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Create Comfortable Meeting Seating

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!

 

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Super Bowl LII Is A NSSE Lesson

 

Some people will watch Super Bowl LII to root for their team, others to catch a glimpse of puppies with Clydesdales, but I’ll watch to admire an exquisitely complicated and perfectly orchestrated NSSE (National Special Security Event)

A major public event that attracts a large attendance, includes dignitaries, or that has historic, political, or religious significance may be designated by the Department of Homeland Security as an NSSE. Many of America’s marquee events that could be attractive targets for terrorism or other disruptions fall into this category. Typically, such events are of a size and scope that is far beyond the scale of local resources. A NSSE determination is based on a SEAR (Special Event Assessment Rating). This system assesses threats and incorporates a risk analysis and then ranks the event on a 1-5 scale, with 1 being the highest priority. Super Bowl is definitely a SEAR 1 event.

Once designated an NSSE, federal and local agencies work together to construct a security plan that covers everything from traffic and crowd control to hotel security, tactical units, communications, volunteers, evacuation plans, access, and much more. Work is done in committees. The Minneapolis Super Bowl Host Committee and Minneapolis Police Department have been working for two years in conjunction with federal agencies to develop security plans including snipers on rooftops and the largest influx of federal agents in Super Bowl History. Most guests will never see the extra layers of personnel and resources assembled to keep them safe but security personnel and systems will be everywhere.

Campus event planners need to be aware of what constitutes an NSSE because we frequently host events that might qualify. Occasions such as presidential debates, visits by international leaders or religious officials such as the Pope, or high-profile sporting events like an NCAA championship game are all candidates. An NSSE’s heightened and complicated security arrangements are not business as usual meaning that we need to learn how to appropriately engage in security planning. Security on such a massive scale forces planners to give up some autonomy and requires that we cannot adjust plans at the last minute (as we often do) without first conferring with those in charge of security.

Recently, a group of lighting professionals were working at an NSSE. The crew had been instructed the night before by the event planner to dress in show black without logos, bring their backpacks, and set up underneath the bleachers inside of the secure perimeter. The problem was, she never told security officials of her last-minute directive. While the crew were waiting in the designated place, an officer spotted the unknown men and an alert went up the chain of command. Security quickly responded, detaining the men while an investigation took place. The situation was soon resolved but it was unnerving to reflect on the fact that the men had been in the sights of snipers. The moral of the story is, during an NSSE, event planners are no longer the final authority but part of a much larger team. We must be forthcoming with information, be aware of the potentially dangerous consequences of our decisions, and be fully engaged in planning and briefings.

If a major security event is on your horizon

  • Begin planning early by contacting local law enforcement;
  • Take part in committee meetings;
  • If you are not included, speak up and get involved;
  • Follow directions;
  • Never change plans without first consulting the security team;
  • Attend briefings as appropriate so you know what’s going on.

To learn more about NSSE designation requirements, go to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, http://www.dhs.gov

 

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Fall Convocation Salutes Tradition With Contemporary Twist

Fall Convocation, one of the happiest days on the academic calendar, is in the books for 2017. Held the night before classes begin, the purpose is to affirm each student’s decision to attend the university, to begin to transfer school traditions, and to build pride.

Like many southern schools, ours takes place outdoors, never mind that late August is almost always oppressively hot and sticky. This year, more than 1,000 freshmen marched en masse to the campus greenway to officially commemorate their entry into the university. They were greeted by waiting faculty, applauding upperclassmen, and a program of short talks from the president, provost, and an alumnus. The student government leader administered the university’s student creed and a music faculty member led the singing of alma mater.

“Convocation” means a gathering. In academics, convocations are held for a variety of purposes from opening the new academic year to awarding honorary degrees. They are a tradition with roots in the clerical processions of the Roman Catholic Church dating back to the Middle Ages.

What I like is that while Fall Convocation nods to the past and rich academic tradition, ours has a definite contemporary bent. It is a strange blend of seriousness set against the casual atmosphere of a summer evening on the campus lawn. The ceremony’s music is played from a smartphone. Faculty no longer dress in regalia, instead, they wear polo shirts in school colors. Students march in matching tee-shirts specially ordered for the occasion. No solemn procession this, instead, students jubilantly and boisterously process to the site singing, clapping, and cheering along the way. But when the ceremony begins, all is seriousness.

Students are silent as their class flag is presented and then listen intently as the president and provost encourage and admonish them to study hard. They earnestly repeat the student creed and work hard to get through the unfamiliar alma mater.

As the ceremony ends, another university tradition is observed. Faculty form a double line through which the new students process. Faculty greet them individually and hand them symbolic tassels in our school colors, blue and white, as talismans to remind them of their goal of earning a degree. Four years hence, students will process through the double-line again, at their commencement, where faculty will congratulate them on earning a real tassel—one in the color of their degree.

From the “tassel tunnel” students arrive the president’s picnic, their first official meal on campus. They are joined by upperclassmen and the picnic quickly morphs into a party with a live band. The evening is capped by fireworks.

Ceremonies are important markers for celebrating key moments in our lives. Weddings, retirements, awards, and funerals mark life’s defining moments. Incorporating the tradition of convocation into the frothy week of freshmen welcome makes a powerful impression that will be remembered long after the foam party or freshman mixer are forgotten. Fall Convocation marks the entry of a student into the next phase of life and plays an important and memorable role in building early and strong bonds that eventually translate into alumni support.

As we pass traditional ceremonies along, it is important to remember that to be meaningful, sustained, and treasured, ceremonies must (and will) be reinterpreted by each generation.