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 major logistical necessities like budgeting, marketing, food and beverage, accommodations, etc. can be tackled. 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 the type of event, number of attendees, and the length of the meeting are known. 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 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.

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 required to meet these needs. The best way to make sure flexibility needs are met is to design your event in advance, so you then have the information to contract space and services that fit.

What are the consequences of putting the venue-selection cart before the meeting design horse?
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, rooms have been chosen using the venue website’s traditional seating-capacity rubrics, rubrics that simply don’t provide adequate space for participatory session designs.

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

If the contracted venue space cannot be expanded, sessions are crowded, leading to lowered interactivity, poorer participant experience, and reduced meeting effectiveness.

If the contracted venue space can be expanded, 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.

Let’s get meeting production workflow right!
If you’re going to ask for help with event design, 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.