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Why Effective Meetings Require the Right Room

© DNA Seattle

Choose the right meeting space for a effective event.

The window-lined conference room where San Francisco–based freelance planner Loretta Lowe was slated to teach a class in event management would have been great for small-group work, networking or any number of other types of meetings. What it was not great for, ironically, was the event that Lowe was leading. When she stepped to the front of the room and flipped on her PowerPoint presentation, she and all 50 attendees were dismayed to discover that no one could see the screen.

“There was no way to darken the room from the glaring sun,” she recalls. “We ended up taping flip-chart paper over the windows.”

Start With Desired Outcomes

With so much consideration put into the objectives and content of a meeting, sometimes the space itself is overlooked—and that can impact the meeting’s outcomes. In the case of Lowe’s meeting, they lost about 30 minutes trying to solve their glaring problem, and pulling people back to the task at hand was no small feat.

“Room sets and design are very important to the outcomes of meetings and events,” Lowe says. “It’s one of those subtle, psychological things that people are often not aware of, but that can affect how people are able to concentrate, interact and absorb information.”

That means taking desired outcomes into account right from the start, says Adam Sloyer, managing director of Sequence, a New York–based event planning company.

“I teach my managers [to] find out the objective of the meeting, because that’s really going to drive the setup,” says Bill Fink, vice president of conference management at Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center, in Kissimmee, Fla. Once the objective is addressed, the audience is also key, he notes. “If it’s high-level executives, what type of seating are you going to offer? If it’s more junior staffers, you are probably going to be giving more handouts,” which may require more table space, he notes.

Consider Sight Lines

“The biggest mistake people make when it comes to room design for a meeting is losing sight of the primary purpose of the event itself: the meeting,” Fink explains. “It’s nice to incorporate fun decor and visual elements, but not when it comes at the expense of attendees being able to see a presentation or speaker, take away information or connect with fellow attendees. The design needs to complement the meeting, not overshadow it.”

For example, one of Sloyer’s clients selected a “very cool” venue for an event last year, with columns throughout the space. “While it looked great, there were a number of people that had blocked sight lines to the stage,” he recalls. “I guarantee you that people would have preferred a less fun space if they had the option of seeing the stage.”

In a different type of meeting, Lowe says, those same columns could be a boon. For interactive discussions or team learning exercises, “columns in the meeting space help create boundaries between teams,” she says.

For an event where sight lines are important, there are work-arounds for columns, like flat-panel TVs distributed throughout the space, but problem-solving means alerting the venue’s staff to the purpose of the meeting up front.

Reconfigure For Collaboration

Speaking of table space, these days hotels and businesses are starting to rethink that classic boardroom setup with an impressive table anchoring the room.

“The traditional meeting in a large conference room around a long table has been found to be low energy and no longer the most effective way to collaborate,” says Renee Hawk, manager of sales acquisition at Business Interiors by Staples, the Framingham, Mass.–based division of Staples Inc. that provides business-to-business furniture and design solutions. “Long rectangular conference tables…force team members to sit a long distance away from the person asking for information or leading the meeting,” she says, explaining that since team members can’t see past two or three seats on each side, people may not speak up, resulting in a meeting where the leader does most of the talking.

“Executives and employees alike now meet to collaborate, communicate, toss ideas around and formulate plans of action while sitting or standing in small groups, where the energy level is high and excitement flows,” Hawk says, noting that, as companies look to create the buzz that fuels innovation, architects are being asked to downsize or eliminate traditional large conference rooms or boardrooms in favor of a series of smaller rooms, which points to a significant shift in the way meeting spaces are used today.

“The increase in the use of technology and the rising cost of real estate have been the main drivers of this change over the last five years, in addition to research around what keeps successful companies at the top of their game,” Hawk says. To accommodate a variety of different meeting needs, some meeting spaces are now outfitted with smaller, mobile tables that can accommodate small groups or be pushed together for large groups, she explains. Additionally, designers are using soft seating arrangements with pull-up tables to provide for a more open, collaborative environment.

Think About Tables

While downsizing the tables is a trendy idea, don’t eliminate them entirely, advises Cathi C. Lundgren, CAE, director of convention management for the Florida National Dental Convention, in Tallahassee, who frequently uses space at the Gaylord Palms. “We find that attendees are more comfortable with a table in meetings that require interaction,” she says, adding that if a meeting is going to be more than two hours, she tries to arrange for a space with natural light.

Conversely, if you want to quash interaction, skip the tables—and the natural light.

“If I want everyone to be quiet and pay attention to the CEO speaking on a stage, for example, I will have the room with classroom-setup style—facing forward, no table space to place a laptop on and no outside distractions,” freelance planner Lowe says, adding that windows will have people wondering what is going on outside. In that situation, she avoids rooms with mirrors, but if she wants to encourage interaction, mirrors are fine. “They help people see themselves while they talk, which is known to change behavior of how people talk to each other.”

Just as poor design can work against objectives, inspired design can bring a meeting to a new level, as Lundgren knows firsthand. She says the most effective strategic planning meeting she ever attended was set as a chevron classroom–style—or V-shape—with just one row. “The chevron faced an open wall of windows, and the facilitator’s entire session was built around not losing the ‘blue-sky mentality’ while crafting strategic initiatives,” she recalls, quipping, “I don’t know what he would have done if it would have been a rainy day.”

In or Out?

These elements of a meeting room can be positive or negative, depending on the audience and objective.

In: To encourage interaction.
Out: To avoid distraction.

In: For comfort in meetings that require interaction.
Out: To stimulate high energy.

In: To create boundaries between teams.
Out: If they obstruct sight lines to a speaker or screen.


Jeanne O’Brien Coffey writes frequently about business travel and employee motivation from her base north of Boston. Her work has appeared in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, Northshore magazine and numerous print and web outlets.

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