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An Event Planner’s Guide to Engaging Room Layouts

By EventMB Team

The room layout can have a huge impact on the engagement and learning at your event. Find out which are the best seating layouts for different events and some ways to mix it up with more unusual layouts to increase engagement in meeting design.

When planning an event or meeting, one of the hardest parts can be accommodating the amount of attendees you need in a venue in the most engaging way. Are you sick of using the same standard and uninventive setups? Traditional layouts have their place and uses and can often maximize the room capacity but if you are willing to experiment you can use new and lesser known formats to mix things up.

Choosing the right layout is important because it can change the guests experience of your entire event. Whether you are looking to promote better learning, encourage networking opportunities, provide a good performance experience, or enable proper interaction for brainstorming or team-building exercises, the layout will either help or hinder this.

With this in mind, we have compiled a list of event room layouts you can use to accommodate attendees, what they actually mean and how they can be used best. Starting with the traditional and most well-known room setups we also cover some more inventive options you may wish to consider to change the dynamics of your future events. We have also created a checklist of the information you need to find out and check to be sure if a layout can work for your event.

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An Event Planner’s Guide to Engaging Room Layouts

Choosing The Best Seating Arrangement

When deciding on the best room layout and seating arrangements there are a number of factors to take into consideration.

1. What Are The Attendee Numbers?

The attendee numbers will have a big impact on the final layout chosen. Some options just might not be workable for the numbers you have attending (or expect to attend) as you want to ensure that everyone can find a seat and be accommodated within the room. A layout is not workable if it means that everything is too cramped with bad sightlines, no wheelchair access and too cramped or far from the speaker. Smaller numbers can often offer greater flexibility in terms of seating arrangements.

Also consider if there may be walk-ups to the event. If you are likely to have an influx of attendees who haven’t pre-registered you probably want the option to accommodate them and find some additional seats quickly and easily, rather than turning them away.

2. What Space is Available?

The room dimensions will also determine whether a specific setup is possible or not. The venue will often have valuable guidance and hopefully even layout plans and capacities for the different setups. It has been known however for the numbers given by venues to be incorrect and based more on wishful thinking than practical usage. If you are in any doubt ask for the room to be setup in the way you require and check it yourself so you can be sure of the number of guests you can comfortably fit in.

If you are really struggling with capacity but don’t want to compromise on the layout of the space you may need to be inventive and split participants into two sessions, take advantage of live streaming and remote conferencing or look at creating a 2-day event or repeating it at a later date if the popularity is there.

3. What Are Your Priorities?

What are the objectives for your event, or for this specific room/element of the event? Within each area think about whether it is all about learning from the speaker or interaction with other attendees or simply recharging in a quiet area? You need to decide the most important factors for your event and what this means for your attendees to determine the best use of each space. Do you need engagement and networking over capacity or are you looking for comfort and stage view over interaction? Answering these questions can help narrow down layout possibilities to decide what you want.

4. What Are the Practicalities?

What are the practicalities of the venue and your event you need to take into account? For example where will food and refreshments be served? Do you expect any lines and if so how can people queue comfortably? Where will people eat and do they need to be seated or is it a finger or fork buffet designed to encourage mingling? If you want to keep capacity and minimize disruption, ensure you hire a venue with a separate area to serve refreshments and keep the main space for the event itself.

Are there any fixtures and fittings that you should be aware of? Some venues have fixed bars or heavy furniture that cannot be moved. Likewise is access needed to storerooms, fire escapes and shortcuts?

5. Decor and Furniture

Talk to your venue to find out if they have a choice of furniture available and included within your venue hire or whether you need to rent different options in terms of chairs, tables, linen hire and sofas as rental charges can soon add up. It is worth checking specifically how much furniture and how many of each type is available to you too if they have a number of different types. Consider the aesthetics and whether different tables and chairs can work together or whether they are different heights and sizes.

Also consider the look and feel of the room and the decor. For instance a very dark room might not be best suited to networking but might work well for performances and speaker presentations.

6. Do You Need a Stage?

Stages can take up a lot of space, particularly if you are already struggling with space to accommodate everyone. Raising up the speaker, even just slightly onto a low platform, can improve visibility from the back of the room. Or alternatively bring the facilitator down to attendee level to create a more intimate feel.

What is the stage being used for? If you are planning a panel discussion and want to have furniture such as table and chairs for the panel members this will increase the stage area required.  

7. Activities

If you have planned activities at any point during your event, you will need to consider the space and layout available. Ensure that speakers are well briefed so they can prepare accordingly too as changing a room layout around isn’t an easy task and generally should be avoided within your event hours unless you have plenty of time, staff and storage areas available to ensure there is no disruption with the change-around. For example, if you have a theater style or auditorium layout this isn’t ideal if you want to do group work, have participants moving around or incorporate a chair-free team building space.

8. Health And Safety

The most important aspect is to adhere to health and safety guidance to ensure that the room layout is safe and that the venue can be evacuated quickly in case of an emergency. You need to liaise with your venue regarding capacity limits, emergency exit routes and any other special considerations to ensure that your layout doesn’t impede walkways, exits, refuge points, muster points and emergency assembly points. Some venues may also have additional special circumstances for example a reduced capacity for high level structures or older buildings, so you need to take this into consideration.

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7 Traditional Event Seating Layouts

These room layouts are most commonly detailed by venues as standard room setups to give an idea of the capacity for each seating arrangement.

Theater Style

Alternative Descriptions and Variations: Rows, Auditorium, Tiered (as seen in lecture halls, theaters, etc)

All chairs are setup in straight rows, facing a central point, such as a staging area. There is generally an aisle in the middle to allow attendees to reach their seats. theater style is one of the most common and traditional layouts seen, particularly when trying to fit as many attendees into a space as possible. theater style is commonly used for conferences, where a dense mass of people need to be seated and for events that require a large stage or presentation area. It can hinder interaction as you are limited to talk to the people immediately around you. Attendees have a tendency to spread out too and to leave unsightly gaps and empty chairs which people are blocked from filling.

Common Uses: Conferences, presentations, annual meetings, product launches, displays, lectures, performances

Classroom Style

This layout introduces square or rectangular tables and therefore immediately requires more space as attendees sit on chairs in rows behind the tables facing the central presentation area. It is useful for events that require note taking, tests and if access to equipment, refreshments and food is needed.

Common Uses: Ideal for note-taking, medium sized conferences or events, longer events, training, tests, use of computers and tablet devices, access to water

Cabaret

Alternative Descriptions and Variations: Half Moon, Crescent

Using circular banqueting tables, attendees are seated around the tables. Sometimes half tables are used instead of rounds. The tables are staggered around a stage or presentation area. In a conference setting the chairs at the head of the table may be removed so that no one has their back to the activity and chairs may be angled towards the front. The downside is that you waste around 60% of table space as no one sits on the opposite side. This setup is particularly useful for events that have both meals and performances or require group work and want to encourage networking.

Common Uses: Meals with presentations or performances e.g. award evenings, luncheons, workshops, conferences

Banquet

Alternative Descriptions and Variations: Dinner Style

Introducing the seating all the way around around tables this layout is useful for dinner based events or those that don’t require attendees to be focused on a central point in the room and can allow more efficient table positioning. It allows you to use more of the space to fit attendees as tables are used to maximum capacity. While it is conducive to networking on the table, it makes it difficult to interact with other tables and can tend to silo attendees into groups and cliques which can also be one of its main benefits if you are aiming for people to get to know each other.

Common Uses: Weddings, evening events, sit-down meals, entertainment or music based stage events that don’t require attendees constantly focusing their attention or turning around.

Boardroom

Alternative Descriptions and Variations: Hollow Square

Tables are turned inwards to create a square or rectangle with participants all seated at the tables facing the middle to allow interaction and discussion. With larger numbers or depending on the room, the boardroom layout may be hollow in the middle. This layout is popular for small breakout sessions and meetings and to encourage participation, brainstorming and discussion. It can take up a lot of room and if there are too many participants it can have the opposite effect, making it difficult for delegates to interact.

Common Uses: Meetings, conference breakout sessions, smaller sessions, brainstorming

U-Shape

Alternative Descriptions and Variations: Tabled Horseshoe

This is essentially boardroom style but with one end table removed to accommodate a facilitator or session leader and the ability to see the stage or front/head of the table. This helps to allow discussion but facilitated in a more structured way so it can accommodate more than a traditional boardroom layout, especially if interaction is predominantly between a leader and the attendees.

Common Uses: Suitable for interactive sessions such as smaller conferences and meetings, debates, workshops, training sessions

Cocktail

Alternative Descriptions and Variations: Reception, Buffet

If you are looking to use as much capacity as possible and allow people to network freely, a reception or buffet style often involves having several long tables at the edge of the room with food and refreshments while the rest of the space is free with several high-top tables to stand and rest at. Although some chairs may be used they are generally discouraged as this can interfere with networking and movement.

Common Uses: Short events, networking events, drink receptions, social events

12 Interesting Room Layout Alternatives

Room layouts don’t have to be limited to the uninventive tried and tested arrangements we see time and time again. If you are looking to give your meeting design a twist consider if one of these setups could have more impact.

Clusters

Clustering is less formal than banquet style but with the premise that smaller cocktail or high-top tables and seating are provided ad hoc for attendees to stand or sit at as well as mingle and network. Depending on the room size and delegates that you are catering for will depend on the size of the tables and seating chosen.

Best Uses: Performances, networking events, cocktail evenings, group discussions

Herringbone

Alternative Descriptions and Variations: V-Shape, Chevron

This layout can be incorporated with or without tables to mix up classroom and theater style and allows attendees to sit staggered and at an angle in front of a stage. This can enable better views and easier discussion which allows for more interaction than some of the other traditional layouts. On the downside it does take up more venue space as much is lost in the middle. This layout can also create more of a performance area up front or make it easier for facilitators to walk around different groups during workshop sessions.

Best Uses: Workshops, conferences, interactive meetings, product launches, performances, training sessions.

Horseshoe

Although similar to U-shape layouts, true horseshoe layout removes the tables and has a seating only approach that allows for a facilitator up front to work closely with attendees. It also means that interaction, activities and discussion can flow more freely, for example at corporate retreats or brainstorming sessions to create a relaxed and more informal environment.

Best Uses: Corporate retreats, training, workshops, brainstorming sessions.

Open Space

Alternative Descriptions and Variations: Circle

For full engagement an open space or circle layout forces attendees to network and be completely open. It involves minimal furniture that could be chairs in a large circle or no furniture at all and the attendees standing. It is particularly useful for workshops or team building because of the lack of barriers but doesn’t suit anything that requires a presentation. It needs a strong leader or facilitator to keep things moving successfully. This layout allows for everyone to be part of a larger conversation and get involved or separate off into groups.

Best Uses: Team building, networking, workshops and training

Imperial

Alternative Descriptions and Variations: Bench layout

If you are looking to maximize space but need sit-down meals or table space, the imperial set-up involves long rectangular tables placed end to end with attendees sitting either side of the table. This can save a lot more space than round tables and encourage conversations across the table and with the people on either side.

Best Uses: Receptions, events serving food, networking, group activities requiring table space, presentations, weddings

Runway

As the name suggests this involves a longer presentation or staging area with guests sitting either side. Although commonly used for fashion shows it can be a dynamic layout for product launches, performances and presentations to gain more interaction from attendees as you can reach more of them, particularly if there is more than one person on stage at a time. It can be with or without tables

Best Uses: Fashion shows, presentations, product launches, displays

X-Formation

Placing tables in the shape of an X and seating attendees around the outside can allow for more interaction throughout the room when a central stage isn’t needed. Placing a circular table in the middle can create a decorative or practical area for food, stationary or equipment that can help facilitate the event while the tables themselves allow for note-taking and refreshments for longer events.

Best Uses: Weddings, conferences, meetings, large brainstorming sessions, longer events

Semicircle

Alternative Descriptions and Variations: Arch, curved theater-style

A semicircle of chairs can help everyone see better as well make it easier for the facilitator to access and interact. It is a little more inviting and less regimented than theater style or herringbone layout. It requires more space than traditional theater style as it isn’t the most efficient positioning of the chairs but can still help meet capacity for a lot of attendees as well as feeling more open for discussion. This layout also allows for a low or floor level presentation area, ease of access for the attendees to help with demonstrations, as well other involvement.

Best Uses: Conferences, training, meetings, presentations

Pods

Alternative Descriptions and Variations: World cafe style

Creating paired rectangular tables to accommodate more attendees seated around it is useful for discussions, team-building or corporate retreats where participants will need to interact and take input from the facilitator.

Best Uses: Networking sessions, team-building, group sessions, world cafe format

Walking

You could opt to break convention completely and go mobile by having a walking format for a specific task. Facilitators can walk and talk to attendees and walking and talking lends itself to discussions in pairs or small groups. It avoids sitting for long periods of time and can help to encourage creativity and take in some fresh air. Perhaps you can incorporate this change of scene into the event, for example a walking session to an outdoor reception area for a short performance or presentation.

Best Uses: Tours, meetings, small sessions, corporate retreats, brainstorming, discussions, problem solving

Mixed Seating

Alternative Descriptions and Variations: Multi-heights

Not every attendee works in the same way and opting for a variety of different seating can be an interesting way of allowing everyone to pick what suits them. From normal chairs and bar stools to bean bags and floor cushions you can still incorporate a stage or presentation area by having the lowest seating at the front which would also be a natural way to overcome the viewing problem of theater style. Different seating types could also be clustered together to encourage networking as well as interaction if the event requires it.

Best Uses: Presentations, conferences, annual meetings, corporate retreats, performances, small group work

Lounge

Opting for low level seating such as chairs, sofas, cushions and beanbags allows more of a relaxed and informal environment, particularly suitable for networking or informal presentations that don’t require much audience interaction. The comfort can allow for longer seating periods and with a higher stage level can make it easy for everyone to see. It will require more space and can give a VIP feel. You can also potentially include some low-level coffee tables for drinks and refreshments.

Best Uses: Showcases, presentations, relaxed events, performances, VIP seating

In Conclusion

Selecting the right event layout can really enhance and change the event experience. Often we go for traditional room layouts as this can be the easiest and most efficient option in terms of space, ease of setup and cost savings but if attendee numbers and the venue allow flexibility it can be worthwhile and memorable to explore alternative seating options. Discuss with your venue your vision as they may be able to suggest a suitable solution which will make an impact on your participants and enhance networking, learning and engagement.

Related Reading

Meeting Design Report
No Chairs and Other Ideas for Productive Meetings
5 Things Expert Eventprofs Do To Boost Networking
4 Encompassing Trends in Event Design
The Ultimate Guide To Planning A Conference Panel Discussion
15 Ways Event Planners Can Brainstorm New Ideas
Confessions From A Venue Event Manager

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