Six ways to keep attendees comfortable and improve your event

Six ways to keep attendees comfortable and improve your eventWhile 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. Once we were off the 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 them 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 fixable venue issue; an adequately sized and controlled HVAC plant will 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; 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.) At traditional events where most of the networking occurs outside the meeting sessions, unnecessary noise is at best a distraction and at worse a reason to leave.

Another mistake that is often avoidable is to hold multiple small groups in spaces with poor acoustics. This prevents 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 were kid size. 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. The latter is easy to fix if you know how to set seating for maximum comfort and function.

4 — Safety
We’ve all suffered 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. Some of them are described here.

5 — Breaks
Have you ever felt 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. 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 attended with lots of purposeful activity. What was your energy level like, 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 can make a big difference to attendee physical comfort and attention span. See the suggestions in The Power of Participation for examples.

Keep ’em comfortable!
Think about the amount of energy, money, and time that goes into producing and attending an event. Doesn’t implementing as many as possible of the simple suggestions above make excellent sense? You can doubtless think of other ways to improve attendee comfort — for example, streamlining registration and check-in. I welcome your additions in the comments below.

Image attribution: adapted from this article.