Skip navigation
gala design Photo courtesy Kehoe Designs
A UNICEF gala from Kehoe Designs puts the gala cause--children--front and center.

Black Tie with a Twist: Gala Design Today

How event designers are tweaking the traditional gala format for today’s gala guests.

“Black tie” and “galas” are practically synonymous, but today’s black tie is loosening up. With more flexible programming and the addition of more engaging elements, gala designers are forging a stronger bond between donors and the cause they support.

GET CONNECTED “Whether socialites or corporate sponsors, these events are about attending with your colleagues and contacts, connecting for a cause,” says Ryan Hanson, CSEP, chief creative producer and designer of Minneapolis-based BeEvents.

The keys to a great gala, Hanson says, start with building time for guests to network and talk. Then, articulate the charitable mission coherently and concisely. Finally, let the adults celebrate and have fun. 

“I think people still really love the idea of getting dressed up for something,” Hanson says. “They want to look great and feel great knowing that their participation in this experience matters.”

JUST RELAX Galas today are shifting toward two new goals for guest: comfort and engagement.

“More than ever, gala guests are interested in being comfortable and entertained, and the stuffy pretense of days past is being replaced by a more relaxed approach,” says Ty Kuppig, principal of Tyger Productions, with offices in New York and Boston. The typical gala format of a cocktail reception followed by a seated dinner and program remains the most popular model for fundraising events, he says. But he’s noticed that more event organizers and guests are hungry for a new approach. 

“While some aim to discard the seated meal completely, I believe the problem lies not in the gathering of guests around a table but in the time they are shackled to it,” Kuppig says. “The flow of the evening and the program itself are the keys to making the traditional format gala work for today’s guest. If the program can be concise and punctuated by engaging visuals or entertainment, it is possible to hold guests’ attention and create a dynamic experience.”

START EXPERIMENTING To capture guests’ attention, galas have been compelled to become more experiential to tell a story creatively and connect guests with one another, says Tom Kehoe, president of Chicago-based Kehoe Designs. “Integrated technologies and interactive features bring new levels of engagement to today’s most successful events,” he says.

For example, Hanson shares how his team used technology to spark guest interaction at a gala for a children’s hospital raising money for a new ambulance. The event featured a custom animation, which colored in a Fund-a-Need ambulance in real time response to the dollars raised.

Hanson says other popular gala experiences include interactive opportunities to “do something,” bucket-list auction items and an emphasis on the celebration through lounges, post-dinner food experiences and games …

For the full story, see the Fall issue of Special Events. Not a subscriber? We can fix that; just click here.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.