Isn't it a bit strange that the special events "industry" has only been in existence for about 25 or so years, yet what most of us would define as "special events" have been around since pre-historic times? I know this is not a question most people entering the industry ponder about very much, but it begs an answer because what has emerged in the industry is a mixed set of definitions and a lot of confusion about what is and is not a special event.
In my books and teaching, I have personally defined a special event as "a gathering of human beings, generally lasting from a few hours to a few days, and designed to celebrate, honor, sell, teach about, or observe human endeavors." This is my personal definition and it is intended to be as all-encompassing as possible. Dr. Joe Jeff Goldblatt, a pioneer in special events, has a similar definition, perhaps more general, when he says “a special event is a unique moment in time celebrated with ceremony and ritual to satisfy specific needs." Donald Getz, another Canadian educator, on the other hand, offers two definitions, from each of the event organizer’s and the guest’s point of view, respectively:
1. "A special event is a one-time or infrequently occurring event outside normal programs or activities of the sponsoring or organizing body,” and
2. To the customer or guest, a special event is an opportunity for a leisure, social or cultural experience outside the normal range of choices or beyond everyday experience."
Now, none of these definitions is inherently wrong or right; they just approach the subject slightly differently. Where we run into problems is when we try to state what is and is not a special event based only on these definitions, in other words, when we try to apply some degree of undefinable "specialness" to them.
Let's consider what this "specialness" is. Supposedly there must be some sort of uniqueness to events in terms of categorization and size, they must use one or more dedicated organizers, and they must somehow fit into a very limited scale of repetition. For example, is a weekly church service a special event or just the Christmas Eve service? Is a public hanging in the 1800s a special event even though many would say it is not a celebration per se (which many event practitioners might argue for)? Is a Rolling Stones concert a special event, even though it is one of many on a worldwide tour? Is a space shuttle launch and flight a special event even though it is not a typical celebration that we in the industry are used to? As you can see, these are not easily answered or universally agreed on.
Some academics such as Leo Jago and Robin Shaw from Australia, have tended to consider special events as only pertaining to tourism and to include large-scale "major" events, "hallmark" events, "mega-events," festivals, and minor events. Unfortunately, their research has not considered the impact and importance of the large - or perhaps more importantly, lucrative - private special event market that also includes incentives, association and corporate meetings, fundraisers, and large social and life events, all of which form arguably the lion's share of business for actual practitioners in the special events industry.
As a result, we on what may be called the "operational side" of the industry (as opposed to the "academic side") are still left in a confused state and searching for a more complete definition of the term "special event." My personal belief is that as the industry matures - and it is still very much in the maturation stage - a more enlightened definition will emerge, most likely one that categorizes special events in more detail and in alignment with still-developing internal industry specialties.