March 01, 2002
Meetings & Conventions: Tossed and Found - March 2002 Current Issue
March 2002

Tossed and Found

Creative ways to assign seating for maximum networking

By Sarah J.F. Braley

Left to their own devices, attendees walking into a banquet room will gravitate to tables full of friends or familiar faces. But if the goal of the gathering is to get people to meet and mingle, open seating won’t achieve it. To foster networking, meeting planners can turn to a number of creative techniques that will guarantee cliques are dissolved and new contacts are made. Following are some smart ways to mix up the crowd, from simple pick-a-number table assignments to fun games that are intended not only to direct participants to random tables, but also to spark lively conversations among strangers.

Color-coding variations
A very easy way to shuffle the group is by color-coding the tables and placing matching stickers on the backs of nametags. Attendees sit at a table or seat corresponding to their color. The planner thus has some control; she can deliberately put people together or keep them apart.

A variation on this theme was used at an event in San Antonio by independent planner Elizabeth Zielinski, CMM, CMP. “The luncheon happened to fall on Cinco de Mayo,” says the president of Meeting Horizons in Fairfax, Va. The group of 400 was split into a number of color-coded subgroups according to their departments. “We put cascarones [tinted egg shells] filled with confetti at each place; their colors matched the color-coded name tags.” Each table was set with a mix of cascarones, so people from various departments would sit together.

“They look like Easter eggs,” adds Zielinski, “and the idea is to break them in celebration.” Traditionally, people crush the cascarones in their hands above a friend’s head, sprinkling the confetti and egg shells in the hair. While playing with the seating, Zielinski says, “You hope to get people out of their comfort zones; you want to challenge them.”

By the numbers
A simple technique for totally random seating is to number each table and put slips of paper in a bowl (for 10 tables of 10, place 10 slips with the number one in the bowl, 10 with the number two, 10 with the number three, and so on). Attendees reach in, grab a number, and sit at the corresponding table. Depending on how large the group is, several staffers can be stationed by the doors to hold the bowls. To make this process more fun, David Shackley, president of Catalyst Events in Arlington, Va., makes use of two variations. In the first, he sets up a bingo machine and fills it with numbered ping-pong balls representing the table numbers.

As people enter the banquet room, they are handed a ball out of the machine and a bingo caller yells out their table number. Shackley says this routine was particularly effective for a recent dinner followed by an after-hours gathering that had a sports-bar theme.

Another twist on the numbers game that has worked for Catalyst Events: Distribute sets of juggling balls with table numbers on them as participants enter a cocktail area. Employ roving entertainers to instruct people on how to juggle amid the hors d’oeuvres, before the group moves into the dining room to their designated tables.

Going antiquing
Capitalizing on the popularity of the PBS program Antiques Roadshow, Catalyst Events has created an evening called “The Curio Show,” with custom-designed cases holding various antiques used for centerpieces.

“We put three to four items on each table,” says Shackley. The most prominent item on the table for instance, a tie press is represented on 10 cards (or eight or six, depending on the number of seats at each table) that are handed out in registration packets or during the cocktail hour.

The oddities on the tables are natural conversation starters. To encourage further mingling between courses, “We suggest that people get up and see what’s on other tables,” Shackley says.

To turn the evening into a prize-winning opportunity, have attendees guess what the items are, how old they are and how much they are worth. The leader of the organization or another head honcho at the meeting can act as a sort of auctioneer, holding up items and soliciting the guesses.

Hotel sales manager Martin Wade remembers a Meeting Professionals International chapter meeting for which the lunchroom was decorated with a TV theme. At the registration area, people were randomly assigned the identity of a sitcom character; during the welcome reception, attendees tracked down the rest of the people from their show and then sat at the sitcom’s designated table. At a table for six, for example, the people representing Chandler, Joey, Monica, Phoebe, Rachel and Ross could become instant Friends.

“I ended up as the Skipper from Gilligan’s Island, which is kind of funny because I’m a pretty big guy,” says Wade, senior sales manager at the Hilton Oceanfront Resort on South Carolina’s Hilton Head Island. Before dinner began, he had to track down Gilligan, Ginger, the Howells, Mary Ann and the Professor from among the 180 attendees. Wade adds: “It was fun to see how close people were to the characters.”

Planners can mix and match shows if there aren’t enough characters: At a table of eight, the Three Stooges might break bread with Lucy, Ricky, Ethel, Fred and little Ricky. Those who want to go all out can place items representing the shows on the tables coffee mugs for Friends, tools for Home Improvement and so on.

Local flavor
At the annual meeting of the Healthcare Convention and Exhibitors Association in Minneapolis last year, the Sunday morning kickoff breakfast took the entertainment theme a little further, focusing on movies, products and people from Minnesota. Association ambassadors handed out seating cards with a picture or icon on them, and attendees sat at the table with the matching image serving as the centerpiece.

Tables were dedicated to famous Minnesotans like Bob Dylan, Garrison Keillor, Judy Garland, Hubert Humphrey, Prince and Jesse Ventura; local products like Green Giant frozen vegetables, Post-it Notes, Spam and Wheaties; and movies such as Drop Dead Fred, Feeling Minnesota, Grumpy Old Men, Fargo and Untamed Heart.

“We all had to see if we knew how our item was applicable to Minnesota,” says Jeanne Eury, corporate sales manager for the Washington, D.C., Convention and Tourism Corp., who was on the committee that created the breakfast; she sat at the table designated as Jingle All the Way, which was filmed at the Mall of America. “You automatically had something to talk to each other about, like, ‘I saw that movie on my first date ever, in seventh grade.’ It was great, it was quick and it got everybody talking.”

Trivial pursuit
Lauren Rizzi, project assistant with the Washington, D.C.-based American Bankers Association, suggests expanding a favorite icebreaker to indicate where attendees should sit. One group gets answers to trivia questions, and the other has the questions; people have to find their match. For a meal function, Rizzi would hand out the questions and place the answers on tables, tents or signs. Or, give the exercise a Jeopardy! twist by handing out the answers and putting the questions on the tables.

Put out your hand
One last good-humored suggestion called “The Handshaker” comes from Shackley. He and his staff have defined 12 different greetings including the “firm business handshake,” the “wet fish” and more elaborate entries like the “highlander,” which uses both hands crossed over, along with a little jig. Attendees are given a card describing their greeting and then have to make introductions to find others with the same greeting technique. Those who share a handshake style also share a dinner table. “It seems a shame to have people just walk into a regular event,” says Shackley. “When they’re out of their work setting, these ideas are an incentive to get a little more lighthearted.”


As participants enter the room, hand out jigsaw puzzle pieces that are color-coded on the back. Once everyone is at the correct table, they put together their puzzle. “The puzzle could be anything, like the company logo or a picture of the CEO,” says David Shackley, president of Catalyst Events in Arlington, Va. Other image possibilities include cityscapes of the host city, products being introduced or pictures of people winning awards at the event.



To encourage meaningful conversation, arrange seating by discussion topic, inviting people to sit at tables representing an issue they would like to debate or learn more about. Have participants submit topics of interest in advance, and prepare table signs for the most popular topics.

Make a note of which tables fill up first or can’t accommodate all interested participants. It might make sense to offer more tables on that topic in the future or develop a related seminar at the next educational meeting.



Not everyone is a willing participant when the meeting turns lighthearted. Many people are simply uncomfortable with meet-and-greet games. Some ways to ease wallflowers into the fold:

Put cynics in the hot seat, suggests Rick Miller of Designs for Development ( in Commerce, Texas. Ask reluctant participants to host their own tables. “Telling them you can really use their expertise pays them a compliment,” says Miller, a professional facilitator. “They become a magnet at the table. Get resistant people to throw out hot topics or pose a question to the group.”

Transitional activities also can serve as “cynic busters,” says facilitator Kate Fenton, owner of the Atlantic Rim Group in Arlington, Va. Instead of counting on strangers to strike up a conversation, give them something to talk about. “Getting people to answer questions like, ‘What would I be doing if I weren’t here?’ helps them make the transition from where they were to where they are,” Fenton says.

Fenton also suggests setting an interesting object in the middle of each table and having attendees tell one another how they would use it on their job. “This relieves tension, gets people to use their imaginations and also gets them talking with the other people at the table.”


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