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How Different Seating Styles Can Make or Break a Conference

December 27, 2017

Hybrid meetings are one of the hottest trends in conference planning. A hybrid event is a tradeshow, conference, unconference, seminar, workshop or other meeting that combines a “live” in-person event with a “virtual” online component. The Professional Convention Management Association has seen a 28% year-over-year increase in hybrid meeting participation, and 73% of these virtual meeting attendees said the positive hybrid experience made them want to attend future meetings in person.

One reason for hybrid’s popularity is its ability to keep participants—even large groups of participants—engaged. At the 2016 PCMA Convening Leaders meeting, for example, participant engagement “went through the virtual roof” as 1,400 attendees held more than 6,500 online conversations.

As promising as hybrid formats are, however, they still require a bit of magic to pull off. That’s where seating arrangement becomes key.

Hybrid meeting programming includes streaming video content, which lends itself to one of two seating plans: fishbowl or open seating within a studio experience.

The Fishbowl: Optimizing In-Person Engagement

For in-person attendees, fishbowl and round seating arrangements are proven to up the energy level in discussion while also increasing eye contact and trust—critical for meetings that require teamwork, brainstorming fresh ideas or addressing sensitive issues.

The fishbowl arrangement places two to five people at the center of a circle, with other participants “tapping in” to join the center debate. Up to 50 observers can be seated in concentric circles around the speakers. As part of their official communications toolkit, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nation recommends using the fishbowl to increase active listening and engagement, especially if a controversial subject is being discussed.

Getting participants into a circle increases eye contact among everyone in the group, and it also focuses everyone’s attention on the center discussion. Delegates aren’t able to speak unless they’re one of the center speakers. This gives observers the ability to see other people’s reactions and fully consider their own thoughts.

A little introspection combined with active listening and engagement can lead to invigorated delegates and positive word of mouth after the event. This makes the fishbowl tough to beat when it comes to building conference satisfaction and bringing people back for future events.

Open Studio Seating: Bringing the Virtual Experience to Life

To leverage virtual audiences, consider a studio format with open seating. Seated around the streaming studio, in-person audience members are engaged while virtual attendees are treated to a fun and energetic talk-show-style atmosphere. The result is increased social media and online engagement, as well as more discussion and participation around the meeting’s core topics.

Floor space will determine how many in-person delegates can be accommodated in the virtual studio. Use chairs in a U-shape for streaming panel discussions, or create a standing-room-only open space to accommodate more people for keynote speaker interviews and other high-interest segments.

Remember, more delegates on the floor leads to more potential online interaction and more positive engagement from virtual attendees. For the 2012 ASHE Annual Conference and the Planning, Design and Construction Summit, the American Society for Healthcare Engineering built a 40-by-40-foot video production booth directly on the show floor and used an open seating arrangement to bring hundreds of delegates in on the action.

Whether in-person or virtual, a positive delegate experience pays dividends in future registrations. To learn more about how seating arrangements can make or break the delegate experience call us on 0207 706 7700.

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