Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Seeking a Definition of Special Events

At this point, there is no question that special events have taken on all aspects of an “industry” in that their organization and management are the underlying support for the employment of significant numbers of persons. This has been apparent since approximately the early 1980s, and it has been apparent in most first world countries. Whether this “industry” has yet become a “profession” similar to others like law, medicine, or engineering is still open to debate and not the subject of this blog. However, it is suggested by this author that if future professional entrance certification requirements based on advanced education can be tightened up and more rigorous practical application terms applied, it may eventually qualify to be in the same league. One of the first steps to achieving this status is to have a common understanding of exactly what special events are so that the “profession” understands its boundaries.

General Definitions

Let us begin trying to achieve this by looking at some current definitions. Goldblatt was one of the first to attempt a definition in his first book and again in his second (2002). He states, “A special event is a unique moment in time celebrated with ceremony and ritual to satisfy specific needs.” Getz (1997; p.4), on the other hand offers two definitions, from each of the event organizer’s and the guest’s point of view, respectively:

· “A special event is a one-time or infrequently occurring event outside normal programs or activities of the sponsoring or organizing body,” and
· “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.”

Lastly, Jago and Shaw (1998) offer up individual definitions of events that have been categorized as to size and their impact on tourism (e.g. minor events, major events, hallmark events, mega-events, festivals) based on surveys of current literature and the use of specific terms.

There are several problems inherent with all these definitions. Goldblatt’s definition, while generally all-encompassing, does not place limits on the recurrence or duration of an event. For example, how would one differentiate between a regular season baseball game and a world series final; would either, both, or neither qualify as a special event? This definition also implies that special events are more celebratory than anything, the connotation being that they are of a festive nature only. This would possibly disqualify historic public executions and even present-day, high-level political meetings designed to discuss international emergencies. Getz’s definitions fail to place important boundaries on the defined events. For example, for an organizing body, by his definition a terrorist attack on the organization’s headquarters would qualify equally with the organization’s annual corporate retreat as being a special event. For a guest, although recognizing that an organization’s special event may not be one and the same, his definition fails to indicate whether the guest is a participant or an observer, nor does it recognize that there are other types of special events than just cultural and social, such as educational. Finally, Jago and Shaw’s definitions place too much emphasis on the tourism aspects of special events alone and ignore entirely the considerable legacy owed to the industry by historical special events. Perhaps their biggest failing, though, is their categorization by size rather than by type. This leads to inconsistency, for example, when considering the economic tourism impact of small, but highly lucrative private incentive events, and to the presumed elimination of minor special events as worthy of consideration in the study of event management.

Contrary to Jago and Shaw’s assertion (1998) that “it is unlikely that a single, all-embracing definition of special events can be developed,” I believe it can. This statement is based on extensive research of historical and modern rituals, celebrations, ceremonies, and spectacles across a wide variety of cultures and time periods. However, I do agree that it cannot be done by simple definition alone. The definition must be accompanied by a further examination and breakdown of the characteristics of “specialness.” I therefore offer up the following as a modified version of my first similar statement (Matthews, 2008):

“A special event is a gathering of human beings, generally lasting from a few hours to a few days, designed to celebrate, honor, discuss, sell, teach about, encourage, observe, or influence human endeavors.”

I believe this definition has several advantages over previous attempts. First, it places general boundaries on the duration of a special event, from a few hours to a few days. Certainly there are exceptions to this if one considers that such events as a World’s Fair can last for up to six months; however, the norm is a duration of no more than two weeks or so in the case of large, modern festivals, fairs, or conferences. Second, it acknowledges that special events are not restricted to festive celebrations but can encompass a variety of gatherings, serious or happy, and religious or secular, including meetings and conferences, expositions and trade shows, private and public special events, and events of various sizes. In so doing, it eliminates a direct relationship to tourism while still allowing its use in that industry, and it thus also recognizes the legacy of historical special events from a multiplicity of cultures. Lastly, it allows for the wide disparity of reasons for organizing and attending special events, without defining these from the restricted and specific viewpoints of organizer or guest.

As is obvious from the definition, the primary categorization method for special events that I prefer and that I believe to be the most logical is that of type rather than size. Why is this? I feel that organizing by size does not allow for the logical application of individual specialties within the industry. For example, if a hypothetical major event (defined by Jago and Shaw as “a large-scale special event that is high in status or prestige and attracts a large crowd and wide media attention”) such as the American Super Bowl football game is organized by a person with a professional special event certification, that does not mean that the same person is qualified to organize a major conference of similar proportions. Perhaps the best way to further illustrate the point is by way of examples from other professions. A civil engineer who has developed a reputation for designing bridges is not necessarily the right person to design a 70-storey skyscraper. The captain of a 2000-passenger ferry is probably not the right person to captain a 2000-passenger cruise ship. A neurosurgeon who performs a 3-hour operation on someone’s brain is definitely not the right person to perform a 3-hour operation on another person’s heart, and so on. The more logical approach to categorizing special events therefore appears to be by type, as this method follows the rapidly expanding division of responsibilities and certifications in the industry. It also permits the breakdown of different types into sub-categories based on size without any loss of their relationship to tourism. Before we discuss this method of categorization, however, we need to put the final touches on the definition of a special event.

The Characteristics of “Specialness”

The word “event” is overused. In our society it has come to mean almost anything that happens to us in going about our daily lives, and may include as diverse possibilities as an argument with our spouse, the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Only some, though, are “special,” and they are “special” in ways that differ according to our individual points of view. This was recognized by Getz in his definition of special events. The organizer, participant, and attendee or guest is each going to see a given event differently. Guests might very well consider an event “special” because they have planned on attending it for a long time. The key, however, is that the simple act of attending is the “special” part and not the event itself. Participants and organizers might not consider the same event special because it is simply their daily job. An example here might be a family going on holiday to Disneyland for two days. They consider the holiday to be a special event. However, for the organizers and participants of the daily parade at Disneyland, it is merely a job and it is done exactly the same way every day, thus making it a daily event, or more accurately, an attraction, but not a “special” event. To make this absolutely clear, let us attempt to add some more bounding characteristics to our previous definition of a special event, based on how the present industry perceives the events on which they work and also based on what history perceives as significant events. These then, are what turn an ordinary event into a “special event:”

- They must be of limited and fixed duration, typically hours or days at most.
- They must be a one-off or infrequent occurrence, typically monthly or annually at most.
- If they are part of a regular series, they must be an unusual component of the series.
- They must be unique.
- They must require one or more organizers.
- Their execution must be planned and controlled.
- They must conform to the definition of a special event.
- There must be a live audience other than the organizers present at the physical event location.

It’s easy to fit events with which we are familiar into this tidy definition and its boundaries. It is not, however, as easy to fit events that skirt the periphery, and that is the reason for the limiting characteristics. The signing of the peace treaties following World Wars I and II were special events, but were the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the Battle of the Atlantic, or Hiroshima? According to our definition, they could have been if one was only an observer. According to the limiting characteristics, they would not be because their executions were not controlled. Would an actual public execution in the 1700s be a special event? Yes, it probably would according to both our definition and our limiting characteristics, in that it is planned and the outcome is known. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Public executions were very much a part of society at that time and considered in some ways to be entertainment. Would a regular season hockey game compared to a Stanley Cup final game be a special event? By our limiting characteristics the regular season game would not be but the final would be. These are but a few examples of questionable cases but most can be placed in one or the other of special or just ordinary events using the definition and the limiting characteristics.


Getz, D. (1997). Event Management and Event Tourism. New York: Cognizant Communication Corporation.
Goldblatt, J. (2002). Special Events: Twenty-First Century Global Event Management. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Jago, Leo K. and Shaw, Robin N. (1998). Special Events: A Conceptual and Definitional Framework. Festival Management & Event Tourism, Vol.5. (pp. 21-32).
Matthews, D. (2008). Special Event Production: The Process. Oxford: Elsevier.