Gone are the days of the Brazilian Ball, and with it, an era of glitz and glamour. What has changed in our social event landscape? Are galas still relevant?
Hala Bissada, CFRE, President of Toronto based luxury event firm, Hala Inc., interviewed twelve of the top charity gala organizers and despite the fact that they are one of the most costly ways to raise money (the average cost is $0.50 per dollar raised) the answer is clear, galas are still relevant and here is the fascinating story of what she discovered.
What we know for sure. Galas are:
- A way to raise unrestricted and predictable revenue.
- A platform to celebrate your mission’s accomplishments and connect donors to your cause—i.e. tell your story.
- An opportunity to provide brand visibility; steward your key donors and attract new supporters.
- A way to announce a transformational gift
- An opportunity to engage corporate donors and give them a platform for activations that help build a fun and engaging guest experience, while meeting their marketing objectives.
- A vehicle to build board and committee leadership.
- A way to create a deep connection with senior volunteers who work on the event.
- Still in demand as senior executives still want to network and feel doing so in a setting that supports charity is acceptable.
- Top galas in Toronto are raising between $500,000 and 4 million gross.
- Sponsorships ranged from $15,000 to $100,000 (some start at $2,500 for events with a younger demographic).
- Table prices ranged from $5,000 to $50,000.
- Ticket prices on average ranged from $100 (after party) to $500
- Attendance numbers ranged from 300 to 1,500
- Galas have been held for 3 to 30 years
- Demographics: Younger Audience 20 to 35 Older Audience: 40-65
The format of gala events are evolving dramatically. The typical cocktail reception, followed by a sit-down dinner with entertainment is not as popular or typical as it once was. Organizers today are changing things up to give their attendees a new and fresh experience. For example, the popular Massive Party, Power Ball and Operanation events give their attendees multi-sensory experiences by urging them to go from room to room to experience something different in each space. Whether it is a live performance, art installation, sponsor activation, or a variety of food and beverage samplings, guests are excited about what they will discover. The Toronto Public Library Foundation’s Book Lover’s Ball created a unique event format where guests had a shared cocktail reception, moved to the stacks for private dinners and then for the after party, guests were given the opportunity to explore the library with various activations through-out the building. Each of the dining areas was also beautifully decorated and themed to correspond to a literary genre so guests were experiencing Mystery, Romance or Fantasy. Toronto Taste is one of the most celebrated food events in the city. Guests are invited to spend the evening strolling through the event space and sampling the offerings from some of Toronto’s best chefs and beverage purveyors. Their event includes an on-site chef challenge, and a spot on their judging panel for their top fundraiser.
Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation’s Grand Cru Culinary Wine Festival has a really unique event format. Grand Cru brings together international chefs, vintners and sommeliers, assembling the finest wine, gourmet cuisine and brightest minds in medical research. It is a three day event beginning with a wine auction on the Thursday night, an appreciation party for vintners and donors on the Friday night and then private dinners in about 30 different private homes each hosted by a top scientist and a well-known chef (e.g. Michelin Star and Iron chefs from around the world) on the Saturday night. Some of the galas also combine formats. For example, an exclusive gala dinner first and then additional guests can join for the after-party that begins later in the evening.Most organizers concur that the key to changing things up is to look at your event with a different lens. It could be as simple as having people enter a different way, changing up the schedule, or changing the furniture and the way the space is laid out. Try to literally wipe the slate clean and start from scratch.
Never before have sponsors been more interested in aligning themselves with unique and relevant opportunities. They want to connect their products and services to attendees in interesting ways. It is also a fun way to add interesting elements to your event and enhance your guest experience. One organization that stood out with creative and non-typical sponsor activations was Rethink Breast Cancer. They partnered with Vitamin Water to create a “Lite Brite” Station. The colourful bottles of Vitamin Water served as the “pegs” for a giant Lite Brite board. Guests could move them around and make patterns. They also partnered with the food delivery app Ritual and guests could download the app and order a burger to be delivered to them during the event. For the year with the “Big Top Booby” circus/carnival themed event, Stila make-up sponsored a kissing booth and when the theme was “Camp Booby”, IZOD sponsored a mini golf area.Working directly with your prospective sponsors to come up with on brand activations that work for both parties is the key. The challenge is keeping the costs to create the activations manageable and potentially negotiating with the sponsor to underwrite these expenses in addition to their cash investment.
Use of Technology
As mentioned in my article Technology and the Future of Events, if you are not using and embracing technology at your events right now then you are not current and attendees will take notice – but not in a good way. Top gala organizers are using check-in software, auction bidding technology, event apps, project management software, social media management tools, and projection mapping among other things to elevate the guest experience. For more in-depth information about technology trends, please refer to Hala’s article.
Online auctions are becoming much more popular and lucrative. Today’s technology has made it much easier to implement as well. Auctions, raffles, and balloon bursts are still a means to raise money on-site, however many organizers are coming up with custom initiatives that also raise dollars but might better connect the donor to the cause. For example, at the Book Lover’s Ball you can “Adopt a Branch” in the Toronto Public Library system. There are 100 branches across the city that you can select from and dollars are matched by TD Bank.
The level of social media usage depends on the event’s demographics. For Booby Ball, Massive Party, and the Power Ball, the use of social media is more prominent. There is a big focus on developing strategies around the events and creating buzz, whereas events like Teddy Bear Affair and Grand Cru where the main demographic is 40-65, there is less time dedicated to developing social media campaigns.
Themed events are still being used by many organizations. The theme is translated through marketing materials, décor, food & beverage, entertainment, etc. One fun example is what Rethink Breast Cancer did with a university theme. They called it Booby U and “Boobyball-ers” received a report card and university-style campus map that directed them to various sponsor activations and themed stations on-site. They had a huge, bold “Booby U” sign made out of Solo cups at the front entrance which set the tone for the evening. They also had a hairstyling station from Civello Salon and Spa that offered guests a signature collegiate hair look. Their VIP booths were dressed as dorm rooms complete with a small desk, single bed with side table, drinks and snacks. They had a lot of fun photo booths with backdrops that included a football field, a sorority house and a fraternity house. Several organizations are using Pinterest as a great tool to give guests ideas as to how to dress for a particular theme.
Many of the gala organizers shared the great entertainment productions they’ve provided to their attendees over the years. Each takes a different approach but typically aims to take advantage of their inherent resources or build upon their brand or cause.For organizations like the Canadian Opera Company (COC), they have been able to capitalize on their homegrown talent. They integrate music, art and fashion into an immersive and unique cultural experience for guests. A highlight is a special collaboration between classic and modern music; for example in 2013 they had a rock/opera performance with the COC’s Ambur Braid and Sam Roberts Band.
The 10th annual Book Lover’s Ball was just nominated for Best Entertainment Production for the ILEA awards. They created a literary-inspired entertainment segment using 10 well known characters featured in classic books: Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, Harry Potter, Captain Hook, Peter Pan, Romeo & Juliet and Scarlett O’Hara & Rhett Butler. Each performed a stunning vignette from different parts of the multi-level atrium reception space. The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery’s Power Ball is known for its innovative artist installations. In 2014, they had an installation called BYOB—Bring Your Own Beamer – a one-night exhibition that hosted a number of artists and their projectors. In 2015, one installation included an interactive food performance (work entitled “So Sorry”) by artist Jennifer Rubbel. Some of her work included a wall of meat from which guests could shave off a portion to eat and an octopus hanging from the ceiling from which people could carve off a piece to eat. The Waterkeeper gala collaborates with different presenters and artists each year to create a unique show that is a mix of music, poetry and dance while the Mirror Ball uses headliners like Matt Dusk.
What is important to your guest?
When asked what they felt was most important to the guest, the organizers had this to say:
- When the price tag is high, exceptional food and wines are absolutely imperative.
- A well thought-out menu with paired wines will leave your guests with a good lasting impression•
- Transparency—guests want to know how the donors dollars are being spent and that you have a sound revenue/business model
- They want to connect with the cause in a genuine way. Telling your story in a manner that resonates with the crowd will be impactful
- Less talking—keep speeches to a minimum
- Simplify your event—it doesn’t have to have a million moving parts to be good—however keep in mind there is a fine line as corporate executives are still entertaining clients and have high expectations in terms of quality
- Many events now take place during the week so it does not interfere with family time on the weekend. Most guests (at events with older demographic) like it when the event wraps up by 10pm
- Most of all they want to have fun
Some of the universal challenges:
- Finding the right gala leadership (i.e. committee chair).
- Finding creative ways to communicate the mission and importance of the work of each organization.
- Finding sponsors in a saturated gala market and developing meaningful and multi-year sponsor opportunities.
- Other challenges include corporations focusing their funding in specific areas which means you are out of luck if you don’t fit within their criteria
- Pressure to be innovative and keep things fresh each year.
- The costs associated with the use of technology.
Let’s face it. At the end of the day everyone loves a good party. But the truth is, a thoughtfully planned gala can do so much more for an organization than just bringing like-minded people together to socialize. Party On!
Cori MacPhee Director of Communications & Marketing, Second Harvest
Corinne Rusch-Drutz Chief Development Officer, Art Gallery of Ontario