Gala dinners are an ever-popular event type, which can serve a variety of purposes. Whether the aim of your next gala dinner is to reward and recognise, to fundraise or to simply celebrate and have fun, be sure to check out our top ten tips below to guarantee that you achieve the WOW factor.
First impressions are key! Your invitations will be the first taste your attendees get of the event to come. It is crucial that the invitations excite and intrigue; aim to give recipients a hint at what may lie in store but not give too much away. Before sending out your invitations, it is important to first establish the theme and purpose of the gala dinner and then ensure that your communication is consistent.
Consider innovative ways to package and send out your invitations. Could these be sent out inside a mini gift hamper? Or perhaps in the form of a puzzle or riddle? Maybe the design or shape of the invite could link with the dinner’s theme? For example, an invite to a masquerade ball printed on the back of a mask; or the details of an Alice-in-Wonderland-themed dinner to be scribbled at the bottom of a box of goodies, only visible once the attendee has followed the instructions to “Eat Me”…
As implied above, the theme of your gala dinner is extremely important, perhaps the single most important aspect of the event. Selecting a theme goes hand-in-hand with sourcing your venue as you will need to ensure that the two elements work well together. An “Under-the-Sea” themed dinner, for example, could work well in the London Aquarium, whereas a Gatsby-themed evening would better suit a venue like 116 Pall Mall with its 1920s-style art-deco architecture.
There are hundreds of themes out there to choose from, and pretty much anything can be turned into a theme. You could opt for a specific colour, a particular country/culture or take inspiration from your favourite film or novel. The world really is your oyster on this one but, once you have decided, be sure to maximise impact. As far as possible, all elements of the event should link to your theme choice from the catering to the entertainment and the invitations to the decor.
Depending on the purpose of your gala dinner, the nature of the event marketing will change. The marketing for an internal corporate dinner would be very different to that of an external ticketed fundraiser for example. Either way, to make sure you get it right, you may wish to engage with a professional marketing agency; consider the use of social media; would you like to develop a specific hashtag for the event? This can be a really effective tool to stimulate online conversation and promote excitement for the upcoming event.
4. Pre-dinner entertainment
The date finally arrives and your venue is set – let’s get the party started! The first thing your guests will experience will be the welcome drinks reception, which should serve to set the tone for the evening. Sourcing the right entertainment option for your guests during this time is vital. Your choice of act may be dictated by the venue, but also by your delegate numbers. Something which works well for an intimate group of 40 pax would not have nearly the same impact in a larger gathering of 600 pax.
Think creatively – there are literally thousands of music options out there, from wandering string quartets and acapella improv-rap artists, to gospel choirs and Rockaoke bands, but you may also wish to consider dance acts, circus performers, caricaturists, henna tattooists, magicians … or perhaps a combination of several of these!
5. Table dressing
Time to take your seats. A lot of venues will serve dinner in a different room to the drinks reception which enables you to do a “big reveal”. Should a separate room not be available, you may wish to consider a dividing curtain which can be dropped with big impact at your chosen time. Ensure your table settings and decoration tie in with your event theme and think about creative centre pieces and place settings. Don’t be wary of putting a modern twist on the traditional: floral table centres can be super-sized, lanterns can be inverted and hung from the ceiling. Many companies can also supply bespoke sculptures or artwork to set off your table theming. Table plans and place cards should also not be overlooked, and can be a really simple but effective way of emphasising the overall event theme.
You may wish to consider offering your attendees a gift as a reminder of their evening. These could be placed on tables, along with place cards, or given out on departure at the cloakroom. Think bespoke, think unique and, as always, ensure that the gift fits with your theme. There are gift options to suit all budgets, from handmade edible goods to the latest technology and everything in between (dancing shoes? A personalised bottle of wine that matches vintage to year of birth?), but try to offer something small in size and easily portable – some of your guests may have a long way to travel home!
Many event planners are surprised to find they spend more on production than they do on catering. Do not be alarmed. And do not underestimate the importance of a good stage set, lighting and good quality of sound. This may well be the element of the event that your guests don’t appear to notice much, but rest assured that they certainly would notice if you got it wrong! The production element of your gala dinner will span many of the other aspects including decor, theming, entertainment and speakers. Be sure to engage with a good production company, ensure that they understand the event theme and get to know the venue inside out. Then just rehearse, rehearse and rehearse again.
Needless to say, at a gala dinner event, catering is key. In order to ensure high-quality, be sure to attend a menu tasting in advance and if sourcing separately from the venue possibly try multiple catering suppliers. It’s really important that the food should taste good, but do not overlook the presentation and the service elements as well, these hold equal importance. Ask your catering provider to show you their crockery, glassware and service platters and make sure you are clear on their staffing numbers (i.e. staff:guest ratio). Consider selecting a menu and/or wines which link to your theme. Drinks-wise, bespoke cocktails are a great touch, as are gin tricycles, ice luges or prosecco fountains.
Now the plates have been cleared, you need to think about how to continue the night in style. Will there be any speeches or video content? Do you have a big enough dance floor? Again, the entertainment here is key. Ensure that any acts you book link with your theme and offer something a little different to what you organised prior to dinner.
10. Ending the night
We would recommend having a definitive end time to your gala dinner. Of course you must consider any restrictions placed by the venue but be sure to also consider transport options and the logistics of “getting home”. Aim to finish with a bang such as an exciting final act. Your guests should leave wanting more and already be excited about the next event! If you are arranging carriages for your guests, you may wish to think creatively here too. Could you book traditional London Routemasters rather than standard coaches? Would an actual carriage ride be an option? What about tuk tuks, rickshaws or another local alternative?
We hope this has given you some food for thought. Please do get in touch for more information and inspiration – we would love to work with you on your next gala dinner!
By Rachel Axford
Rachel graduated from UCL in 2012 with a degree in French & Spanish. She cut her teeth in the events industry that summer with involvement in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations and London 2012 and has never looked back! More articles by Rachel Axford