August 22, 2010

Meeting Room Layouts Designed to Engage Attendees

One of the mistakes meeting planners frequently make is to not pay 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 theatre seating should be fine.

· If your goal is to increase interaction among attendees, in an environment where they can see other attendees and share information, then you’ll need to create a layout that promotes interaction. 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. Anytime you allow people to see the faces of the other attendees you increase their opportunity to interact and engage with others.

· If your attendees need to have table space to work in small groups, you might want to consider a T set for the room, with two or three people at the head and two-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, as 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 a mixture of different sized rounds for 6, 8, or 10 combined with some rectangle or square seating. This creates a more visually pleasing look for the room and instantly adds energy to the room as attendees react to the different set. 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 folds 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 and if need be, 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:

· Too often rooms are set with the stage or speaker at the head of the room on the short wall, resulting in a “bowling alley” setting. When you have more than 100 attendees, set the front of the room on the long wall so as to decrease the distance between the last row of the audience and the speaker in order to make it easier and more comfortable for your attendees to see the stage and screen.

· How many times have you been asked to add chairs to a room with people standing in back when there are actually plenty of chairs in the room if people would just sit in the seats in the middle of the rows that are open? Too often those standing in the back and on the sides are clustered around doors thereby creating an unsafe situation in case of an emergency. I use some principles of audience centered seating outlined in Dr. Paul Radde’s SEATING MATTERS State of the Art Seating Arrangements book that help eliminate these problems. 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 to move in to 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 use cut-in access aisles by removing a center chair from each row to allow people in the back to move up the middle of a group of rows into those empty middle seats. To learn more about audience centered seating, you can obtain a copy of Dr. Radde’s book on his website at

· Make sure you create a comfortable, safe environment with easy access to all exits and comfortable seating. 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 or to move into 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, which has helped to make sure people don’t leave the front row empty and provides an option to those who need more comfortable seating 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 for everyone involved. So the next time you get ready to provide your meeting specifications to a facility take some time to take all these things into consideration and you’re bound to have a successful meeting enjoyed by all!

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