Designing Conference Environments That Turn Attendees Into Active Participants

Author: Christopher Durso       

PCMA Convening Leaders is known for its innovative footprint and outside-the-grid formats, especially in its Learning Labs and TechCentral, which offer bite-sized programming in open-space environments. All that came about mostly by accident, according to Kelly Peacy, CAE, CMP, founder and CEO of Insight Event Strategy, and former senior vice president of education and events for PCMA. Planning Convening Leaders about five years ago, “We really had a space issue,” Peacy says in the newest video for The Intersection, produced by PCMA and PSAV. “We had way too much space in one particular arena, and needed to fill it somehow.”

Whatever your event, you have to focus on matching your programming with the space in which you’re staging it. “When you have a convention-center facility or venue with large foyers, nice bright light — people gravitate toward that,” Peacy says. “Other times, you might not have the luxury of that space, so you need to find ways to engage them in a smaller amount of footprint.”

How do you do that? For Adrian Segar, veteran meeting facilitator and author of Conferences That Work and The Power of Participation, “The key issue is the number of people and the amount of time they have together.” If you’re staging a three-day conference for 500 people, say, “and you want to do something really interactive that’s maximally beneficial to people in terms of meeting other people and learning from each other,” Segar said, “then you’re doing to need to do some preliminary work with those 500 people and subdivide them” into smaller groups.

At a multi-day conference for medical administrators that Segar worked on some years ago, there were indeed 500 attendees, and he had them for just one day. So he broke people into 10 groups of 50, with each group devoted to a particular medical specialty, and staged 10 simultaneous sessions. “Even though 50-person discussions are large,” Segar said, “you can do some pretty interactive stuff quite easily with 50 people in a few hours. But you need 10 separate spaces for them.” That’s a lot of different rooms for a 500-attendee program, but crucially, the venue was the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, which offers nearly 540,000 square feet of event space.

“There’s still a big opportunity for venues,” Segar said. “I strongly recommend new venues to have more flexibility — larger amounts of smaller spaces mixed in with the larger open spaces. Typically, they do not have enough what you’d consider breakout spaces, because most of their events don’t need it. But events of the future, I think, will more and more, and venues that have more small breakout spaces combined with the large, open, flexible spaces will have a significant advantage over venues that don’t.”

Tips for Designing Engaging Conference Spaces:

1. Rethink not only the way you use your meeting space, but how you can change the kinds of experiences attendees are having.

2. Give people comfortable places to practice uncomfortable things.

3. Think of ways to create value in the sessions people are attending.

4. Diversify the ways you measure audience reactions, using apps, Post-Its, social media, and polling.

Watch the latest video from The Intersection.

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