors, arts and crafts, business expo, shuttle bus service and so on.

"We constantly make sure we're critiquing the details of the event throughout the planning process. We do an intensive evaluation of the event each year after we complete it," says Anselene.

"We've been doing the manual for probably 12-13 years. It really becomes a Bible of how we operate and what we do and is always open and available."

Registration Matters

Technology has given a registration boost to parks and recreation departments, becoming a valuable tool to make the process that much smoother. It saves paperwork, time, money and hassles.

However, it's important to keep in mind the little things about registration, beyond what the technology can do, that can make a big difference.

"On the morning of the race on-site registration is always kind of jammed. We were getting a ton of on-site registration," says Anderson. "Obviously it's a lot easier to have them pre-registered, so we made the race a certain fee up to a certain date, then it's more to register on-site. Hopefully that was an incentive to pre-register."

Once on-site, the general commotion of the event can make things confusing for those attending, requiring a lot attention from staff to make sure people go where they need to go.

"We're constantly having people come up to our info booth asking, 'When is this happening? When is my race going?' We have our race flyers, but we found it's simply a matter of having an easel with a timeline and schedule of events of the day, so that you can direct people, as opposed to having to know all the times and having to repeat the information again," says Anderson.

San Gabriel takes registration at the parks and rec department, and they're faxed and mailed in. Active.com handles Web site registration.

The registration sheets are provided by the timing company, who prints them out in alphabetical order for each race. From there, staff prepares the race packets and has them available for pick-up on the morning of the race. This process runs very smoothly and the shorter line on race day allows the pre-registered runners to be on their way for the race. race packets are sent to everyone who's pre-registered so that they can pick up all their information from the shorter line and be on their way for the race.

When all gears are working, registration can be a beautiful thing. In order to keep it going, extensive backup and documentation is a must.

"From a management standpoint, technology solves a lot of logistics and paperwork and has improved the way we do things. My only concern is if it goes down. If you don't have paper or disk backup you're in big trouble. I always download and print out the receipts," says Cox.

"I have a baseball team and the guy who's doing my Web site had his computer crash. If he didn't have all the backup he would be in major trouble."