Hotels and airlines have one thing in common: They seat people too closely together. People, especially Americans, don’t like to be pressed together with body parts touching, and definitely not when the contact involves a stranger. Yet, prevailing meeting management does just that. I just spent the afternoon in a jammed hotel conference room with 100 other hot and uncomfortable souls. Why? Because the chairs were “ganged,” that is, locked together in long straight rows. We were sardined in to a tiny partitioned hunk of a much larger ballroom with no less than 30 hot can lights blazing down on us throughout the hour- and one-half presentation. I had my shoulders scrunched together to stay in the 18-inch boundary of “my” space and couldn’t have crossed my legs if I tried because the space between the rows was too narrow.
By the end of the session the audience, dressed in winter business suits and sweaters, was sweating and fanning. It must have been 83 degrees in there.
The presentation was standing room only, but a closer look revealed there were lots of empty seats scattered throughout the room. That is because people would rather stand than crawl over a row of others to shoehorn themselves into a too-small vacant seat. Scattered vacancies demonstrate that people instinctively leave blanks to create a more appropriate boundary between themselves and others. We need our personal space in order to relax, listen, and concentrate. Claustrophobic seating makes grumpy participants who want to leave—the exact opposite of the mood event planners strive to create.
Seating is an important and often overlooked factor in the success of a meeting or event. If people can’t see and hear, if they are crowded, feel trapped, and can’t get out to use the restroom, effectiveness suffers. If you can’t think about anything except how uncomfortable you are it is difficult to pay attention.
What’s more, jammed seating can be a safety hazard. Beyond the possible violation of fire code capacities, meeting safety demands that people be able to access aisles and get to exits without tripping over chairs. One safety expert has noted that because interlocking “ganged” seats are heavy, cannot be easily separated and quickly moved away, they become an added hazard in an emergency situation when the difference between life and death could be the ability to rapidly exit a space.
Comfortable seating begins with selecting a right-sized room. Better to have a space that is slightly larger than needed than to cram people into a room that is too small. First consider what the audience needs to do. Are tables required to hold computers or will participants be seated theatre style in rows of chairs? Are you planning a board meeting, or will everyone be watching a webinar? The meeting’s purpose and length should always drive the room arrangement.
Check out the chairs. Are they in good condition, not wobbly, clean, and comfortable to sit in for an extended time? If a theatre style scheme is needed, arrange the chairs with four inches between seats rather than allowing them to touch. Instead of putting them in a straight line, encourage better audience interaction by using a curved arrangement which lets people watch the speaker and see the screen without turning their heads. It also allows them to see each other, thus stimulating discussion. Paul Radde, the meetings industry seating guru, explains in his must-have book, “Seating Matters State of the Art Seating Arrangements,” (thrival.com), that a curved arrangement can actually increase the number of chairs that will fit.
Next, instead of creating long rows that are difficult for people to enter and exit, cut the semi-circle into pie shaped wedges by creating several aisles. This way, people can get in and out of seats with much less difficulty. Make the rows as short as possible.
Another tactic to try is ditching the commonly used center aisle and instead separating seating into three groups, a center section and two side sections, with two aisles separating the sections. This allows shorter rows and easier access. Why leave that prime middle of the room real estate, the space with the optimal viewing angle, empty?
A critical comfort measure is the spacing between rows. It should be at least 17 inches though many hotels will use only the 12-inch minimum required by many states’ fire codes. Rows that are too close together create the “knees in the chin” feeling that we all experience on airliners. To check spacing, use a tape measure beginning at the front edge of the chair bottom and stopping when it touches the top of the back of the chair in the next row. Ensuring a comfortable amount of leg room also creates space for people to place personal belongings such as tote bags and back packs on the floor without blocking the aisle. Wider spacing is imperative when your guest list includes older people.
Philosophically committing to use more comfortable room arrangements will likely be easy. Getting set-up crews (especially in hotels) to honor your requests may be another matter because they are trained to squeeze for maximum seating and to create tight, straight rows with touching chairs. Begin by issuing clear instructions including an illustration. On campus, plan to be present when set-up is being done. At a hotel or conference center, chances are the set-up will happen after-hours when you are not present. Be certain your hotel sales representative knows your plan because if you have not provided clear instructions, arrive and want furniture to be rearranged, you will probably be charged a penalty unless you can substantiate that your instructions were not followed. Provide two copies of your illustration, one for the sales representative, one for the set-up crew.
Once you’ve got seating arranged, adjust the room temperature to 69- to 70-degrees, depending on the season and what guests will be wearing. A 69-degree room when people have on business suits may be fine, but on a hot summer day when people are wearing lightweight clothing, 69 may feel chilly. Finally, turn down the glaring recessed ceiling lights, pick a seat and enjoy a comfortable, productive meeting!