It sounds so glitzy – Heads of States (HOS) jetting in from around the world to talk about the major issues facing nations. From glamorous cocktail parties to intimate board style meetings, any event that includes an HOS has unique needs.

You might be thinking you’ll never have to deal with an HOS event, but any event planner for high-level individuals or large corporations may face this. I’ve planned multiple HOS events around the world and until you go through that experience there are details you can’t possibly imagine. And I say that to event planners, who are some of the most detail oriented people in the world!

Here are the five things I wish I had known in advance:

1. Security

As you can imagine, security is one of the biggest headaches in dealing with HOS events. What you may not anticipate is the complexity of security arrangements for these types of events. If your event is in the US, you’ll be dealing with the Secret Service, the HOS’ private and national security teams, venue security, and potentially state and local law enforcement as well.

Ideally, someone from Secret Service or the HOS team will take point on the security arrangements, but that’s not always the case. Identify the players as early as possible and start the community with everyone involved. Identify specific security concerns, find out who will be on site during the actual event, and get a schedule of the required walkthroughs both prior to and on the day of the event.

You’ll need to often budget several hours in the weeks leading up to the event, as well as on the day of the event, to walk the venue. You should also be prepared for requests for changes, to everything from layout to décor that might affect a security situation.

2. Protocol

It feels old school, but there’s a lot of protocol when it comes to HOS events. This means everything from who can arrive when, to how your program is structured, to understanding the way various heads of state like to be addressed. For example, if Mr. Obama shows up to an event, the proper terms of address is “Mr. President” or “President Obama.” If you’re dealing with certain African HOS, the term of respect is “Your Excellency.”

Get clear on the individual players, and their specific protocol requirements. Make sure that all event staff, from those working the registration desk to PR and the people serving the drinks are aware of these. Show pictures if you have to to get everyone recognized when they arrive. Consult protocol secretaries or officials (all HOS will have them) and review plans with them to make any needed changes.

3. Small Touches

It’s easy to be frustrated with the extra work that an HOS attending your event creates. Everyone else with be agog at the idea of meeting a President or leader, and thinking about the impact that it makes for their brand. You’re probably thinking about your aching feet, lack of sleep, and whole other work stream you need to keep track of. The people you’re working with are failing to think of you as a human being; but that frustration that you’re feeling is also due in part to a lack of empathy on your part by the HOS.

These individuals often keep schedules that would exhaust a 20 year old athlete, with little down time and hordes of people pandering for their attention. Your event, regardless of their reason for attending, is just one stop in a marathon of the day.

You can make a difference in their experience, and also get a better response for your organization/employer, by paying attention to their small needs. Ask their staff if there’s anything specific you need to know. If they love a certain beverage, make sure to have it on hand when they arrive. If they have a bad back and an ergonomic chair would make all the difference, go out of your way to make it happen. Usually their teams are very devoted to the HOS, and will be happy to share small tips that let you create a truly welcoming environment.

4. Venue Selection

This one is short and sweet, but I’d encourage you to choose a venue that’s hosted VIPs and HOS before.

There are a number of factors that are outside your control with event planning, and working with a venue that’s had this experience before is a great strategy for setting the foundations for success. If at all possible, request to work with members of the hotel or venue staff that have had that experience before as well.

5. Luxury

When you’re considering all the small details, consider whether or not the level of quality and luxury is appropriate enough. This doesn’t necessarily mean $1000 bottles of champagne everywhere, but it does mean turning a critical eye toward the smallest details. For example, at a recent HOS event we had created a private space for the guest HOS. The furniture was rented, and everything was beautifully lux leather furniture. However, the end tables were inexplicably made of a very cheap plastic (I think the goal was a modern feel). Upon inspection, it was the first thing his team called out. So whether you’re looking at badges, small furniture, or circulating food, make sure that you’ve made investments in the right things for an appropriately fabulous event.

Planning an HOS event will test the limits of your experience as an event planner. Give yourself plenty of time in advance, communicate with all stakeholders, and remember that the ability to stay calm and troubleshoot in the moment is your greatest asset. Once you’ve gotten through an HOS event, you’ll feel like you can tackle any event planning challenge that comes your way.


Liz Alton's experience in event planning runs from renting out entire South
American towns to planning intimate gatherings for heads of state.She's
particularly interested in the intersection of new technology and event
planning to make events successful, efficient, and fun. Liz is now a blogger, copywriter, and social media strategist based in Boston.
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