by Louise M. Felsher, CMP, CMM | November 01, 2004

Much more consideration goes into seating plans than how many people will fit in a room. Comfort is top priority and, of course, the setup should facilitate communication. Psychological and physical barriers need to be eliminated, exchange encouraged, sound and vision maximized, and appropriate hierarchies (or the elimination of) all should be strategically tied to the event’s objectives.

The Power Seat 
The first item on your list: where to place VIPs, depending on the setup.
    Rounds. When using round tables, seat VIPs closest to the center of the room and facing the stage or perceived front of the room.
    Head table. If a one-sided head table is set up during a banquet, seat VIPs by hierarchy from the center outward.
    Boardroom. The leader of the meeting should be placed at the end of the table facing the exit/entrance, so she can see people coming and going.
    Square or U-shaped. The leader should be in the center of the U or in the center of one side of the square, facing the exit.
    Theater seating. Put honored guests in the front row ideally seated stage right, unless the lectern is set up stage left. This will give them the best view of the speaker.
    Multiple VIPs. If two or more VIPs of the same rank are attending, seat them by seniority. If they are of the same age and rank, give the seat of honor to the visiting VIP, if applicable.

For an out-of-the-ordinary setup, seat all the honored guests, or everyone, at one or more exaggerated banquet tables where several rectangular tables are pushed together to form one very long table, sometimes the length of a room (similar to how Harry Potter dines at Hogwarts). Oblong or rectangular tables can be set for the rest of the room. Add family-style or Russian service for even more of an all-for-one ambience.
    At less formal functions, consider intermingling the CEO and the management team with the junior employees to foster an invaluable and atypical exchange.

Personal space varies from culture to culture. Americans tend to require the most space between themselves and others (about two feet from row to row), whereas some cultures require only inches. (Meeting in Russia or the United Arab Emirates? Prepare to get cozy.) Consider the event location and the nationalities of delegates, and plan accordingly. For advice, consult a local destination management company or professional congress organizer.
    Some other considerations to ensure the comfort of all participants:
    " Armrests and ergonomically designed chairs are always appreciated and worth the investment.
    " Classroom seating is not necessarily more comfortable than theater-style if you must seat more than two people at a six-foot table.

Finer Details
Centerpieces. With large rounds for 10 to 12 people or larger do not be timid about having a tall centerpiece. Attendees generally will not engage in conversations directly across a table so large especially with amplified music or keynotes. A disproportionately sized centerpiece could be more of a faux pas.
    If you are still married to the “no big centerpieces” rule, use a tall thin or clear riser to place the floral drama well above the heads of your seated guests. Most importantly, ensure unobstructed views of the entertainment or speakers and exits.
    Assigned seats. Facilitating the goals and objectives of many events can only be accomplished if you engineer the seating, making sure specific groups intermingle.

Louise M. Felsher, CMP, CMM, is senior vice president of event marketing for The Wilkinson Group in Burlingame, Calif.