By Bruce Harris
Following you will find time-tested meeting planning techniques and helpful hints on handling all of these scenarios and more.
If any attendee is standing in the back of the room without a seat nearby, then you have not done your job, which is to have everyone seated in a prompt, efficient, and courteous manner. To accomplish this goal, use the following strategies:
- Load the front of the room first, setting aside seats for VIPs and speakers.
- If there are side doors, open the front-most door first and direct delegates to the front seats.
- To prevent people from going down the aisle, stand in the middle of the aisle and point to where you would like them to go. Don’t argue with insistent guests, however, if they choose to move down the aisle.
- As the front fills, close the front-most door and open the next door. Continue this procedure until all but the back of the room is filled.
- Tape or ribbon off the seats farthest from the speaker and nearest to the back entrance door or use reserved signs to maintain the integrity of this area — approximately one-tenth of the chairs in the room.
- Finally, once the other seats are taken or the meeting has begun, remove all tape, ribbons, and signs and save the rear-most seats for late arrivals. Be sure to place meeting room signage by the back door once the session has started.
For large groups, station one person in front of the doors that are to remain closed and one person at the entrance that is to be used first, which will automatically direct traffic flow to the desired door. Staff members stationed inside the room decide when to open the next door and communicate that decision via walkie-talkie to staff members stationed outside the room. When the next door is opened, the coordinator steps into the flow and directs the delegates into the new door opening. Inside, staff members make their way to the new door and continue seating people. Walkie-talkies and many coordinators or assistants are vital for large group movements.
- Never have open stations near the doors of a meeting room. If it is unavoidable due to space limitations, keep those stations closed and direct delegates to the farthest stations first.
- When setting up the stations, always consider the direction people are coming from and position the stations so that movement is away from the meeting rooms.
- Organize the stations so that attendees do not stop moving until after they get their coffee or hot water. Place tea bags, sugar, and cream just downstream from coffee or hot water so that those needing coffee only can move through the line unimpeded. Place regular coffee first, decaffeinated second, and hot water last.
- Place sodas and snacks (if applicable) on separate tables. Arrange items in the correct order — glasses, then ice, then soda.
- If it is necessary to have a fast break and labor costs are not a problem, coffee can be poured by servers. Once again, keep tea bags, sugar, and cream downstream.
- Make sure that the end of the stream has an outlet — do not run the end of the station into a wall, escalator, or dead end. Keep stations away from restrooms.
- When going from a general meeting session to breakout sessions or vice versa, always try to locate the break in front of the next chronological destination. If you go into breakouts that are remote from the general session foyer, for example, set up the coffee break in the breakout area.
- In a situation where remote breakouts and the general session are both being used, you could have a problem when attendees going to the remote breakouts attack the coffee station reserved for the general session breakout. To solve this problem, have the speaker excuse the breakout session attendees first and keep the general session foyer stations closed until these people pass through. Then, as soon as the first group has exited the room, send the second group (those returning to the general session) to the break just outside the room.
Meeting planners must be proactive to ensure that their events have the proper space and design. Obviously, the type of cocktail party as well as the number of hors d’oeuvre stations, entertainment options, and props greatly affect the layout design and flow pattern of the room. The following guidelines apply to all types of cocktail receptions.
- Do not position bars near doors.
- Food stations should not overlap or flow into bars.
- Avoid high-density bar areas — four or more bars back to back is not a good idea.
- Consider beer and wine bars at large events and outdoor events.
- Place seating away from high-traffic areas and group the seating together. Don’t spread it out so that traffic is forced around those seated.
- Always create large spaces for traffic to move between areas of the function.
- For large groups, move guests to the back of the room first by not opening bars and food stations closest to the entrance until after the majority of the attendees have entered.
Moving People to Dinner
To buffet dinners — Goal: No long lines
- Only move as many people as necessary from the cocktail party to keep the buffet lines full. “Bleed” attendees away from the reception by telling only those closest to the exit or dinner area that the buffet is open. (They will likely thank you and move quickly.) When the lines get shorter, repeat this procedure with the next group closest to the exit.
- Do not close all the bars until the buffet line is finished. Close bars nearest the buffet first.
- Always discuss your plan with the hotel staff to ensure that you control the flow.
- Never flash lights or do anything to encourage all the guests to leave the reception at the same time.
To sit-down dinners — Goal: Seat quickly so food service can start.
There are several techniques that work:
- Close all bars at the same time. (Always do a “last call” before using this technique.) When a bar is closed, a tablecloth goes over the bar and the bartender steps to the side.
- Do a last call, then signal delegates that dinner is served by flashing lights or by playing exit music.
- In each scenario, encourage people farthest from the exit doors to leave the event first in order to have their choice of seats. As they pass through the party, others will notice the movement and will also make their way toward the dining room.
- When using these techniques, always be polite, not dictatorial. Keep in mind that courtesy and warmth work wonders.
Seating People at Food Functions
Seating people at food functions is critical, especially for larger groups. Keep these three rules in mind when seating groups of several hundred or more in unassigned seating:
1. Establish larger aisles to more easily move the masses through the room. The “filter through” method (no cross aisles) is a guaranteed disaster for 500 or more guests.
2. Line up banquet staff in the aisles to direct early arrivals to the far reaches of the room. If early arrivals sit at tables closest to the entrance, they block the passageways needed to move attendees to the back. (Note: Reserved signs on tables nearest the door force people to the rear. Remove them as the room fills.)
3. Use as many entrances as possible, combined with multiple corridors if possible.
Reserved Seating Events
Reserved seating events require a major use of manpower and signage for groups of 800 or more. The first challenge is to have people enter the correct door, which minimizes wandering around the room in search of the correct table numbers.
To achieve this objective, follow these guidelines:
- Place large reproductions of the room layout, complete with table numbers, at eye level in the reception area.
- Hang a sign above each door to the ballroom displaying the table numbers that can be located by entering through that particular door.
- Position staff members outside each door with a list of seating assignments.
- You also can color code each area of the room (with balloons, tablecloths, or banners) and affix a corresponding color sticker to each attendee’s name badge. This tactic will direct them to the right area. Numbers are then necessary to help them find the right table.
Bruce Harris is the President of Conferon Global Service, Inc. in Twinsburg, Ohio. Visit us at http://www.conferon.com for all your meeting planning needs.