Design your meeting BEFORE choosing the venue!

I love my meeting design clients, but there is one mistake I see them making over and over again.

Clients invariably ask me to help design their meeting after they’ve chosen a venue! Here’s why they do it, and why it’s a mistake.

Why don’t clients design the meeting first?

Here’s why clients contract a venue before designing their meeting. The work of choosing and contracting a venue has to occur early during event production, before tackling major logistical necessities like budgeting, marketing, food and beverage, accommodations, etc. Because meeting process design is still a relatively new activity to most meeting stakeholders, they default to the familiar workflow mindset and overlook the need to think about how desired meeting outcomes might affect venue choice.

Meeting planners and venue staff are generally comfortable determining space needs for traditional events once they know the type of event, number of attendees, and the meeting duration. In my experience, however, they have little idea of the space and room set requirements for participant-driven and participation-rich meetings, which typically require:

  • larger general session rooms, because participants are moving about and/or set so they are facing one another rather than sitting in fixed dense sets of tables and chairs; and
  • more separate breakout spaces for participants to meet.

As a result, ~95% of the time I review floor plans or visit the fait accompli venue I discover that incorporating the interactive work that is a hallmark of participation-rich meetings will require compromises and workarounds.

According to Destination Hotels’ fourth annual State of the Meetings Industry survey, “nearly 68 percent of [meeting planners] said that flexible meeting spaces rated an 8, 9 or 10 in importance when choosing a meeting site”, so a majority of meeting planners are aware of the importance of having a venue that supports the needs of the event. Unfortunately, it seems that most planners are unaware of the specific kinds of flexibility needed. The best way to make sure you’ll meet flexibility needs is to design your event in advance. You’ll then have the information to contract space and services that fit.

The consequences of putting the venue-selection cart before the meeting design horse

What happens if you don’t design before choosing a venue? Sometimes, I have to work with venue spaces and can’t-be-changed room sets that make it almost impossible to design an effective interactive and participatory meeting experience. Frequently, the client chose rooms using the venue website’s traditional seating-capacity rubrics, rubrics that simply don’t provide adequate space for participatory session designs.

In addition, room turn-over considerations (related to venue staffing, turn-over costs, and furniture options) cause problems that are easily avoided if additional, appropriately set space is available. This allows session flow to truly meet the needs of the event design rather than being constrained by logistics.

If you cannot expand the contracted venue space, you’ll have crowded rooms, leading to lowered interactivity, poorer participant experience, and reduced meeting effectiveness.

If you can expand contracted venue space, this will typically necessitate additional unanticipated expense that could often have been avoided or reduced if the space had been included and negotiated as part of the original contract. My clients often discover that belatedly adding space onto an existing contract is too expensive for their already-finalized budget, so they reluctantly stay with what they originally contracted — and the quality of their event suffers.

Design before choosing the venue!

Planning to ask for help with event design? Then involve an experienced designer early, before you commit to a venue. You will then know the space and set-ups needed to produce a successful participation-rich meeting, ensuring that you will not have to expensively renegotiate additional space or put up with meeting space that reduces the effectiveness of your event.

3 thoughts on “Design your meeting BEFORE choosing the venue!

  1. “~95% of the time I get review floor plans or site visit the fait accompli venue I discover that compromises and workarounds will have to be made (if possible) to incorporate the interactive work that is a hallmark of participation-rich meetings.” Interesting fact to keep in mind- thank you for sharing this!

  2. I think it’s best to find the venue first before designing. It’s a lot easier to think of a design if you already have the venue.

    1. If you’re talking about traditional logistical meeting design, it’s true that having a specific venue to work with can make it easier to hone in on themes, decor, etc. But this is not the case when you’re thinking about meeting process design.

      Meeting process design leads to requirements for venue space needs that are different from those conventional meetings. Traditional space allocation (e.g. plenary theater seating, banqueting space, breakout rooms) rarely satisfies the needs for participant-driven and participation-rich meetings.

      That is why you need to design the meeting before choosing the venue.

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