guiding the career in public relations

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Q&As With Special Events Guru Neal Heitz

November 18th, 2013 · 2 Comments


Neal Heitz

Neal Heitz

Culpwrit: Describe the difference between event marketing and special events?

Neal: There’s a fine line between event marketing and special events and its largely based on the objective. What is the event trying accomplish? To me, an event is an event, is an event. I frequently discuss with my students that there isn’t much difference in planning a 4-year-old’s birthday party and planning Lollapoolza. The format always stays the same. Yes, the details vary, the food changes, the entertainment is drastically different and venue selection is distinct but the PROCESS is still the same.

Robert Jani, creator of the Main Street Electric Lights Parade for Disney World once defined a special event as “That which is different from a normal day of living.”

Event marketing and special events are both creating experiences for end users that are different than their normal day to day lives. The distinction between the two simply depends on the objective of the event.

Culpwrit: What personal characteristics do you look for in someone pursuing a career in special events?

Neal: The standard answer most people assume event leaders are looking for are “creative” and “organized” and while those characteristics are necessary (they really are) however, that’s just the starting point.  Everyone looking to be involved in the world of special events SHOULD BE creative and organized.  Drilling down a little further and finding out if someone is patient, calm, well-spoken, thoughtful and humble are really important qualities for someone to posses in this business. The world of special events doesn’t need another Don Draper to sit around and come up with brilliant ideas. Special events needs people that are willing to jump in, work hard and always remember to stay focused.

Culpwrit: What are the job prospects in this field? 

Events are finally being seen as opportunities.  While virtual touch points and traditional media can “spread the word” nothing connects people better than a live event. And there is certainly big money to be made in live events.  It’s obvious when you look at the event world in Chicago. Every summer we see more and more neighborhood festivals, more and more athletic events from serious 5k’s to colored corn-starch flinging running races that end with lots of beer. And while successful events are important to a producer, client or sponsor the larger picture is even more enticing….Economic Impact.  If an event has a positive economic impact on the community then it’s a real win/win.

The second answer is that baby boomers are retiring and they’re not sitting around watching television. Baby boomers are active.  They’re out doing things. They’re headed to all sorts of events.  So if you can produce events that appeal to an older demographic and create a positive economic impact in the surrounding community than I would say your job prospect looks good.

Culpwrit: What would you recommend for a student to do while in college to prepare for a career like yours?

Neal: Students need to prepare themselves for a career in special events. College will provide some basic underlying fundamentals, but the actual experience needs to come from the student’s own self designed curriculum.  hey need to use the time in college to gain a very firm understanding of the following topics:

  • FOOD:  Students have the opportunity to work with food while in school. Get a job at a catering company, bar tend or be a server at a restaurant. Food is the backbone of special events and it’s important to have a solid understanding of serving styles, catering, per person portions and beverage distribution upon graduating.
  • VOLUNTEER: Students that attend school in an urban environment have all the ability in the world to gain so much experience. Peruse Chicago Magazine or the Chicago Reader and just look at how many events are coming up.  Where can you be of assistance? Every event needs volunteers. There aren’t many college classes that will demonstrate how to set up a coat check or how to layout a registration table or how to produce a silent auction. Students need to seek out these opportunities and learn for themselves.
  • CONSUME MEDIA: Students are sometimes drawn only to the things that interest them. The challenge here is that in the events world you don’t ALWAYS get to produce the events that you like.  Sometimes you have to produce things that are for someone outside of your demographic. Being hyper-aware of what’s going on in your city is critical to being a good event leader.  Listen to the radio, read the papers, watch the news, subscribe to magazines and become a master of pop culture. Know what trends are out there, what are people talking about and what’s going to be the next big thing.
  • PART TIME JOBS: Look for a job in a related field. Can you work as an assistant to a florist? Is there an opportunity to deliver catering? Can you find a part-time gig at a linen company? Put yourself in an environment where you can make some money but also gain some practical experience.
  • INTERNSHIPS:  Try at least one internship at an event production company. There are plenty of them and they all want interns to work for free. Give it a shot.  Make sure it’s something you dig.
  • COLLEGE:  Degrees in Communication, Public Relations, Marketing, Advertising, Hospitality are all perfect for the industry however consider taking classes in accounting, contract law and food services.  In my opinion, contracts are 80% of the job in special events.
  • THINK DIFFERENTLY:  Attend events. Experience the world of special events so that when you enter the work force you know how things have been done and know how to do things different.  Be fresh, unique and dare I say CREATIVE?

Neal Heitz is a full time Special Event Coordinator and part time adjunct professor of special events with the College of Communication for DePaul University.  Neal blogs on his views of the special events industry at The Event Curriculum and he regularly tweets @NealHeitz about the Chicago events scene while also making room for personal opinions and random thoughts

Tags: Advice from a Pro · Careers · Day in the Life · Guest Post

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Brittany Shoemaker // Nov 30, 2013 at 9:33 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article. I’m currently attending my last semester at Southeast Missouri State as a Public Relations major. With this, I am looking to pursue special events/event coordinating, in general.

    I do have a question for you. I have a diverse background in several forms of media and have actually done all of your steps as for what to do in order to obtain a position after college (via website above). However, I only have about 2 years of experience in events. Do you have any suggestions on types of positions to apply for, as well as what are your top companies that you suggest for just starting out?

    I’d appreciate any feedback, thank you!

  • 2 Neal Heitz // Dec 3, 2013 at 1:57 pm

    Hello Brittany –

    Thank you for reading. Glad to hear you have created your own curriculum and are working diligently towards a career in the special events industry.
    While I don’t have a specific list of companies that are hiring, I think you should broaden your search to find positions that are related to special events. It’s very rare that you will see a job posting, “Special Events Coordinator Wanted”.
    One of the best places to find entry level full time employment is with a caterer. Food is by far one of the most important components of the special events industry. Consider looking into food/beverage management as a place to start.
    Another suggestion is to peruse publications/websites like Create a list of venues and suppliers that are either advertising or being written about and use that as a starting point. Working for a florist, a venue, an ice company, a linen company are all great places to start in the special events industry.
    My last suggestion is to consider entry level positions for an association. Many times the mission of a particular association is to bring like-minded members together for some sort of common good. This requires planning. While many times entry level positions for an association don’t pay very well, it is an opportunity to gain some very basic experience that can lead to bigger opportunities.

    Good Luck!
    Neal Heitz

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