Feature Article - February 2013
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Programming: Make It Special

Planning Special Events Yields Big Rewards

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Although the idea of adding one more item to an already crowded agenda may not be immediately appealing, everyone loves a party! Sure, there's going to be some extra effort and planning involved, but putting together a special event for your community is often just the beginning of all sorts of long-term and highly rewarding relationships.

In many cases, park districts and recreation departments say special events are worth it because of the way they bring their constituents together. "Community comes first," said Becky Tolle, recreation and special events coordinator for Kannapolis, N.C. She believes their award-winning events, which include a summer entertainment series and a Christmas festival, strengthen community ties by bringing everyone out to celebrate. And Kannapolis is not alone. "People tell us about their families and friends who have attended these events as children and now bring their children," said Michelle Nierling, heritage, culture & the arts manager for Lakewood, Colo.

In addition to forming the fabric of the community, special events showcase other park district offerings. They "publicize what the department offers the community," said Charles Singer, superintendent of the Valley Region for Los Angeles Recreation and Parks. Every ounce of fun and entertainment guests experience at a special event can spark their interest in what other sorts of programs the park district has to offer, he explained. Or perhaps they've never had reason to come to the community center before. Once they're inside, they can see what they've been missing!

Most of the communities and experts consulted for this story were focused on altruism, not income, but that's not to say smart planning can't ensure that your event breaks even, or makes a little money to offset other expenses in the annual budget. So whether you're thinking of a July 4th musical extravaganza, a festival of holiday lights or an opportunity to enrich a child's summer, check out the sure-fire tips and strategies below, gathered from cities and towns putting on stellar special events all over the country.

Know Your Purpose

"They're called special events because you're adding something," said Vern Biaett. But to be effective, you want to be clear what you're trying to add! "I'm shocked as I talk to people. Many have not ever stopped to figure out what their real mission is," he said. "You have to ask what you're trying to do, because this affects [choices and decisions as you plan]."

After a lengthy career in special events with the cities of Glendale and Phoenix, Ariz., among others, Biaett is today a faculty associate and Ph.D. student at Arizona State University, where he studies and teaches community programming. He agrees that most park districts use special events to bring variety and diversity to the programs they offer, but beyond that things get a little muddy. Do you also want to reach out to a new audience? Are you intending to highlight the community's history or present a new cultural experience? Do you need to turn a profit?

"Canton Special Events are the hallmark of our department," said Recreation Supervisor Jonathan LaFever of Canton, Mich. "They're a great PR opportunity and the way people recognize us. And they're usually a service to the community. We do some things to help with economic growth and stimulate economic activity, but more often it's first a contribution to quality of life."

Based on our quick survey of successful special events around the country, when the purpose is community service, the cost of admission is usually free, or very low, and this is another factor that can set your special events (and your park district) apart. "Through the success of [special events], the department has expanded the interest and participation in the literary arts, performing arts and visual arts," said Kannapolis's Tolle. "These free and low-cost events are not offered in this combination or this scope and scale in the surrounding areas."