Getting the Room Set-up Right

I don’t know why it is, but no matter how carefully I brief a hotel on the room set-up I want for my seminars, workshops and training meetings, more often than not when I arrive, they have provided a standard hotel room set up. What I find even more alarming is the number of times that I attend a meeting either as a guest speaker or audience member to find that the meeting planner or speaker has not bothered to think beyond this standard room set-up which is often quite hostile to the audience.

Seating Arrangements

The standard hotel set up for seating is theatre style with a centre aisle, set square with about 20% more seating that you need, based on your audience expectations.

  1. A centre aisle means that the speaker stands in front of empty space, or more often a projector, with the audience split to right and left. Theatre style means that the audience cannot interact or even see each other and they also tend to fill up from the back. More seats means that people spread out and the room feels empty, i.e. unsuccessful.
  2. The larger the audience the more likely you will have to use theatre style – but try a herring-bone or semi circle shape with no centre aisle. Instead have two aisles, one either side.
  3. If you expect 100 people set out 90 seats and have the extras on the side – let the room fill up, then bring in the spare seats for the late comers. This creates a great sense of the meeting exceeding expectations.
  4. If you get less bookings than expected for a meeting which will result in an empty space problem – switch to classroom (rows of tables) or cabaret style (round or square tables) layout. Bringing tables into the room fills it up and helps to convey the feeling of success.
  5. If your workshop seminar style is interactive seriously consider a cabaret style or horse shoe style set up. Each has its benefits, but they share the fact that the audience can see each other and interact. People will simply interact more is the room layout is designed to encourage it. Numbers in attendance often dictate which style to use – Horseshoe is not really practical for more than about thirty and cabaret is not really practical for less than about fifteen, but don’t take either as unbreakable rules – be creative.
  6. Above all – think about the room set up as an essential part of the programme, and be creative. Design a room set up that provides you with the best chance of making the meeting a success. Put yourself in the audience and see things from their perspective. How you set the room can literally make or break your meeting.

Stage Set-up

The standard set up is a top table with two or three chairs behind set to one or other side of the room, a flipchart on the other side, a screen in the centre of the room and a data projector blocking the centre aisle.

  1. If you have to use PowerPoint don’t make it the centre of attention relegating the speaker to the role of narrator. If possible move the screen to stage left (if you are right handed) at an angle and move the projector off there as well (same for OHP). That way the slides are a side show and remember the “B” key. Pressing “B” when you are showing a PowerPoint slide “Blacks Out” the presentation until you press “anykey.”
  2. Place the Flip Chart on your left, if you are right handed so that you can write on the chart without standing in font of it.
  3. Get rid of the top table – I even do this at other people’s meetings, I hate having someone sitting at the table behind me when I am speaking.
  4. Look at the stage set up as a member of the audience from every angle. Make sure that nothing interferes with your ability to communicate.
The entire room set up should be something that the audience don’t really notice. It should work naturally with your seminar or meeting and contribute to making it flow. Anything that gets in the way of that – change it.
If you are speaking at someone else’s meeting you will be more restricted in what you can do, and they are often reluctant to stray from the hotel standard, so I try to work with them, rather than being demanding, to make the room set up work. That means asking for changes as a big favour and it also means getting there very early with plenty of time to make changes if they are needed. Make yourself a resource for the meeting planner, and demonstrate the focus of your recommendations to be in support of their meeting objectives.
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