Room to Breathe: Creating Quiet Spaces at Conferences

Author: Jasmine Zhu       

quiet spaces

Lee Papa, of Mindfulness Lounge™, leads Experient EnVision attendees in a guided meditation session at the event’s Mindfulness Centre.

Allocating quiet spaces or private rooms at events for meditation or prayer not only demonstrates that you recognize the value of providing breaks from hectic program schedules, but that you welcome attendees to bring their full, authentic selves to events. That’s what business events strategists told Convene about why these kinds of areas are part of their planning process and attendee experience. They also shared how they make them serve a higher purpose while keeping an eye on the bottom line.

quiet spaces

Elizabeth Kunsey

Cost is particularly a high priority when it comes to planning the American Epilepsy Society (AES) Annual Meeting, said Elizabeth Kunsey, CMP, the society’s senior manager of meetings and events. Since the association’s main focus is to raise money for epilepsy research, there’s not a lot of wiggle room for providing extras at events. But nonetheless, a prayer room — now renamed a “quiet room” in order to be more inclusive — is a regular feature of the AES Annual Meeting.

One thing that Kunsey keeps in mind when setting up the quiet room is to allow for enough personal space. When Kunsey went into this area at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center last November on set-up day for the AES 2018 Annual Meeting, she noticed that all the chairs were too close together, so she spread them out. “I think people want to go in and be quiet and be by themselves,” Kunsey said. “We definitely are trying to make it the best that we can with the little that we have.”

quiet spaces

Karen Watson

In addition to maximizing its physical size, finding the right location for a quiet space can be challenging. You want to find an area that isn’t in a noisy part of the venue but still easily accessible to attendees, said Karen Watson, senior director of strategic events at Maritz Global Events. “We learned this, unfortunately, a little bit of the hard way one year,” Watson said, when a quiet room was situated too close to front-of-house traffic. (You also have to be mindful of back-of-house traffic areas.) Since then, she’s looked for areas that are not too far off the beaten path yet offer a quiet environment.

At Experient EnVision 2019, which took place this past March at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, Watson worked with a third-party provider to create a Mindfulness Centre — a hybrid quiet/meditation room, which, for the first time, was also sponsored. The first half of the room was a quiet room — including an intermediary area where attendees could ask questions about the meditations — which then flowed into the meditation space, where attendees could participate in 20- to 30-minute guided meditation sessions. The Mindfulness Centre was sponsored by Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, acknowledged in signage outside of the room as well as on the conference app and program.

“This was the most successful setup that we’ve had of all the years that we’ve done it,” Watson said. “It was positive and I definitely saw people utilizing the space.”

Audience Focus

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners’ (RACGP) annual conference (GP18), held in the Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre last October in Broadbeach, Australia, offered a dedicated prayer room for participants in the center’s foyer, partitioned off with octanorm panels for privacy. Paula Rowntree, national conference and events manager at RACGP, worked with RACGP’s exhibition builder to create an approximately 20ˇ x 13ˇ bespoke prayer space, where participants could sit on floor mats similar to yoga mats.

Rowntree said that the attendee feedback from GP18 has been positive, although limited: Since there hadn’t been a lot of marketing communication around the prayer space leading up to the event, it wasn’t utilized as much as it could have been.

quiet spaces

Paula Rowntree

“There have been comments from those expressing their gratitude for offering them a quiet space and respecting their cultural beliefs,” Rowntree wrote in an email to Convene. “We offered the prayer room/meditation space because we felt that, culturally, it was the right thing to do, given our diverse membership.” Attendees of GP18 represented a variety of religions, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, according to Rowntree.

Andrea Post, CMP, conference director of Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN), said that attendee feedback was an important part of planning the 2018 Nonprofit Technology Conference, held last April at New Orleans’ Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

It was the first year that NTEN had an accessibility committee, comprising NTEN community members, including attendees and non-attendees, sponsors, and exhibitors. Over the course of three months, the committee created an accessibility guide and evaluated the layout of the convention center, with the intention of designing a more welcoming environment for a diverse range of attendees, including nursing mothers, hearing-impaired individuals, people of color, and those of different religious backgrounds.

Because of the newly formed committee, the 2018 Nonprofit Technology Conference included both a prayer and a quiet room. The quiet room — with beanbag chairs, pillows, blankets, and a volunteer offering reiki treatments — was meant to help alleviate anxiety for those feeling overwhelmed by high levels of interaction at the conference. The prayer room was created with a different intention: to make religious attendees for whom prayer is a regular practice feel more welcome at the event.

As well as prayer rugs, NTEN invested in soft lighting and fabrics, making attendees’ comfort level a priority. “Engaging with our community and creating the accessibility committee helped inform the decisions that we were making,” Post said, “because it wasn’t just us saying, ‘Oh, this is what attendees want.’” In the past, the prayer room had been well-received by the conference’s Muslim attendees, and the addition of the quiet room at the recent event found an audience among attendees looking for a place to take a break and recharge without having to leave the conference.

Attendees “rave about feeling welcome at our event,” Post said. “Every single investment costs us almost nothing, and it comes back to us tenfold. It requires so little on our part and it’s a big reward for attendees.”

Jasmine Zhu is an associate editor at Convene.

Quiet, please

A Convene survey in March polled meeting planners to learn about their experiences planning personal spaces for religious needs at their events. Out of the 53 total respondents, more than half (53 percent) said that their largest event offers a prayer/meditation room. The top elements included in prayer/ meditation rooms, by percentage of respondents:

  • Reminder signs of being a quiet space (63 percent)
  • Other (47percent) *
  • Comfortable seating (44 percent)
  • Prayer mats and rugs (28 percent)
  • No cellphone/laptop policy (22 percent)

*Write-in responses for “Other” included blacked-out windows, privacy partitions, and separated men’s and women’s areas, among other elements.