When convention attendees aren’t learning, they’re trying to network. They’re looking at name badges, making introductions and handing out business cards in the hopes that some of the new contacts will turn into new clients or new colleagues. Most meetings have structured networking receptions and cocktail hours, but many of the best connections are made in the unstructured periods of time.
Some attendees fall into the extroverted-and-ready-to-talk-to-anyone category, but there are plenty of people who aren’t as comfortable striking up conversations with complete strangers. The right furniture design choices can play a key role in solving that issue. Chairs, couches, desks, tables, benches — the seating options you give your attendees are essential to delivering on the promise of networking opportunities.
“Hosts have conventions and events to communicate their messages, usually through structured sessions,” Libby Ferin, Director, Global Brand Events and Experience Design, Steelcase, says. “Open concourses or other ‘in-between’ spaces become important as attendees are inspired by those messages. Those spaces are where they can reflect on and discuss the content, and the furnishings can help make that time a great experience.”
Here are three ways furniture can facilitate better networking at your next meeting.
1) With the right power source arrangement, you can supercharge the conversation.
In an age where many attendees immediately pick up their smartphones once a session ends, some meeting professionals may worry that screen time will prevent attendees from casually meeting each other. If everyone’s checking their email, how will they ever manage to talk? While it may be tempting to want to get attendees to disconnect, Amy Wunderlich, Interior Designer and Senior Associate, Populous, recommends using furniture that embraces the tech trend.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily about breaking screen addiction, but encouraging the use of technology in a more engaging way,” Wunderlich says. “You could do this by creating seating areas with technology that allows the sharing of content with others.”
In addition to helping attendees easily look at content on an iPad or a monitor, Wunderlich highlights that planners can leverage the power of a nearly powerless battery.
“Areas with ample access to power outlets are important as well,” Wunderlich says. “A communal table approach may encourage interaction while catching up on work back home or while simply charging devices.”
“Proximity tends to make people more likely to interact,” Wunderlich adds.
2) While the educational sessions may be inside, the outdoors can have equal impact.
The activities inside the convention center are crucial, but what’s going on outside can be just as important when it comes to helping attendees connect with each other.
“Providing outdoor spaces at conferences and events is about well-being — the emotional, cognitive and physical experiences of attendees,” Ferin says. “Getting a few minutes of daylight or fresh air can refresh attendees’ minds and prepare them for the next session.”
“Convention centers are often in great locales,” Wunderlich adds. “If you can keep people close and give them access to the good weather that will keep them around.”
In Boston, the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority turned 2.7 acres worth of green space outside the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center into a place where attendees can recharge. The “furniture” is dedicated to fun. Attendees can replace working tables inside the convention center with ping pong tables on the lawn. Instead of standard chairs, the D Street ArtLAB included an interactive art installation with oversized swing chairs last fall.
3) Rather than giving attendees a break from work, the right furniture design can keep business moving forward.
Fueling networking opportunities isn’t always just about finding ways to make the introductions. It’s about managing to keep the attendees who are part of those introductions on-site.
“When attendees come to meetings, their work at the office doesn’t disappear,” Claire Smith, Vice President, Sales and Marketing, Vancouver Convention Centre, says. “We need to make sure we can help them get that work done without leaving.”
“Working is a healthy part of a meeting,” Smith says. “You shouldn’t have to go back to the hotel to have a conference call or find another space to review a contract. You should be able to stay at the convention center, attend parts of the meeting and continue your work as needed.”
“That helps the whole conference, too,” Smith adds. “With more members of the group on-site, the networking potential is naturally higher.”
When the Vancouver Convention Centre welcomed TED2015 in March, Smith and her team partnered with Workspring to turn a foyer into a space where attendees could organize Board meetings, make phone calls and manage their daily responsibilities.
“While the conference was happening, there were real estate deals closing and businesses merging in the space,” Smith says. “It was phenomenal to see what was an unused portion of the centre turn into a hub of business activity.”
What are some of the most innovative examples of furniture design and space utilization you’ve seen? Go to Catalyst to share your thoughts with the PCMA community.