Comfort, cost, and…casters? Better chairs for your conference

Better conference chairs Node chair by Steelcase
Steelcase’s node chair, photographed at edACCESS 2013

Can we make better conference chairs?

Ask meeting attendees what’s most important about the chairs they sit in at an event and they’ll inevitably say they should be comfortable.

Ask meeting venues what’s most important about the seating they choose and they’ll probably say cost (though stackable and lightweight will be mentioned too).

If you ask meeting designers like me…what would we say?

A head-turning moment

This week I facilitated the world’s oldest peer conference: the four-day edACCESS annual conference that’s been running since 1992. The conference always includes a small tradeshow, and this year Steelcase was there.

Steelcase is an interesting and unusual company. After a hundred years in business, it’s the world’s largest manufacturer of office furniture. Rather than resting on their laurels, the company’s management is continually looking for genuinely useful and innovative ways to improve business environments. As an illustration, take a look at the Steelcase blog which is written by top management rather than junior PR staff.

Steelcase wanted to show several lines of products designed for educational environments at edACCESS 2013. That’s where I discovered their Node chair, designed by IDEO and pictured above. I first noticed and liked the tripod storage platform under the chair—a great place to store bags and backpacks off the floor. But then I saw the chair had casters. And when I sat in it, I found out that the seat swiveled. “So what?” you may ask. Read on!

Moveable chairs

Adjustable office chairs were invented in the 1850’s and became common in offices during the 1940’s. While office workers have long enjoyed the benefits of these chairs they are rarely seen in conference settings. A quick web search for meeting chairs turns up hundreds of images of rigid plastic stackable chairs that attendees have uncomfortably endured for years.

Why are chairs like the Node important? Because effective meetings require, encourage, and support participation. Participative formats require attendees to:

  • Follow activities occurring around the room; and
  • Move between alternative seating formats.

When you’re sitting in a traditional conference chair you face the front of the room and can only look elsewhere by turning your head and body as much as your chair allows. Looking anywhere but straight ahead becomes uncomfortable after a few minutes (see Paul Radde’s Seating Matters: State of the Art Seating Arrangements for more information on this). A swiveling chair like the Node makes such shifts of attention easy.

Swiveling makes conference chairs better.

A chair with casters allows participants to quickly move between seating sets. For example, a session might start with a ten-minute presentation, with chairs facing the presenter and then require small group discussions. Attendees can scoot their chairs into the right formation; no standing and lifting required. The Node makes this safe by having a tripod construction with a wide base of support, unlike standard office chairs that can tip fairly easily if moved too quickly.

Room to move

“You gotta give me
‘Cause I can’t give the best
Unless I got room to move”
—John Mayall

While the Node chair gives participants “room to move” it’s not perfect from a venue’s standpoint. There’s no way to stack Nodes, and their unit cost of $600+ will make most venues’ financial managers blanch. But this kind of seating is what we need if we’re going to transition at our events from the outdated lecture formats of the past to the interactive, engaging, connection-making, community building conferences of the future, and I salute Steelcase for having the vision and the commitment to improve seating options for the education and meetings markets.

[Disclosure: I contributed research, together with Steelcase, to a 2011 White Paper published by the National Conference Center: The Future of The Meetings Industry: Why Certain Conference Innovators Are Winning. I did not receive any remuneration for this work and have no other connection with Steelcase.]

8 thoughts on “Comfort, cost, and…casters? Better chairs for your conference

  1. Seems we’re on the same wavelength. I recently wrote about chairs for event venues as well. I agree with you that comfort and the ability to easily move chairs is important. As facilitators, our jobs are a lot easier when participants are comfortable and rigid chairs, just don’t cut it.

    Here are my thoughts

    Corporate Event Challenges & Solutions: Choosing Comfortable Chairs

    1. Great information about seating choices in your article Anne! The only downside I see is that much of the cool seating you highlight is really expensive. (On the other hand, the Node isn’t cheap either.)

  2. Actually, no it doesn’t have to be. It depends on your supplier and your venue. One of the venues in Toronto, for example, has almost all of these options on hand through their preferred supplier. Last week, I attended Ignite Business Expo at the Allstream Centre and the Direct Energy Centre in Toronto. They were able to give even the smaller exhibitors at a recent trade show some affordable packages for really cool seating and furniture. Take a peek.

    Ignite Business Expo Raises the Bar with Inspiring Decor

    Venue selection is so key when budgets are limited. That’s why certain aspects of planning actually take longer when the client has a low budget.

    1. Well, those massage chairs cost thousands of $! 🙂 The office chairs are more reasonable, though I couldn’t find a price for the Coreflex dual-flex chairs. But we’re competing here with cheap stackable chairs that cost a fraction of these alternatives—and unfortunately I see cheap chairs in venues far too often.

      1. For specific events, planners would rent them from decor companies. For example in Canada we have Luxe Modern Rentals and Decor & More. Sometimes decor companies will sponsor specific trade shows and provide special packages for exhibitors. Photos of what can be provided at affordable prices were included in the blog post about inspiring decor.

        The Osim massage chairs would be used for lounges or a featured relaxation area on a trade show floor. So, a venue or trade show would only need a few of them. Brookstone has the Osim Chairs for $2999 – $3200 depending on whether or not they have a special promotion on.

        Wayfair listed the Lifeform Coreflex dual-flex chairs for $9,975.00.

        1. The price for the Lifeform Coreflex chair is, I’m sure, one of those placeholder pages with ridiculous prices. (I have similar offers to sell my book on Amazon at $900.) Ah, the internet 🙂

  3. Adrian,

    I recently took my son for a college tour at University of Mary Washington in Fredricksburg, VA and was astounded to find that ALL their classrooms are equipped with these chairs. The tour guide told me earnestly the students can sit in a circle or any other configuration with ease to foster discussion. I thought wow! I took a look at the walls in the newly renovated older building and discovered all the non-window walls completely covered in dry-erase material as well. I didn’t think of most colleges as being this forward thinking (sadly)…Perhaps that would be a good conference venue in the off-season 🙂

    1. Thanks for the information Andrea—it’s great to hear that some places of learning have improved their learning environment in these ways. Let’s hope that many others follow suit!

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