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How to Win a Gala

How to Win a Gala

It's that time again, when members of the special event industry bring out their best work from the past year. As always, this year's entries will be thoroughly examined by an expert panel of judges, all members of the Special Events Magazine Advisory Board. Here, judges in last year's competition share their advice for creating an entry that will capture their attention — and possibly capture a 2004 Gala Award.


    It may seem obvious, but judges say they are astounded by the number of entries that have entry forms filled out incorrectly, are missing materials, or don't address key elements of the category they are entering — all omissions that will cost the entry points. With so many excellent events competing for only a few nominations, one point can make all the difference between a nomination and … nothing. And, yes, neatness counts: Entries that include good-quality photos or image photocopies, have all of the elements in the correct order, contain correct grammar and spelling (run spell-check!), and are neatly typed and labeled make a great impression. One judge cautions against using flimsy binders or trying to overstuff a binder: “A simple — yet very important — thing is to create a binder that does not come apart when you're looking through it,” he explains. “If judges spend most of the time with an entry putting it back together, they cannot focus on the content.”

    Another judge recommends that entrants visit the Special Events Magazine Web site and read the information about the entry process and rules available there. “I asked every person who came to me saying they did not understand why they never get a nomination if they had read all that information, and they all said ‘no’ — go figure!”


    When composing responses to the 1,000-word description and Four Questions, take the time to address the original elements of your event in a captivating way, the judges say. After all, you put a lot of creativity into your event — let some of that shine through in your entry.

    “The opening description is really important,” a judge notes. “It is where you grab the judges and let [them] know what to expect. ‘Over-the-top,’ ‘never-been-done-before,’ ‘limited budget’ and ‘short turnaround’ are all overused words that should be avoided if at all possible.”

    While it is important to include all pertinent information, brevity is valued by the judges, who must read several hundred entries during the judging process. “A good idea does not need to be explained over several pages … but the overall idea must be a killer,” another judge explains. This is not the time for flowery language; clear, concise descriptions speak volumes about your work. Judges do penalize entries that exceed the allowable number of words, and they recommend that entrants include the word count for each section at the top of the page.


    Whatever category you're entering, it's very important to tailor your responses to fit it. “I want the entry to appropriately reflect the nature of the category,” one judge notes. “If it's about food presentation, I don't need to see snapshots of floral arrangements. If it's about production or entertainment, I don't need to know about the food. We go through a lot of extraneous matter at times to get to the core of what the entry is about.”

    The judges advise that when entering one event in several categories, writing an original description for each entry is key. Don't forget to include specific challenges you encountered. As a judge explains, “If I read an entry that says ‘everything went fabulously and we had a huge budget,’ I feel less inclined to favor it over an entry where challenges are clearly defined and mastered.”


    If a category calls for a budget, make sure you include that information — the complete information, judges add. “[A big] mistake is entrants trying to work a budget to make it fit into a particular category. The judges are experienced event people — we know that you don't get 20 intelligent lights for $1,500,” one points out. If somehow you did manage to get a great deal on an item, be sure to include an explanation of how that happened.

    Judges are especially wary of budgets that come in just under the limit. For example, a budget of $19,999 in the category “Total Decor Budget Under $20,000” will make them take a closer look, and may in fact work against the entrant — in categories with lower budgets, more entries mean stiffer competition. Whatever the category, judges want to see examples of creative and well-executed events that make the most of the money available, whether you have $1,000 or $1,000,000 to spend.

    A budget template is available at While not every item on the list will be applicable for all categories, it provides a basic guideline for the types of costs the judges will be looking for. Don't forget to include the total! If you are not working with U.S. dollars, it's helpful to include an approximate conversion rate at the time the event took place.


    When it comes to Gala entries, pictures and videos really are worth a thousand words. One judge notes, “I don't think people understand the importance of turning in videos and pictures — it is the best way to sell an event to someone who was not there.”

    “Good pictures are key,” another judge points out. She adds that while the rules call for a minimum of two 4-by-6-inch images, in this case, less is definitely not more: “Sending [two] 4-by-6 photos doesn't do any event justice.” While it's not necessary to send an entire photo album, it is vital to include images that illustrate all the event elements that are important to a category. And pictures tell judges more than you may think — for example, if you send an image that shows dramatic lighting, the cost of that lighting should be included in the budget if one is required for that category.

    For those entertainment categories that require a video, it's important to show live footage of the act itself, not a video montage. The judges want to see the event that those in attendance saw, not a marketing piece for your company — but don't exceed the 10-minute-maximum length rule. If you are sending a video for a category where it is not required, think carefully about what it contains, as showing footage of an event's entertainment is pointless if you are entering “Best Floral.”


    The Gala Awards are an opportunity to showcase the very best in the special event industry, and putting together a successful entry requires time, energy and imagination. Before sending your entry, go over the Gala Entry Checklist included on the entry form and ensure that you are not missing any elements — the judges will notice! It is also a good idea to have someone with a discerning eye look over your entry to check for errors.

“Those applicants who take the time to creatively and succinctly make their case are the ones that stand out,” a judge explains. “Make [the entry] as engaging as the event itself — give us a taste of it!”

Another judge sums it up by saying that when he judges Gala entries, “I look for things that are unique and unusual. The Galas should be for people who dare to dream, and the execution should be flawless.”

For a copy of the 2004 Gala Awards Entry Form, turn to pages 40-41 or visit

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