Eight Ways To Vary Your Conference Seating And Improve Your Attendees’ Experience

Said to myself sit down, sit down, you’re rockin’ the boat
The room layout will drag you under
With a monologue so heavy you’d never float,
Sit down, sit down, sit down
Sit down, sit down, sit down, you’re rockin’ the boat.
Paraphrase of Sit Down Your’re Rocking The Boat from Guys And Dolls

Photo by I, Timmy http://www.flickr.com/photos/apoptotic/1174035135/sizes/m/

One thing is a given. Your conference attendees will spend the majority of their time sitting at your meeting. The typical conference schedule requires attendees to sit five to eight hours a day.

Their walking is limited. They walk from one session to another and back and forth from their hotel room. Or they will walk the tradeshow floor. Depending upon the size of the exhibit hall, they may walk the tradeshow floor several times in several days. The larger the conference, the more walking they do to get to sessions, meal functions and events.

Enter any conference session room and you can quickly judge the type of presentation delivered. Attendees know what’s expected of them just by looking at the room layout and design.

When planning room layouts and seating, remember that a comfortable physical environment boosts attention, learning and participants’ satisfaction.

Here are eight ways to vary your conference seating, improve attendees’ experience and mix things up a little.

1. Formality, conveying authority
To convey a sense of authority, formality, power, position or tradition, use a podium. A podium acts as a barrier between the audience and the presenter. It denotes a position of control, importance and power. Theater seating is best for these formal, traditional presentations. The goal is for attendees to give their attention to the presenter.  

2. Facilitated formal group decision-making
For groups of 6-25, consider a U shape with the open end of the U facing the presenter, stage and screen. A skilled facilitator can use the inside of the horseshoe as an action zone walking into it and addressing individuals as needed.

3. Group decision-making and brainstorming
Use untraditional room layouts. Arrange chairs so that attendees have maximum eye contact with other participants. A large circle or several smaller tables work best.

4. Traditional lecture conveying authority, expertise
Theater style is most effective. Face each chair directly to the presentation when possible. Keep chairs in straight rows and angle those on the outside so that they see the turned a few degrees facing the presenter but still in a straight row. Consider chevron or a herringbone angling the rows to form a slight V with the point of the V towards the aisles.

5. Informal talk, demonstration conveying open, inviting atmosphere
Use theater in-the-round, with attendees sitting on all sides of a round stage, or attendees sitting on three sides of a square or rectangle stage. Screens for image magnification are hung from the ceiling or placed on exterior walls of the room.

6. Facilitated teamwork
Use square or rectangle tables, slightly angled in perpendicular fashion to a horizontal stage. Attendees sit crescent style around three sides of the table with the four side open to facilitator. Set additional rows behind open spaces between the previous rows of tables. Eight foot tables are too long for effective teamwork and conversation.

7. Mixed lecture, facilitated presentation, group work
Mix up the seating. Provide a few rows of traditional theater in the front, followed by rounds or squares then followed by cocktail highboys with bar stools or high chairs.

8. Informal learning
Provide a variety of lounge areas with group seating to encouraging open discussion, group work and informal sharing. Provide couches, large benches where people can sit on both sides, love seats, chaise lounges. For the adventurous, consider bean bags and hammocks in some areas.

What are some other seating room layouts that you’ve used successfully? What are some room layouts that bombed? What’s your favorite room layout?

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  1. At the recent Elite Meetings Alliance, inclement weather and consequential space restrictions necessitated setting the room in theatre style…which was inappropriate for my style of speaking but was just “one of those things” that we all have to deal with from time to time in our business 🙂

    As attendees grew more comfortable with my interactive session, I encouraged them to break the chairs out of formation. The most dynamic, conversational groupings sprang up and I realized that it was almost more fun and effective than arranged rounds. Might try this again!

    So, I would suggest that unless theatre seating be the ultimate goal, leave chairs unlocked and encourage groups to form organically. It was really cool!

    Midori Connolly, Chief AVGirl

  2. Adrian Segar says:

    I am something of a nut about event seating, because I’ve slowly learned over the years what a difference it can make.

    A recent example: Two weeks I gave a presentation in a space that, ever since I can remember, has always had the chairs arranged theater style. We spent a few minutes rearranging them to chevron and I gave my presentation. The building director was so impressed by the difference this small seating change made that he decided on the spot to keep the arrangement permanently. [Next time I’ll run a group discussion there, switch to fishbowl and mess his mind some more :-).]

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Love your addition of leaving chairs unlocked in theater style seating so attendees can organically form their own groups. Thanks for adding it.

      Chevron is a friend of ours for sure. Can’t wait until you want the seats in a totally untraditional format in this same venue. That will be an interesting story. Thanks for adding to the discussion Adrian.

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