One of the mistakes meeting planners frequently make is not paying enough attention to the layout and design of their meeting rooms. Too often planners are more concerned with accommodating the most people possible in a space instead of designing an environment that is conducive to meeting the goals and objectives of the event. For your next meeting, why not commit to creating an environment that promotes interaction, engages attendees and provides a comfortable, safe space to meet?
Start with the meeting’s purpose, goals and objectives:
- Are you planning a session where attendees will be simply listening to a keynote or watching a presentation on screen? If so, then straight-row theater seating should be fine.
- Is your goal to increase interaction among attendees? Then you’ll need to create a layout that promotes interaction, and allows them to see each other and share information. In a large group, this might mean curved row seating, or placing the facilitator or speaker in the center and setting the room in the round. Any time you allow people to see the faces of the other attendees, you increase their opportunity to interact and engage with others.
- Do your attendees need to have table space to work in small groups? Consider a T set for the room, with two or three people at the head and two or three people on each side of the center row of each T. I find this preferable to using rounds or crescent rounds for a group because it brings the participants closer together and controls the noise level, as they aren’t talking across a large open table.
- Are you planning a formal banquet? Consider using a mixture of different-sized rounds for six, eight or 10, combined with some rectangle or square seating. This creates a more visually pleasing look for the room. It also creates energy and anticipation as attendees react to the unexpected set-up. While you’re at it, change up the linens and napkin colors and specify a different napkin fold for each type of table. A search for napkin folds will return several websites with illustrated designs to help spark your creativity. I always ask the facility what color linens they have available and make sure to vary colors at the events. If need be, I allocate funds for linen rentals. Using colored linens is an extremely easy way to add excitement to an event for a small amount of money.
Create a comfortable, safe space for your attendees to spend time in:
- Avoid creating a “bowling alley” setting. Too often rooms are set with the stage or speaker at the head of the room on the short wall. When you have more than 100 attendees, set the front of the room on the long wall to decrease the distance between the last row of the audience and the speaker. This will make it easier and more comfortable for your attendees to see the stage and screen.
- Design seating that keeps people from clustering in the back and clears the emergency exits. How many times have you been asked to add chairs to a room because people are standing in back, when there are actually plenty of open seats in the middle of the room? Too often those standing are clustered around doors, thereby creating an unsafe situation. To avoid this, I use some principles of audience-centered seating as outlined in Dr. Paul Radde’s “SEATING MATTERS State of the Art Seating Arrangements” book. First, I have the facility set the last row of seating on the back wall, leaving a wide aisle between it and the second-to-last row. This allows people to walk in front of the last row to get to the side aisles, but doesn’t allow them to stand at the back, in front of those seated. Speaking of side aisles, make sure the facility leaves several feet at the end of each row to allow people to move up the sides and into empty seats. This is important, in case of emergency, and also helps those who might need to leave during the session. Another principle of Dr. Radde’s is to create cut-in access aisles by removing a center chair from each row. This allows people in the back to move up through several rows into those empty middle seats. To learn more about audience-centered seating, you can obtain a copy of Dr. Radde’s book at www.thrival.com.
- Create a comfortable, safe environment. I prefer that the facility not lock the seats together in a row, as it limits the ability of the attendees to rearrange seating to be more comfortable and prevents them from forming small groups, if needed. For one of my clients, we add a couple of rows of comfortable couches and easy chairs provided by the convention decorator to the front of the general session room. This has helped ensure people don’t leave the front row empty and provides an option to those who desire something more comfortable than a meeting chair.
By creating an environment designed with your attendees’ objectives, goals, comfort and safety in mind, you’ll ensure your meetings are enjoyable. The next time you get ready to provide meeting specifications to a facility, take some time to take all these things into consideration. If you do, you’re bound to have a successful meeting.