Ready, set, gala: 9 gala planning fundamentals for event professionals

It’s a pivotal time in many an event professional’s calendar, and it’s fast approaching again: gala season. And we predict that gala season 2022 will be unlike any other, with a packed post-pandemic schedule of events for the rest of the year. 

Behind every gala are the event professionals that make it happen. These often unseen and unsung heroes work tirelessly behind the scenes. They are organized, efficient and fastidious, with forensic attention to the most minute detail as well as the ability to move mountains when required.

Many members of our Client Relations team were event managers before they joined zkipster, with more than a century of event planning experience between them. They’ll never forget the unique pressure and excitement of delivering galas, the huge team effort involved and, above all, the sense of achievement from delivering a successful special event. With that in mind, here’s part one of our essential gala checklist, focusing on nine fundamentals to factor into your event planning.

So what are you waiting for? Ready, set, gala!

The MOCA Gala 2022 at The Geffen Contemporary in Los Angeles. Photo by Owen Kolasinki / ⓒ BFA

1. Decide the theme and KPIs for the gala

Does the event need to raise funds for a nonprofit, or cultivate donors? Are you looking to gain press coverage, or attract new leads to engage with your brand or organization? Are you promoting a product, show, collection, or exhibition? Establish a clear direction with the event decision makers and stakeholders before you go any further.

2. Confirm the budget

Once the gala’s budget has been approved, start allocating it on everything from a venue to vendors. Nonprofits hosting fundraising galas should also work out the figure at which the event will break even and have covered its costs.

3. Agree the event format

Besides the main gala itself, will there be any pre-events and after-parties to factor in, or private views, for example?

4. Pick a date 

Do your research when choosing a date for your event and find one that won’t clash with others, but which is also convenient for high-profile guests traveling to your location for other events. It’s called gala ‘season’ for a reason! Galas often take place mid-week – Tuesday-Thursday – but New York’s iconic Met Gala famously occurs on ‘The First Monday in May’. Consider any satellite events that will be hosted around the gala and when they will take place too.

Janelle Monae on the red carpet at the 2022 Met Gala. Photo by Darian DiCianno / ⓒ BFA

5. Find the venue 

Finding a ‘home’ for your special event is one of the most important decisions you will have to make. There are many contributing factors: budget, capacity, location, access, look and feel, connectivity, limitations… Don’t forget facilities like food prep areas, bathrooms and green rooms for talent, as well as the short lead times for set up and break down you’ll likely have to work to. Use a digital tool like zkipster to save time and maximize efficiency. Upload a floor plan as soon as the venue is confirmed and build dynamic seating charts in collaboration with colleagues and vendors.

6. Appoint a committee

An effective committee can help attract everyone and everything from donors to high-profile guests to sponsors to press coverage. Try to recruit a mix of motivated, well-connected, diverse and interesting people who align with the goal and theme of the event, including key staff members/stakeholders to oversee the committee. The purpose of the event will dictate the nature of the committee; for example a political fundraiser would obviously have a different committee and aims than a fashion event.

7. Source sponsors

Bringing appropriate sponsors on board can help bring the gala’s theme to life, add cachet, engage guests and above all, help reduce the financial burden. Identify the potential sponsored elements and approach and pitch to potential sponsors once the main framework of the event has been agreed. Alcohol sponsors are an obvious first port of call for special events, but many galas may have automotive, tech, fashion or beauty sponsors, and/or be sponsored by private individuals or foundations. 

A guest on the branded step and repeat at the Gabrielle’s Angel Foundation Young Professional Committee’s Midsummer Gala. Photo by Deonté Lee / ⓒ BFA

Manage sponsors’ expectations and understand their goals: they may not want to be positioned near other sponsors, expect exclusivity for a certain aspect of the event, or want to meet certain KPIs. Some may sponsor your event in kind, by providing goods or services, while others will offer financial support. Either way, emphasize the value they will get from the gala in return: for example improved brand awareness, access to new audiences, press coverage, prestige.

8. Get creative…

Speaking of sponsors, branding opportunities are likely to be high on their agendas, and are an important aspect to consider when it comes to your event’s own brand identity. Logos and brand identities will likely need to be woven into the event’s visual handwriting once the creative direction, color palette and other design elements have been agreed, from the invitation to the step and repeat, to bar materials and menus, to signage and displays. 

The event experience begins when your guests open the invitation, so getting it right is key. zkipster’s email templates and custom build tools make it easy to incorporate visual elements, from colors to fonts to logos, into your pre-event comms, and to gather RSVPs and other important information (such as dietary requirements and plus ones) securely and efficiently.

The Whitney Museum of American Art: Annual Gala 2022. Photo by Adam Weinberg / ⓒ BFA

9. …and get organized!

Start building your checklist/to-do list/timeline/run sheet as soon as you can, adding every last detail of your event programme in the order in which it needs to happen, and who’s responsible for it, so you can keep track of all the moving parts that make up your gala. These documents will be your bible! As we know, event planners are super organized by nature, but why not reduce the admin burden by using tools such as zkipster to help streamline and even automate aspects of your event planning, giving you more time and energy to focus on the bigger picture. 

Speaking of which, look out for the next edition of our essential guide to gala planning. It will focus on the vendors and suppliers who can provide not only essential services for your event, but the finishing flourishes that will make it feel extra special. 

Our media partners BFA, whose expert photographers captured the stunning images featured here, can serve the visual needs of your events. Find out more here.

Header image: The American Academy in Rome Celebrates the McKim Medal Gala at Villa Aurelia. Photo by Astra Marina / ⓒ BFA