Meeting Design: How to Match Room Setup to Content

By Monica Compton, CMP, November 15, 2011

When considering options for function room setups, the most important factor is to understand the meeting’s objectives. The design is crucial to making sure goals are met. Marrying the design to the content is the first step to a successful meeting.

With goals and objectives at the forefront, next look at audiovisual requirements, speaker needs and traffic flow, taking into consideration participant safety, comfort and accommodation for people with disabilities. If your program includes a food and beverage function, review your meeting room’s access to this service and decide if you will need these functions outside your meeting room or included within.

When deciding on a room setup, keep in mind three principles to guide choice of configuration:

1. Set to the long side of the room. For a rectangular room, placing the speaker on the long side will put more of the audience closer to the presentation. If you are lacking space or using rear-screen projection, you may have to set the stage on the short side of the room to be more space efficient.

2. Minimize straight-row seating. Set chairs in a semi-circle or herringbone (V-shape) to give the audience the best view of the presentation. With straight-row seating, you can only see the people next to you and the backs of heads of those in front of you. A semi-circle set enables viewing between persons.

3. Avoid center aisles. The center of the room is the best viewing of the presentation and should not be wasted on an aisle. A center aisle would be necessary if you have entertainers entering or leaving through the center of the room.

With these principles in mind, it’s time to choose the ultimate setup for your next meeting. Below are the key types of setups and their advantages and disadvantages.

Theater or Auditorium Style

This is the best setup for a large group where writing is not necessary and food is not served. Chairs are set in rows facing the speaker, stage or focal point of the room. Remember that a standard meeting room chair is narrower than most people’s bodies. Ask the hotel or venue not to set the chairs touching side-by-side and allow at least 2 inches between (4-6 inches for optimal comfort). This reduces the capacity of your room because not all chairs are used. You may not have a choice in chair spacing, however. Capacity restrictions and fire codes can dictate space between chairs, distance between rows and the number and width of aisles. Some hotels may use chairs that interlock to meet spacing requirements. Ask what the hotel’s regulations are up front and to provide diagrams of the various setups available. A last-minute change of setup due to fire code regulations can cost additional man hours.

Schoolroom or Classroom Style

This setup is best for meetings where attendees need to write or use a computer. It allows for minimal interaction between attendees and is best used for lectures and training meetings. Chairs are set at 6-foot or 8-foot tables facing the presenter. Standard seating is three people per 6-foot table and four people per 8-foot table. To allow for more workspace between attendees, ask the hotel to reduce this to two chairs per 6-foot table and three chairs per 8-foot table. This setup is most optimal for breakout sessions where entertainment is not used and thus center aisles create the best access for attendees entering and exiting the room.

Conference Style

This format is ideal for smaller groups where attendee interaction is a main objective. Seated around tables, participants have a direct view of their colleagues to facilitate discussions. Specify what type of table arrangements you need based on the objectives of your meeting:

Boardroom: One solid, rectangular table that can be an existing table in a hotel meeting room or created by putting together 30-inch-wide tables. This setup is best for a board of directors meeting with heavy discussions as participants are in closest reach to each other.

U-Shape: Tables are arranged in a horseshoe, which is ideal for meetings that need to facilitate discussion between attendees but also include an audiovisual presentation set at the opening of the “U.”

T-Shape: Best for a panel, presenters or lead management that needs to sit at the top of the “T” and direct the discussion down the length of the tables.

Hollow Square: Best for meetings that do not require an audiovisual presentation. If the hotel has serpentine tables, request a rounded hollow square setup to maximize seating on the ends. If these are not available, straight tables can be placed at an angle creating an angled hollow square setup.

Multi-Sided Shapes: Multi-sided shapes such as a diamond or octagonal are best for larger groups of 20 or more. They comfortably seat nearly every attendee at the end of a table and provide direct sight and voice communication to
participants.

Banquet Style 

This setup works best for meetings that require food and beverage service and where participants are asked to break out into small groups. Setup includes 60-, 66- or 72-inch round tables with chairs around the entire table or only on one side—a crescent-round or half-moon setup. If your function includes a speaker or audiovisual presentation, the crescent-round setup allows for better viewing of the presentation while still facilitating discussion between attendees.

Combination Setups

For large conventions with a quick turnaround between meeting and meal functions, consider combining a theater-style setup with banquet tables at the back of the room. Attendees can easily move from one function to the next without major changes to the room setup.

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No matter what setup you choose, remember to consult with your conference services manager on what setup has worked the best in his or her facility and any challenges that need to be overcome such as columns restricting sight lines or fire marshal restrictions. Facilitating a learning environment in accordance with your meeting’s objectives should take top priority. The more comfortable the room can be for attendees, from the width of the chairs to the temperature in the room, the more likely they will learn and interact on a higher level.

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