People never outgrow the restless feeling they had as kids sitting in a windowless schoolroom, feeling cut off from the daylight and knowing life is moving on without them. Putting your attendees in a room with a view can alleviate those feelings and spice up a dull program, encouraging greater audience participation. But meeting planners have to be savvy or risk having scenery upstage what’s central to the program.
Creating an environment for learning
Yvette Davis, executive assistant for FMC Technologies, is in charge of organizing an annual event that brings more than 100 managers from the U.S., Latin America and Canada together for product training and educational seminars. “It was a big hit, but in the first year, we were in one half of the grand ballroom, and there were no windows and huge ceilings … it made us feel like we got lost.”
Representatives of the Woodlands Resort & Conference Center in Woodlands, Texas, where Davis’ group convened, recommended she book a different room the next year. “[It] had big windows on both sides,” Davis says. “[Attendees] said they enjoyed it, because with a view, they knew it was daytime. And they said [the meeting] felt much more relaxed. We had a lot fewer people going out to make business calls … they asked a lot more questions. I know the presenters felt more comfortable.”
The benefits of being able to see the natural world have been proven by a variety of scientific surveys. According to a 1989 National Gardening Survey of more than 2,000 randomly selected households, nearly half of the respondents said that being around plants made them feel calmer and more relaxed; the study also found employees preferred working in offices with plants, and that gardens in urban settings made people feel happier and more social. Dr. Roger S. Ulrich, director of the Center for Health Systems and Design at Texas A&M University, found that hospital patients whose hospital rooms overlooked trees recovered faster and required less medication than those whose only view was a brick wall.
The preference for seeing trees also extends to the meetings market. Tory Enriquez, director of sales and marketing of the Woodlands Resort, says scenic rooms are more popular with clients. “One client in particular said that the intensity of the meetings they do is offset by the beauty of the natural light and setting of the meeting,” Enriquez says. “It brings a calming element to a tough agenda. Another said that it brings the outside world inside. Meeting planners say having a room with a view is very important, especially if they have no time to schedule recreation during the meeting.”
Louise Upshaw-McClenny, president of Achievers International, specializes in providing customized training programs for businesses. “If the meeting is focused on groups discussing, initiating and generating ideas, and you want to open them up and get them sharing their thoughts and concerns, having a view can be a tremendous benefit. It lets their eyes and minds wander in a way that helps them wrap their minds around a thought and think of how they want to convey it. It keeps people open and helps loosen things up.
“On the other hand, if a meeting is about something very serious or intense … if you are communicating specific policy details or teaching information that people need to get focused on … if you have a finite concept and you’ve only got a certain length of time to communicate it, then the view would be distracting,” Upshaw-McClenny says.
Keeping their attention
Dr. Perry Buffington, a licensed psychologist, author and veteran corporate speaker, says a good presenter knows how to hold a crowd’s attention or bring a wandering crowd back to focus on a topic, and can take a beautiful backdrop and tie it into the material. “But if you’ve got content that’s real dry or difficult to learn, then the view will be exceedingly distracting.”
One way planners can lessen distractions is to black out the windows during intense learning sessions or when heavy audio/visual (a/v) is needed. During breaks, curtains can be pulled back and facilitators can involve the group in brainstorming activities to get creative juices flowing again and lighten the mood. Screens should be arranged so natural light will not interfere with visuals.
Buffington says there are ways to make the most of a windowless room. “If you have a speaker who can hold their attention, the room doesn’t matter.”
But, he warns, “Definitely don’t hold a meeting in a windowless room from 12 to 2 p.m., because that’s when people are wired to have a nap.”
Even if people can’t see the outdoors, they’ll benefit from being able to see something beautiful. A waterwall, rented trees or plasma screens can dress up a dull space and can be used later as décor for receptions, dinners or other group functions.
Upshaw-McClenny says it’s key for planners to control the environment and decide whether or not having a view will complement the content of the program. “Natural light helps people’s concentration and brain stimuli,” she says. “Most meeting rooms have some sort of sheers or drapes … In a perfect world, I would want a room with beautiful view. I would pull the sheers closed when I need [the group] focused and pull the blackout curtains when I’m doing a/v. When I have a group activity where I want them to deal with something creatively and kick back and let their thoughts flow freely, I would open the curtains.”
If you leave the curtains open, engage your audience by creating interactive sessions and give presenters wireless microphones so they can move freely. Plasma screens scattered throughout the room are a great alternative to the standard projection screen, especially because they are not affected by natural light. And before you set the layout of the room, make sure you know where the sunlight will be coming from so you can avoid blinding anyone.
“Most sales managers for a venue will say that their meeting rooms have natural light,” Upshaw-McClenny says. “It’s important for planners to ask, ‘What kind of natural light? Do the rooms all have sheers and blackout curtains or screens? What do the windows look out on? Is it a busy street with people going by?’ That would add a lot of noise.”
Life’s a beach
At the Beach Club in Gulf Shores, Ala., Rental Director Kip Stricklin says the resort’s location and service are top reasons why people bring their meetings back to its conference center, which has windows overlooking the bay as well as beachfront function space. “We want them to feel like they’re at the beach so it doesn’t feel like they’re working.” One benefit of the resort’s scenic location is attendees often bring spouses and kids with them to meetings.
Dottie Asselin, co-owner of the Ohio-based Sand, Sea and Spirit Retreat, organizes annual retreats that bring hundreds of attendees to Alabama’s Gulf Coast, and has done so for 15 years. “Everybody likes it,” Asselin says. “It’s a vacation on the beach where they can learn something. We probably wouldn’t have as many people as we do if we didn’t go to the ocean.”
Scenic locations increase attendance. But if planners don’t utilize them correctly, Buffington says, it creates new problems. “If [attendees are] coming to a meeting where there is an ocean, you have to give them a view; give them what they pay for,” he explains. “Meeting planners opting for a room with no view are making a mistake because people will cut the meeting.”
One step beyond
Rooms with great views come in many shapes and sizes. Ameriquest Field in Arlington, Texas, and Atlanta’s Turner Field have onsite venues with dining, dancing and presentation areas as well as private seating areas with great views of the baseball games; many sports venues have private VIP skyboxes or party areas. Chartered boats allow planners to combine presentations, sightseeing, dinner and entertainment in one floating venue. Sky-high revolving restaurants, aquariums, modern art museums and zoos are just some of the many venues with unusual vistas.
Presenting the same material in the same way year after year is deadly, no matter who your audience is. So take a look around. Inspiration is everywhere. Giving your attendees a window to the outside world is a simple way to shed new light on your next event. Just make sure your program, and not the view, is what’s centerstage.