August 01, 2000
Meetings & Conventions: Taking Shape - August 2000 Current Issue
August 2000

Taking Shape

The placement of tables, chairs, speakers and A/V can support or undermine a meeting’s objectives

By Loren G. Edelstein

Dean Petersen’s speech was peppered with words like “chevroned” and “herringbone” and “royal set.” He was not talking about gasoline or seafood or poker he was preaching about room setups and how planners could maximize the effectiveness of any meeting simply by choosing the best configuration of tables and chairs.

Petersen*, the late assistant vice president of catering and convention services for Hyatt Hotels Corp. in Chicago, shared his philosophies earlier this year with M&C. The ideal room setup is one that best fulfills these objectives, according to Petersen.

1) “Get your attendees closer to the presenter, or at least closer to the A/V, whatever it takes.”

2) “Ask yourself, ‘What is the focal point in the room?’ You might have to go directly to the speaker to find that out.” Clear sight lines to the focal point should be a top priority.

3) “Make attendees comfortable.” Nobody should have to twist his neck to see the speaker or the presentation.

4) “Match the room set and the A/V to the message.” If a speaker is trying to promote conversation, consider round tables. If the objective is to teach something new for the first time, however, the focus should be the speaker or A/V, and rounds would be a poor choice.

Following are seven room setups, along with the pros and cons of each configuration.

Theater-Style, Herringbone
Looks like: Rows of seats facing presenter, chevroned (tapered in) at sides
Pros: Allows for maximum number of people per room; brings audience closer to presenter
Cons: More seats will fit in straight rows; not good for extended periods (hard to get in and out); no work space for reading or writing; attendee interaction severely limited
Variation: Set rows schoolroom-style (with tables) to improve comfort and provide work space. However, this takes up more space and puts attendees farther from the presenter.

Triple U-Shape, Herringbone
Looks like: Three sections of classroom-style seating at 45 degree angles
Pros: Ideal for small to mid-size groups; conducive to conversation among attendees; allows for easy viewing of presentations; easy to get in and out of seating
Cons: Not feasible for large groups

U-Shape With Schoolroom
Looks like: Standard U-shape, with internal rows of classroom seating
Pros: Brings audience closer to presenter; allows for larger groups than traditional U-shape
Cons: Can be awkward determining who sits on outside and who sits inside; sight lines can be a problem; audience interaction can be difficult

Looks like: Round tables set throughout room
Pros: Provides work space; allows maximum interaction between small groups
Cons: Participants might be far from presenter; some tables might have poor interaction; can be loud due to simultaneous discussions; sight lines can be difficult
Variation: Limit seating to six per table, leaving an open section facing the presenter, for improved sight lines.

Hollow Square
Looks like: Classroom-style rows set in a square
Pros: Presenter can sit anywhere in the square and see all participants; provides comfortable work space
Cons: Not conducive to audiovisual presentations; interaction somewhat limited; not recommended for groups larger than 35
Variation: A “royal set” square, with curved corner tables, increases sight lines by 33 percent and makes the room setup look much more comfortable.

Looks like: An open triangle of classroom-style seating
Pros: Allows for easy interaction; speaker can be seated or standing inside the setup
Cons: Not recommended for groups larger than 27
Variation: Set computer monitors at tables to allow for close study of detailed material.

Looks like: A row of classroom-style seating, with a row of double classroom-style seats set perpendicular to form a “T”
Pros: Allows for good interaction, particularly between facing rows; provides clear sight lines to A/V placed at bottom of “T”
Cons: Can be difficult for interaction between perpendicular rows; not recommended for groups larger than 30.

*M&C sadly notes that Dean Petersen passed away in early April, a few weeks after being interviewed for this story.

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