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Once Upon a Theme

Immerse your attendees in your event story using the power of theme

Cover photo: Contortionists set the scene for FREAK SHOW, a corporate reception by Cerbelli Creative that was themed with circus obscurities. Photo courtesy Ivan Piedra Photography


It’s hard to imagine a great event without also imagining a strong theme. Over the past few years, we’ve seen themes gain a foothold in the events industry, working their way from brand activations to catering to every element of an event. A solid, clever theme isn’t a fun bonus anymore: in 2024, it’s a necessity.

The themed event is fun and popular, so be prepared for your clients to want innovative, never-been-done-before ideas. With the right approach, you can avoid the stale or caricatured, and harness your creativity to create solid, unique motifs that your clients will be thrilled to show off.

Before you begin brainstorming and scrolling social media for inspiration, let’s pull the curtain back on this rising event trend.

Themes on the rise

There’s not much good we want to credit to the 2020 pandemic, especially in the event world. But vibrant theme events are flourishing thanks to that long year-plus of being locked inside.

Re-emerging into a post-pandemic world left people eager to participate in stimulating experiences. We saw an explosion of immersive events based on popular fiction worlds (Stranger Things: The Experience; The Queen’s Ball: A Bridgerton Experience, to name a few)—after consuming copious amounts of TV at home, many people were ready to step back into not only the world at large but also their favorite fiction worlds.

Brand activations also presented immersive worlds, with themes inspired by clients that ranged from movies to books to clothing brands. These pop-up events have relied heavily on themes to engage consumers and create marketing content.

Add to the mix that while people were eager to share photos from new experiences, TikTok was taking off, with theme night friend hangs going viral. Then, in 2023, with the excellent marketing of cinema (Barbie and Oppenheimer’s pink and black for the famed “Barbenheimer” look) and music events (Renaissance and Eras tour themes), the excitement of dressing up and participating in themes took off. And now, in a moment of time where people want to participate in personalized, unique experiences that haven’t been done before, immersive theme events are in high demand. The more unique the better. 

“One in three consumers prefer to have a theme for their events—even if it’s incredibly niche,” states an article from research platform GWI. These days, “incredibly niche” is actually the desired aesthetic.

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For their gala “Alice, Curiouser & Curiouser,” the Peace Arch Hospital Foundation created their own Wonderland with a “Queen's Court Silent Auction.” Photo courtesy Brian Dennehy Photography

Telling a story

Themes are more than a fun decorating technique; they are the glue that can hold events together and offer several benefits.

“While not all events require a theme, having one can offer many benefits, such as easier planning, increased attendee engagement, and a more memorable experience,” says an article from experience agency Wildfire. “Even a simple theme can provide a direction for your event and make it more cohesive and enjoyable.”

Themes provide a thread to tie every element of the event together, creating strong visuals and a unified experience for attendees—and for marketing content, which will help you as a business.

In her session Unleash Your Creative Superpowers: The Art of Theme-ology! at Catersource + The Special Event, event pro Teri Jakob (Associate Director, Special Events, UPMC Pinnacle Foundation) went as far as to say that all events do require a theme.

“Themes are not just decorative elements that you add in, they’re not catchy phrases, they’re not pieces of slogans,” she told attendees, “they are the backbone of any successful gathering. They give your event a unique identity, they give personality and soul to what you are doing and the story you are telling.” 

Your event should always tell a story, and themes are the storyteller, she continued. “They set the stage, they guide the narrative, and they are what is going to leave the lasting impression on your guests and your attendees.” 

Offering creative themes also sets you apart from your competitors, making your events stand out from those whose offerings are less cohesive and don’t tell clear stories. They make you the planner who knows how to make events stand out—and in 2024, clients want their event to stand out.

“In a move close to influencing, this party trend reveals how hosts are looking to impress their guests and show off their creativity in one fell swoop,” continues the GWI article.
“It’s all about converting ordinary events into extraordinary memories (and looking cool while you do it). The more original the theme, the better.”

Wonderland signs pointed attendees in the right direction at Alice, Curiouser & Curiouser. Photo courtesy Brian Dennehy Photography

Getting started

The best place to start is with your story. Define your narrative, ensuring you know what story you are trying to tell and what emotions you want your attendees to experience, and that this narrative aligns with what the attendees will take away, suggests Jakob.

Next, she encourages developing a story arc. “Create an arc that brings your attendees from the beginning to the end, a clear journey that creates anticipation and engages participants, and provides them with a conclusion.”

In their session How to Design for the Senses, Tiffany Rose Goodyear (Scentex) and Terrica (Cocktails & Details®/Terrica Inc.) echoed this story arc. “This is going to be so much more than logistics and menus that we’re putting together,” said Terrica. “We want to be able to bring our guests in from the very beginning, have some sort of experience—some communal experience—in the middle, and then, having our crescendo at the end.”

The next step is to fill out the story with details—these should be found in every element of your event, from guest activities to food and beverage, to entertainment. “Create immersive experiences that bring the story to life,” Jakob told her audience. Your attendees should be completely immersed in the theme, and wherever they are should be an obvious tie into the story. 

This means that the theme needs to be carried through consistently. “Make sure that everything matches all the way through your event,” said Jakob, “from the colors to the type styles, from the entrance, from the start, from the time you’ve sent your save the dates out so that there’s cohesion, so that people recognize that is tied to the same event.”

As you and your team brainstorm, keep open minds and room for all ideas, so that you don’t “squash the thought process,” as Jakob put it. Then, as you begin to sort through your ideas, she suggests keeping an audience-centric approach, making sure every idea you keep ties back to your original goals of what you want the attendees to experience and take away.

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Every interaction is a chance to tell the story. Here, at "Alice, Curiouser & Curiouser," a butterfly costumed performer flutters down from the ceiling to pour attendees a glass of wine. Photo courtesy Brian Dennehy Photography

Elemental opportunities

To create a truly immersive event theme, go through every aspect of your event and see how you can tie it back to the theme and use it to tell the story, from tangible to intangible elements. This includes pre-event, during, and post-event. It includes the physical and digital spaces. No matter what part of the event the guest is experiencing, it should be infused with the theme.

“You want to think about every portion of your event as being a chapter in a story,” said Terrica.

Spatial design

The event space is likely the easiest place to incorporate your theme, but consider using the venue’s features beyond the obvious ways. We’re seeing immersive entrances gaining popularity, announcing the theme and beginning the storytelling process right upon guests’ arrival, creating what Terrica calls “a portal into the story.” 

Make sure to utilize as many surfaces as possible (without crowding) to display theme decor, including the ceiling and floor. You can use different rooms to create micro themes, telling different parts of the story as guests make their way through the space. (Don’t forget to continue the theme into the bathroom, too!)

Of course, the venue itself should also be on theme. If you’re planning a 1920s party, for instance, host it in a speakeasy, or take inspiration from last year’s Gala recipient for Best Event Produced for a Corporation or Association: Lenny Talarico Events and Cerbelli Creative who used a WW2 aircraft carrier museum/event venue for an event whose theme took attendees through the past 10 decades.

Sensory details

The best way to create an immersive experience is to engage all five senses of the attendees. This means that each sensory encounter is cultivated with the theme in mind. “An event is a room full of nervous systems,” said Goodyear. “We experience the world through our five senses.... Us as experience creators—it's essential that we talk to every single sensory receptor in peoples’ bodies.”

Go through each of the five senses and figure out how you want each one to be a vehicle for the theme.

  • Sight: Consider every color, texture, and image people will take in when they look around the event space. This also extends to marketing materials and stationery.
  • Hearing: Create soundscapes with customized soundtracks and sound baths. Make sure to also consider natural noise and the acoustics of the venue. Consider tempo, volume, pitch, and even frequency and how those will affect your attendees’ moods and emotions.
  • Touch: You may not realize it, but events are rife with tactile experiences. People will experience a variety of temperatures, textures, and surfaces throughout the event (and even before, if you send out physical invitations—and after, in the case of party favors). Goodyear encourages thinking about what people will feel beneath their feet and how they will experience it: whether carpet, hardwood, grass, or cobblestone, each surface will feel different beneath flat shoes, high heels, walkers, and wheelchairs. If you incorporate ribboned or LED streamer entrances, consider how attendees will associate the physical feeling in terms of the theme.
  • The dining experience is also more than just taste: the texture and softness of linens, weight of silverware and glassware, even the feeling of etchings or stitching all play a part in telling the story.
  • Scent: You’ll want to consider the natural scent of your venue (is it an old, woody building? A newer industrial space? Are you outdoors?), but you can also manipulate the “scentscape” with food, candles, and fragrances. While sometimes forgotten, scent is an easy way to 
  • create emotional takeaways and create a memorable theme. “Food is an intimate sensory experience...whereas scent is a shared experience,” reminds Goodyear.
  • Taste: Your food and beverage menu are perhaps the easiest place to incorporate a theme—think about how you can change the flavors and serving styles throughout the event to help tell that story.

It’s important to note that all these sensory experiences dynamically play off one another, so make sure to keep the emotional component cohesive. If you have a pink theme, don’t just make everything pink—think about how the different flavors, textures, and scents of pink things come together to tell your story and solidify the theme.

Terrica suggests increasing the portions of each sensory experience throughout the event—introductory in the beginning, bigger in the middle, and grand finale-sized at the end. 

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Intricate color and texture play created a whimsical tea party tablescape that took attendees to Wonderland. Photo courtesy Brian Dennehy Photography


Everybody involved 

An important question to keep in mind, Terrica continues, is, “What are we doing, and who are we doing it for?” 

These days, attendees want to be as much a part of the theme as possible. 

In her session Kristin Banta’s Design to Impact 2024, designer Kristin Banta (Kristin Banta Events) discussed the trend of thematic attire and dress codes for all. “Interactivity and greatly achieved by giving people something to do and wear and be a part of it.”

You don’t want anyone breaking the fourth wall, so involve everyone you can. “This is for event staff, performers, servers—there's a surge in more eclectic and fashion-forward, creative attire for attendees,” said Banta, with a nod to the Catersource + The Special Event Opening Night Party’s “Neon Spur” theme (turn to page 104 for more on that). “We’re seeing this everywhere.” 

David Merrell (AOO Events) and Susie Perelman (Mosaic) echoed this trend in their session David Merrell & Susie Perelman Present: Current Trends in the Event Industry, noting that this can look like inviting attendees to come in their best costumes or even providing on-site hair and makeup, which “creates a sense of community.”


The activities and entertainment that are sprinkled throughout the event are opportunities to continue the storytelling with vignette moments. “Go macro, then go micro,” encouraged Terrica.

Jakob pointed toward Catersource + The Special Event’s Connect Social event, which featured tarot card readings to emphasize the “Eclectic Bohemian” theme. Crafts, especially ones that attendees can leave their mark on, like the paint by number mural at Connect Social, can tell different chapters of the story.

She also suggested using interactive installations (or—as Banta emphasized in her trend forecast—interactive lighting) to engage attendees. 

Entertainment can be on theme, the way a live band played country music at the “Neon Spur” Opening Night Party, but entertainment can be combined with activities for greater impact. Jakob gave an example of a Bridgerton theme event where attendees were offered ballroom dancing lessons and then used their new skills to enjoy the ballroom music provided, mimicking the characters in their favorite show.

Every touchpoint is an opportunity to emphasize the theme and tell a detail of the story.

“Everybody wants to have more impact on experiences post-COVID,” Jakob reminds us. “People are pickier about where they put their time, they want to know more about what’s going on and how to come away with something that impacts them.”

Even after the event ends, the photos that people share will continue to tell the story. You need that story to have been so clearly, cohesively executed that everyone who participated tells it accurately and excitedly, in person and on social media. Help them out by providing hashtags for them to use.

Remember: clients want to host hyper-personal, unique events that will impress their guests and friends, look exceptional on social media, and leave a lasting impression. Don’t rely on stereotypes; instead, get to know the story your client wants to tell, and use every detail and sensory experience to play out that narrative. Get everyone and everything involved. And don’t forget to have fun—this is your chance to let your creativity and expertise shine! 

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A Queen of Hearts Welcome Cocktail with a white cotton candy bunny tail garnish.  Photo courtesy Brian Dennehy Photography

Trending Themes

Between the forecasts in Kristin Banta’s (Kristin Banta Events) Kristin Banta’s Design to Impact 2024 and David Merrell (AOO Events, Inc.) and Susie Perelman (Mosaic)’s session David Merrell & Susie Perelman Present: Current Trends in the Event Industry, here are the top trending event themes we think will make their mark in 2024:

  • Mixed themes, often paradoxical (neon cowboy, Barbenheimer, hip-hop rogue) 
  • Bohemianism: more eclectic than Coachella-inspired now, 70s folklore, Laurel Canyon vibes
  • Preppy: stripes, corduroys, popped collars (they’re back!)
  • Dopamine decor: bold, vibrant, whimsical colors and elements; joyful, playful, positive, pattern play 
  • Mob wife: inspired by the 25th anniversary of The Sopranos. Think: excess, baubles, cigarette candy, trashy, animal prints
  • Chrome: replace disco balls for metallics
  • Western gothic: a revised twist on the Yellowstone craze of last year; vintage Americana chic that’s sultry, moody, dark
  • Italian grandmother: a departure from “Coastal Grandma” aesthetic while still celebrating “grandmacore”: European sophistication, marble, wood, collected ceramics, upscale
  • Retro: ‘70s, ‘90s, ‘00s
  • Wonky-weird: whimsical, saturated colors, pattern mixing, escapist, light-hearted (inspired by the latest iteration of the Willy Wonka film)

 Use a Timeline

When working on a theme event, sometimes, the more it comes together, the more the ideas flow. And while this can be helpful in the beginning stages, it’s not ideal to have clients or team members making suggestions five days before the event.

“I like to implement a ‘Great Idea Deadline,’” said Teri Jakob (Associate Director, Special Events, UPMC Pinnacle Foundation) in her session Unleash Your Creative Superpowers: The Art of Theme-ology! at Catersource + The Special Event. “I work with a lot of committees who come up with lots of great ideas...I have some staff that like to come up with a lot of great ideas too, and you know, five days before the event is not the best time for this mind-blowing event idea, and I just can’t make it happen—and I can’t make it happen in a way that represents us well.”

Your Great Idea Deadline will vary depending on your capacity and your event but include it in the overall timeline so everyone knows when to leave the brainstorming behind. 

“Sometimes we just have to save it for another day, or another event,” says Jakob.

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