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Meeting Room Design

Small changes can have a big impact on the attendee experience.

By Angela Kryhul

Earlier this year, Tina Squillante, CMP, decided to take a chance on an unconventional meeting room set-up, and it paid off.

Less than 30 days before the American Society of Transplantation conference—an event Squillante has planned and managed for the past 13 years—she completely redesigned the general session room.

Squillante, director of meetings, exhibits and special events for New Jersey-based association management company, Association Headquarters, Inc., didn’t do anything extravagant or costly.

She replaced the traditional lectern with a tall cocktail round, dropped the riser down to floor level and pushed it out so that there was audience seating along three sides. Squillante then arranged small cocktail rounds and slightly larger tables, accommodating up to six people each, close to the stage. The back of the room was arranged theatre-style. Presenters were instructed to navigate the edges of the stage during their sessions so that there was less physical space between them and the audience. She says she designed the room so that attendees would feel they had permission to engage with the speaker and with one another. “I didn’t want the audience to be passive learners; I wanted them to participate.”

At first, attendees didn’t know what to make of the changes. “People would walk into the room, take a few steps, stop and then look around,” Squillante explains. “They knew immediately that something different was going to happen.”

It’s at those types of moments that the brain snaps to attention—there’s a little tension, a little anticipation, and people realize they’re going to have a different experience, says Jeff Hurt, executive vice-president, education and engagement, for Velvet Chainsaw Consulting in Dallas, Tex. “That’s when the real learning happens.” He adds that it’s important to consider whether a meeting room will facilitate or be a barrier to collaboration, communication, innovation and learning.

Squillante discovered that light and colour had a positive effect on her conference delegates. She used a soothing blue light during morning sessions, and switched to brighter colours as the day wore on to help perk up attendees. The colour changes coincided with natural breaks in the program. “When people came back into the room, they could sense something was different. It added a little bit of spark to kind of wake them up,” she says.

Squillante also borrowed from the hypothesis of biophilia—that humans instinctively seek to connect with other living things—when she projected images of palm leaves onto the meeting room walls.

By playing with room design, Squillante was able to improve the attendee experience. And even if attendees couldn’t quite put their fingers on what was different, she says they seemed to be more positive and willing to interact than in previous years. “The buzz was very different.”

Learning + Community + Connections
One of the easiest ways to facilitate audience participation is for the speaker to present 10 minutes of content and then allow about five minutes of small group discussion, says Jeff Hurt. The speaker presents for another 10 minutes, followed by discussion, and so on. “When you can provide a learning opportunity that also capitalizes on community and connections, you have really hit the sweet spot,” he says.

Recommended Reading
Freelancer’s Guide to Corporate Event Design: From Technology Fundamentals to Scenic and Environmental Design, by Troy Halsey.

Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration, by Scott Doorley, Scott Witthoft and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University

Color: Messages & Meanings, by Leatrice Eiseman

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