Business and Pleasure Merging as Event Spaces Look to Future

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I went to buy tickets on Saturday for a November jazz concert in one of the more intimate spaces in the Kennedy Center. Gone are the tables of four—and semi-comfortable chairs—that they were using for years to give the place a jazz-club feel. Instead, judging from the diagram, the stage now juts out into the audience, and there are couches, loveseats, plush chairs and high stools and communal tables filling up the space.

Then this morning I read an article in BizBash titled Reimagine the Seminar Space. The conference hall they featured was separated into three zones: Connected and Casual, Styled and Structured, and Collaborative Contemporary. The front space offered plush Tech Tablet chairs, "as well as sofas and love seats for relaxed connection and listening space." The back of the room featured high stools and communal tables. Sound familiar?

"Flexible spaces will continue to become more important over time," wrote Kevin Dana, executive director of marketing and product development at CORT Trade Show & Event Furnishings. "We are seeing a huge increase in demand for breakout space conducive to networking and for a wider variety of furniture, including sofas, armchairs, foldable tables, and lightweight furniture for easy mobility."

Here are some takeaways from a recent IACC survey report titled Meeting Room of the Future.

1. Create experiences. The survey found that 57% of venue operators believe their role is to offer "experience creation" assistance to meeting planners, up slightly from the year prior. One trend is the push toward more "creative" and "flexible" meeting spaces that mix individual and group areas and allow for different modes of learning (or entertainment).

2. Facilitate movement and conversation. High stools and communal tables both encourage conversation. Look for natural light when possible and some room to maneuver, the report urges. Both have been proven to increase participant engagement and creativity, and provide higher ROI to meeting owners. I recently held a meeting for about 20 in a New York City high-rise room that had a big window and space to move around—people did walk about more and get coffee or cookies. I think it did help the meeting stay fresh.

3. Look for under-used spaces in your venue. According to the study, activating under-used or third spaces, such as foyers, hallways and atriums into work cafes and networking lounges is a great opportunity to increase collaboration and build trust among participants. They also provide great spaces for participants to do a quick check in at home or work and then return to the meeting more productive and engaged.

4. Vary your furniture. Sure enough, when asked what types of furniture they are incorporating to help facilitate collaboration and flexibility, event-space operators most often mentioned: 1. Lounge furniture (couches, armchairs, soft-seating); and 2. A variety in tables and seating. "Today's workforce is connected and can work from anywhere, such as the comfort of their own home, the local coffee shop, or trendy offices. To match the way attendees are accustomed to working, the team set up different seating styles, allowing attendees to feel comfortable and engaged in the seminar space."

5. Add local touches. Ellen Sinclair of Benchmark, a Global Hospitality Company, says, "In creating memorable meeting experiences, venues, suppliers and planners alike see a desire by participants to 'act like a local' and in turn are including a taste of the destination/location of the venue in their meeting elements, especially food and beverage offerings."

6. Encourage networking. At June's SIPA Annual Conference, we replaced the low chairs for speed networking with high tables. The standing seemed to help engagement. In the BizBash article, the high stools "mimick the feel of a coffee bar, offering a space where attendees could claim a seat but share a large, tech-enabled table and collaborate for breakout sessions."

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…