Six ways to keep attendees comfortable and improve your event

by Adrian Segar

While stuck in cramped seats during a six-hour Boston to San Francisco flight recently, my wife gently pointed out that I had become quite grumpy. She helped me notice that my lack of body comfort was affecting my mood. Luckily for me, Celia remained solicitous and supportive, reducing my grouchiness, and once we were off the wretched plane my spirits lightened further.

Unfortunately, I tend to be oblivious for a while of the effects of physical discomfort on my feelings. Until I notice what’s really upsetting me, I typically and unfairly blame my irritability on innocent culprits, for example:

  • The tediousness of gardening because insects are swarming around my head.
  • The delay in waiting for my food to arrive in a noisy restaurant.
  • A presenter’s inability to capture my full attention while I’m sitting with my neck twisted permanently towards him in an auditorium.

I suspect I’m not alone in these errors of judgment. Pivoting to the world of events, this means if we want to give attendees the best possible experience, we need to minimize the quantity and severity of physical comfort issues that are under our control.

Here are six common mistakes you’ve probably experienced, together with suggestions for mitigating their impact. (Feel free to add more in the comments below!)

1 — Room temperature
It surprises me that many venues still can’t get this right. While I know that there’s no such animal as an ideal room temperature for everyone, the fluctuations I’ve routinely seen when rooms empty and fill during an event are often extreme and unacceptable.

There are two issues here.

First, sweltering or freezing rooms make it almost impossible for attendees to concentrate on what’s happening in the session. This is a venue issue that can be fixed; the HVAC plant needs to be adequately sized and controlled so that it can maintain the temperature in an acceptable range during normal changes in occupancy.

Second, if the room occupants decide that the temperature should be raised or lowered, the organizers and venue should have procedures in place to make this happen quickly. Why venues continue to distrust their customers and lock up thermostats so only hard-to-summon staff can make an adjustment (and then disappear again) baffles me. If they’re worried that clients will turn the temperature way up or down and leave the room, wasting energy, they should invest in motion detector technology that resets the room temperature when no one is in it.

2 — Noise
Along with 20% of the U.S. population I have some hearing loss, so background noise makes it challenging to hear what’s going on. As a result, playing house music during conference breaks and socials is more than a distraction; it actively impedes the utility of the event for me. (If I want to listen to music, I’ll pick my own and listen elsewhere, thank you very much.) Especially at traditional events where most of the networking occurs outside the meeting sessions, unnecessary noise of any kind is at best a distraction and at worse a reason to leave the premises.

Another mistake that is often avoidable is to hold multiple small groups in spaces with acoustics that prevent each group from concentrating on its own conversation because of continuous interruptions by talking/laughter/applause from neighboring groups.

3 — Seating
Last week I facilitated Haute Dokimazo, a cool one-day conference held in The Thinkery, a children’s museum in Austin, Texas. The event was a big success, but during the closing group spective the seating was criticized. Yes, as you might expect, some of the chairs we used were sized for kids not adults, and this took a toll on participants’ rear ends over the day!

Even when a venue is designed for adult use, the quality of seating and poor seating layouts (1, 2) can seriously affect participant comfort. The former is a venue or production responsibility; but the latter can easily be ameliorated if you know how to set seating for maximum comfort and function.

4 — Safety
We’ve all had to suffer through awkward “icebreakers” that fail to introduce attendees meaningfully to each other and have no connection to desired meeting outcomes. Providing the right level of emotional comfort at an event is tricky, because our best learning often occurs when we feel safe enough to take some smart risks. There are many ways to maximize learning and connection by enhancing participant safety at an event, and some of them are described here.

5 — Breaks
Have you ever been exhausted while attending a conference, unable to properly concentrate, learn, or participate fully?

I have — and I bet you have as well.

Conference organizers often try to cram too many sessions into the time available. Attendee comfort subsequently declines, along with the quality and effectiveness of the event. It’s not hard to create meeting schedules that include sufficient down time, but if you feel compelled to squeeze everything possible into an event, tell attendees upfront what you’ve done and give them explicit permission to take breaks when ever necessary.

6 — Movement
Think about the meetings you’ve been to that were filled with purposeful activity. What was your energy level like there, compared to similar meetings where you sat and listened to people speak all day? Did you feel more energized, more on top of what was going on, less tuned-out? Most people do.

So don’t overlook the importance of incorporating physical movement into your events at regular intervals. You don’t have to lead attendees in jumping jacks every hour, but even simple standing and moving about for session-related reasons (see the participative techniques in The Power of Participation for examples) can make a big difference to attendee physical comfort and attention span.

Keep ’em comfortable!
When you think about the amount of energy, money, and time that goes into producing and attending an event, implementing as many as possible of the simple suggestions above makes excellent sense. You can doubtless think of other ways to improve attendee comfort — for example, streamlining registration and check-in — and I welcome your additions in the comments below.

Image attribution: adapted from this article.

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  • suepelletier

    For the noise problem, one thing I’ve now experienced a few times is having a radio and headset with channels you can dial into to hear a particular speaker in a ballroom with multiple sessions going on simultaneously (or on a trade show floor where the background decibels are pretty high). I know it’s probably expensive and hard to set up, but it’s a lifesaver—or session-saver, anyway. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could do something similar at networking events, where you could tune into the music if you wanted to dance, or tune into the person you’re trying to talk with if not? If someone could come up with that variation on the technology, and make it affordable, I guarantee that person would make a mint on it.

    • I agree completely, Sue. Most people travel with a set of earbuds or a headset these days, so they could use their own hearing device, with a few loaners available. Each radio could have its own 3-4 digit channel number, displayed on the exterior, and there could be an app that would allow individuals to set up their own ad-hoc group or conference staff to preset session groups assigned to low-number channels.

      Come to think of it, with good enough Wi-Fi, an app could do the whole thing! No extra devices needed!

      App developers — anyone interested?!

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