There are countless articles written about fun corporate environments — those offices with pool tables, beanbag chairs and popcorn machines. The benefits include improved employee morale and even increased productivity. While this trend continues to rise in the corporate setting, there is also a movement to infuse some fun into the conference or meeting working environment as well. Many meeting and event planners have successfully experimented with the use of innovative room setup and furniture options to create unique and effective meeting environments that differ from the traditional conference-style seating that can leave attendees yawning. Key considerations for determining seating include understanding the objective and tone of the meeting as well as space requirements.
No different than any other element of a conference or meeting, planning is key to successfully determining seating arrangements. In most cases, sessions are outlined and the venue is chosen before any thought is given to the seating arrangements. If you want to do something unique with seating, it is recommended that you think about your seating plan in advance so that you can select a space that will accommodate your preferred seating style. When venues are chosen before seating arrangements are considered, planners are restricted with the types of seating and space layout they can incorporate into their meeting.
Evaluate space requirements for your ideal seating plan, consider the tone of your meeting and the needs of your attendees — will they need to take notes, refer to material in binders or work on a computer?
A meeting that focuses on educating attendees, for example, may work best with traditional banquet tables to provide ample space for taking notes and accommodating food service. In contrast, a meeting more casual in nature could use a traditional seating plan with contemporary lounge chairs, sofas and small tables.
Once you have selected a seating style that complements your meeting or event, you will need to choose your venue location.
Comfort is key, but be mindful of budget and space restrictions. You will need to understand the space requirements so you can determine if the room will accommodate your preferred seating plan. If at all possible, select a venue that offers a variety of seating options. Don’t be afraid to mix it up and try different arrangements in various areas of the space.
Case in point is a corporate entity that sought to offer a unique experience for a leadership meeting in a hotel ballroom. Seating for 100 participants was required for the main session, and the meeting planner sought a professional, yet casual, environment. Attendees needed comfortable seats for the long meetings with good sightlines to the stage and screens, which were required to remain at the front of the space. To meet these needs, sofas were placed in the first two rows in front of the stage with coffee tables accessible for functionality. Groupings of armchairs with coffee tables and standard banquet rounds were used in the next few rows to accommodate additional casual seating and traditional options. Finally, bar-height tables and bar stools lined the back of the room, allowing guests to choose their location based on their comfort level (see photo above).
In addition to considering the actual space where the meeting will take place, identify potential networking or lounge spaces. For example, modern and patio lounge furniture is a great way to generate interest and comfort. This type of furniture can be incorporated into exhibit space, near registration, or even in the conference hall in order to keep attendees engaged outside the meeting room.
Events that are best suited to stay in a traditional framework offer several options and variety, such as banquet rounds with eight to 10 chairs, high cocktail tables for a reception-style gathering, or café/low cocktail tables with four to five chairs at each table. In order to be successful with these types of environments, offer diverse seating options and gathering spots throughout the event to vary the experience. For instance, you can use lounge seating in a variety of arrangements and incorporate different colors, shapes and sizes. And remember, position lounge furniture closest to the stage, placing your standard-height tables and chairs, followed by higher tables and stools farthest from the stage. Not only will this give attendees plenty of options and add a fun element to their experience, but it will allow for the best sightlines for all guests.
In some cases, you may opt for a more traditional theater or classroom arrangement with rows of chairs and/or tables. However, even this traditional scenario has room for creativity. To improve the ambience, consider incorporating lounge furniture such as sofas, armchairs, coffee tables and side tables at the side of the room. Be sure to include room in the aisles for attendees to move around. Bar- or counter-height tables and stools also can provide a comfortable seating option, and you can add this to a tiered seating plan to vary the height and line of sight for attendees.
Another twist on the old standard is to arrange your banquet tables as crescent rounds with the chairs positioned around most of the tables, leaving the front open. Or, consider renting 60-inch square tables or rectangle banquet tables and vary the shape and size of each table to alter the atmosphere of the event. Square tables can seat two chairs per side and a total of eight chairs per table, while rectangular tables can sit six to eight guests per table. Bar tables also can accommodate larger groups in a comfortable style of seating. Intersperse bar stools and high-back chairs around each table to maximize the available options, or allow guests to stand around tables if they choose. Keep in mind that the visual sightlines to the stage and screens always should be considered for meetings. It is important to consider the experience of each attendee in every seat, from every angle.
Even planning a seated dinner for a large group can lend the opportunity for a unique environment. Consider a recent annual corporate sales meeting with 600 attendees, comprised of regional/district teams of 12–16 individuals each. The meeting planner wanted to emphasize the importance of the team sitting together during the dinner and awards presentation. Because traditional round banquet tables accommodating 10 people each would not be enough to keep the teams seated together, a combination of rectangular six- and eight-foot banquet tables were used in long rows. Although the seating arrangement required more space, the chosen venue provided ample space and allowed groups to sit together as cohesive units, while enhancing the spirit of the evening event.
With your objectives outlined and ideas generated in terms of how you want attendees to interact with each other as well as engage in the meeting or event, the next step is to meet with an event management company and/or hotel staff to brainstorm ideas. Working with experienced professionals will be of benefit as they can share what has worked and not worked for other similar meetings. These best practices also help minimize any issues with a room design that may look amazing, yet not function well in terms of attendee needs and comfort. Giving thought to the seating early in the planning process will result in greater success. C&IT
Andrea Hansen is director of event services for metroConnections. With offices in Minnesota and Florida, metroConnections translates business goals and key messages into informative and memorable events that engage, inspire and move attendees. www.metroconnections.com