The Greeks and Romans got it right: amphitheaters with curved seating allowed each audience member to look straight at the performance. The Incas understood this principle as well, using a rounded hill just outside Cuzco, Peru, to accommodate crowds for ceremonial rituals. Unfortunately, most modern meeting planners have accepted without question that the best way to maximize room seating is through straight rows. This commandment throughout the meeting industry is seldom put to the test. In a college union setting, there are other, more optimal arrangements to maximize engagement and enhance the learning and meeting environment.
Even if engagement is not an intention of the meeting, it will benefit numerous participants. The easier it is for participants to see each other, the better the dynamic and the payoff in learning or social interaction.
It seems to be an American cultural practice to occupy the chairs exactly as one finds them, even when it is painful, obstructs the view of other participants, or distances one from the presentation. No one seems to question standard set-ups no matter how poorly they serve, especially if the arrangements mimic other set-ups participants have seen or settled into. It is easy to see why even professional event directors come to expect straight-row, face-the-wall seating.
Among their disadvantages, straight rows restrict attendees from seeing each other. Participants can only see those seated in their row by leaning forward and turning 90 degrees to the right and the left. This limits both engagement and interaction. When another attendee is within view, one can detect and decipher nonverbal behaviors such as a head snap of surprise, a nod, or an eyeroll. Seeing such cues, one might pay closer attention during the presentation at specific points.
Chevron arrangements create similar challenges as they are based on straight rows set in “V” formations. The only way participants can see is to fan out their heads, like a hand of cards, decreasing visibility for those beyond the third row. Attendees four rows back and four chairs in from the aisle have their view of the center seating section blocked by those in their own row. Therefore, they have visual contact with even fewer of the total audience members than those in a traditional straight-row set. The partial compromise of facing away from the blank wall and slightly toward the presentation rarely goes far enough. Chevron, at best, faces the presentation directly for only a few in the slanted rows.
The sixth edition of the Convention Industry Council Manual counsels curving the rows and facing each chair toward the presentation. Nathan Bailie, assistant director of the University Center at the University of Alabama–Huntsville, recalled setting one room for four consecutive evening sessions. He said when he set it in curved rows, facing the presentation, the rows stayed pretty much intact over the course of four evenings. However, when he set the room in straight rows, the chairs were typically moved around in chaotic patterns and the room required resetting before the following session.
Good uses of straight row seating include jury boxes, press conferences, bus depots, or health clinics, where the set-up is designed to separate, reduce interaction, and provide a modicum of privacy to those seated. For most events in college unions—lectures, weddings, performances—other set-ups might be preferable and enable larger capacities.
Resetting the straight row mindset
Despite the commonality of straight row and chevron sets, most facility planners recognize that fixed seating should be curved to a noticeable degree. Therefore theater installations rarely use straight rows. So why, then, are they so common in flexible set-ups?
Straight rows are commonly—often incorrectly—perceived to maximize the body count in a meeting space. Illustration A offers a direct comparison of capacity within the same square footage set in straight rows and curved rows. The straight row set in Illustration A seats 80 in the audience, many of whom are facing the front wall, while the curved row set seats 94, all of whom are facing the presentation, not the front wall. The 17 percent increase in capacity may be the difference between being able to accommodate an event and having to turn away attendees. Furthermore, the curved row seating adds comfort, safety, and sight lines.
In practice the larger capacity set-up applies four principles:
1. Set to the long side of the room. This allows everyone to be closer to the presentation for engagement, sight, and hearing. See Illustration B.
2. Start aisles off the end of the stage at a 45-degree angle, out toward the exits, and avoid a center aisle. Ganging more than seven chairs or fewer than three chairs in a row violates the National Fire Protection Association safety code because when ganged chairs are slid or shoved into an aisle, they may tip over or block exit arteries. Additionally, a center aisle can drain energy.
3. Face each chair directly toward the presentation. Again, this is the curved row principle. A presenter standing behind a lectern is a simple fixed point. Plant the point of a compass right where that person will stand, and draw semicircles for seating starting about six feet from the front of the lectern. If a presentation has a visual component, determine what percentage of total time attendees will be looking at the screen versus attending to the presenter. If person and screen focus time are about equal, then the seating can be set with a soft curved row facing an area halfway between the lectern and the screen, roughly the area outlined by the oval in Illustration C.
4. Cut single chair access lanes into seating sections to promote ease of entry/exit and to multiply the number of easy-access aisle seats available. This minimizes distractions caused by late arrivals and enables those in wheelchairs to be as much a part of the program as those in standard seats. Furthermore, numerous “middle” seats may remain empty if they are difficult to reach, and attendees who do sit there may put off a restroom break; access lanes lessen such annoyances.
These four principles were put into practice in the Memorial Student Union ballroom at the University of Texas–Austin. The ballroom has a dedicated stage at the north end, which had predetermined the usual set for that venue. However, when set to the long side, the same room easily accommodated an 800-person colloquium general session set with curved rows to the center of the west side, the long side. People entered from the east and the south. This semicircular set also included a notch (see Illustration B) in the top of the middle-top section for wheelchairs, projectors, a camera, and lighting. The aisles fanned out from the main stage at 45-degree angles. Participants could come and go without blocking anyone’s view.
Frequently there is a general presentation and then a break-out into small group discussion, with or without a report back in general session. The round table seems like a natural to foster interaction in meetings. Yet, it has less obvious problems.
So, what is the alternative, given that most facilities are loaded with rounds for banquets? One approach is to use the less heralded rectangular table or put two together to form a square. In one recent luncheon of a Meeting Professionals International chapter, the group participated in an experiment with several distinct square, rectangular, and round sets. Extra space was provided for the set-up so that there was more sound dispersion; even those separated at far ends of 8-foot by 3-foot rectangular tables could converse.
The smallest groups were made up of four individuals—two each on opposite long sides of a rectangular table. These groups not only engaged everyone in conversation, but also each table of four commented that they appreciated the intimacy of the set-up.
Two 18-inch by 6-foot tables were joined to make a 3- by 6-foot rectangular table. The six occupants of these tables were able, given the buffer zones, to carry on a conversation with everyone at the table. This grouping was less likely to break down into pairs or triples of individuals than were the 6-foot rounds and was much less likely than rounds to exclude people. At a round, once a person turned to her right to converse, the person on her left was excluded or isolated.
In another set, two 18-inch by 8-foot tables were joined to make 3- by 8-foot rectangular tables, seating eight comfortably. With the added space in the room, and the lower noise level, all eight persons could converse with each other as they wished. And the person at the end of the table could easily engage the two closest persons on either side of the table, making the easiest split of the table one group of five and one of three. While the 8-foot distance did not invite contact, it was unusual that anyone would be isolated as they would be at a 6-foot round or larger. Anyone not engaged in conversation could easily turn right or left, or look across the table and pick up on what was going on in that conversation. The ability to tap into adjoining conversations made these rectangular sets more productive for participants given that more access was provided to a variety of conversations. This would hold true for a discussion group as well as for a meal event.
Ultimately, the case study participants determined that rectangular tables worked best for learning and discussion. However, if rounds were necessary, 5-foot rounds were more appropriate than 6-foot rounds. Six-foot rounds seat more participants, but their diagonal separation is so great that either they split the table into smaller factions or participants raise their voices to be heard. This sets off an escalation in sound, making it difficult to listen and speak loud enough to be heard. Larger rounds require more room to space the tables and keep from raising the decibel count in the room. Rectangular tables also provide opportunities for parallel set-ups with adjoining tables, which facilitates both meal service and participant access and egress, and it is a more efficient use of space.
Foster a learning environment
Many career event planners are “sensate judgers” or SJs, one of four Myers-Briggs temperaments, according to a September 2000 article in Meeting News by Elaine Cipriano. They are conservators, holding true to tradition, rules, regulations, and doing things the “right way.” In their work, they want no surprises. They are likely to see procedures as prescribed, rather than exploring better ways of doing them.
Therefore, career event planners may prefer conventional straight row set-ups—open U, square, chevron, classroom, and traditional theater style—common and acceptable set-up practice. Their comfort zone abides in the straight and the symmetrical even though it may hinder learning or engagement.
Meeting facilities operations supervisors might have resisted new room sets because of the additional time required. But while an initial set-up may take a little extra time and attention, the second set-up, and each succeeding set-up, goes more quickly.
In a college union setting, student employees can be assets in promoting innovation as they are less likely to self-select a union operations job based on their temperament. Therefore, students can help the organization test the traditional, continuously improving union operations.
For example, students can be tasked with investigating how chairs are transported and unstacked with respect to the row they will become. Where the stack is placed and how it is unloaded and then reloaded can determine:
- The number of staff required for a set-up
- Foot pounds of energy and effort expended
- Distance travelled to place the chair
- Damage to chair legs
- Time required for set-up and tear-down of the room
Most event planners draw up an order for an event and then move on to the next scheduled event. No critical eye surveys the results of their orders. But there is an entire checklist that follows.
Students can be empowered to detect unintended consequences and make last-minute adjustments. While performing the set-up, they should sit in several of the seats—from different angles and perspectives. Then they can document participant behaviors:
- How do participants enter that room and fill a seating section? Front to back? Periphery or center of the section?
- Which chairs are typically left open? Are they accessible?
- What is the difficulty of getting in or out of any seating section once the event has begun?
- What is the energy and dynamic of the room during the event? Is there noticeable squirming in seats or readjustment during the event? After how much time?
- What fosters high energy, interest, involvement?
- Are the faces of the presenters lighted so one would recognize them after the event?
- Can participants with problematic hearing read the presenter’s lips?
- What visual access do participants have to each other? Can they feed off others’ nonverbals as an indication to take notes or to pay special attention?
Such data can inform future event set-ups provided students are given authority to suggest improvements. For example, students may note that certain furniture is not optimal for a space. A rectangular table that accommodates eight for a meal may be too large for a classroom-type set-up. And table legs flush with the end of the table may limit comfort for anyone seated at the end of the table. With this information in hand, a facility manager may be better off joining together two 18-inch-wide tables of 6- or 8-foot length for a 3-foot-wide table set-up, offering two tables that can also be used for classroom sets without dominating the space. Further, when it comes time to purchase or replace furniture, one should know if another table could be more effective. Data, which students contribute and maintain, are necessary for that process.
Much like student development theory, it may be helpful to identify desired outcomes when approaching a room set-up. If learning and engagement are important, then comfort, awareness of others, and visual and acoustical needs will dictate the necessary spatial plan. However, even then there are endless possibilities in managing the set-up of events. To determine what works best, a basic understanding of the shortcomings of traditional set-ups, and a checklist for experimenting and documenting results, will help each campus develop new rationale for future event participants.
Paul O. Radde, Ph.D., wrote “Seating Matters: State-of-the-Art Seating Arrangements,” crafted the Convention Industry Council’s sixth edition standard for “Event Room Seating,” and keynoted ACUI’s 2009 Reservations and Operations Seminar at Wright State University. Radde has also presented about employee retention, stress management, team building, influencing decision-makers, and reversing professional burnout. “Seating Matters” is available from firstname.lastname@example.org, www.thrival.com, and 303.443.3623.