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Event Layout 101 - Best Practices for Event Design
Catering, Event Design, Event Management, Tech, Venues

Jeff Kear
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Event Layouts 101 – Complete Guide for Amazing Event Design

Every successful event professional knows that behind almost every successful event is a well-considered event layout plan that takes into account the purpose of the event itself and the characteristics of your event space while enhancing the overall attendee experience.

For instance, have you ever attended an event that just felt claustrophobic or not laid out right? Maybe there were congested areas where people couldn’t move freely? Or the buffet line trailed out into the dance floor? Or your seated view of the stage was impeded by equipment or standing attendees? Or you couldn’t hear the speaker or band because the PA loudspeakers were too far away or not positioned properly? Or servers could not get around easily because tables and chairs were too close to each other?

All of these things are the result of flawed (or no) event floor layout design, and poor event layout design can be just as damaging to the success of your event as bad food or a no-show speaker or entertainer. With that said, there’s no reason that your events should ever suffer from the issues outlined above because with some proper focus and planning (and the right event layout software), walking through your events will seem as effortless as a stroll through the park.

Here are the key factors to consider when starting to put together your next event layout plan.

Establishing your event purpose and priorities upfront

One of the first steps in event planning and management is to decide what kind of event you will be organizing and the driving purpose behind the event. It may be a small conference that focuses on educational sessions and breakouts. Or a sit-down gala fundraiser with a silent auction and live entertainment. Or a networking event with cocktails and heavy apps. Or a big wedding with a ceremony seating area, sit-down dining area and dance floor spread across multiple rooms. But you get the idea.

You and your event collaborators - whether they be staff members, event planners, vendors, contractors or clients - will need to first settle on the event type (conference, trade show, banquet, reception, party, seminar, training, etc.) and scope of the event activities.

Such activities might include keynote speakers or panels, small group learning, networking, musical performances, team building, breakout groups and dining. Be sure to detail out all your activity requirements, as they will dictate both the venue space (including capacity) and the seating/staging needs you will require.

This event floorplan infographic shows you the most popular room setups and provides suggestions for which types of events are most suitable for each setup.

Envision what the ideal attendee experience should be like

The next step in your event layout planning process will be to envision what you want attendees to experience at the event and how you want them interact with each other and the key elements of the event.

NOTE: For large events, people sometimes hire event production companies to come up with the initial event design (often what this step is called), but to be honest for most events you should easily be able to do this yourself with the help of today's top event layout planning tools.

The key questions to ask here are:

  • What do I want people to pay attention to or do at the event?
  • How do I want people to be able to move around the event?
  • How do I want attendees to interact at the event?

Getting the event flow and movement of attendees right is critical in making your guests comfortable and eliminating any friction that keeps them from fully experiencing all the event has to offer. Ideally, their movement around the event space should be effortless and the traffic routes (aisles, corridors, hallways, venue ingress/egress, etc.) should be obvious.

Here are a few important factors to consider when determining how to optimize your attendee engagement.

High Traffic Routes

These are areas where either many people will be congregating (think dance floors, buffet tables, bars/drink stations) or where they are moving from place to place (think intersections of aisles/hallways, check-in stations/doors, etc.). Focus on creating spaces large or wide enough to accommodate the largest potential capacity for your event activities and make sure your traffic routes are well marked with directional signs or arrows.

Food-and-Beverage

If your event includes catering and/or any type of beverage service, this will also dictate how your event is laid out. Plated sit-down meals will require ample space for servers to deliver food and remove plateware as well as easy routes back and forth to a kitchen or food prep area. Buffet-style catered meals will require additional space for banquet food tables and space allotted for lines at those tables plus clear paths to and from the seating area. And heavy apps or cocktail event setups may be similar to a buffet setup or may be more of a large lounge area with lots of open space and high-top tables scattered throughout for standing dining.

Guest Commingling

Do your event activities include networking, dancing, cocktail areas or any other large group activities where attendees are interacting with each other? If so, then your event layout needs to allocate space for these activities and ensure there is enough room for each guest to not feel crowded (more on this later in the Headounts area of this article).

Scope out the content and/or entertainment you want to provide

Most events have some type of focal activity that will require people to face an area like a stage, dias, podium or microphone. This could include a keynote speaker, panel discussion, instructor/moderator, video presentation, band, DJ, performer or some combination of any of these.

Having one or more of these elements as part of your event will also dictate your event layout design requirements with regard to the following.

Staging and Sightlines

Where you put the stage or podium in your event space usually determines how you lay out the remainder of your event, especially if your event includes setup for dining. The main reason for this is that you need to provide all attendees with adequate sightlines so they can easily see the action up front. As one who has suffered through banquet presentations where my view has been blocked by other attendees or support beams, I speak from experience that any impeded views and blocked sightlines will have an adverse effect on your overall attendee experience.

To avoid this, you first need to place your stage or presentation area far enough away from your seated audience that it provides an optimal angle for all guests to see the action; that is, you don’t want your first few rows straining upward to view things and you don’t want the first few rows so close to the action that they block the view of other guests. Also, consider elevating your stage or dias and positioning aisles and walkways so guests walking back and forth don’t impede the view of seated guests.

Seating

Often if your event is mainly focused on attendees listening to a speaker, conducting a meeting with presenters up front or listening to music being performed, a straightforward auditorium event layout or meeting room layout with rows of chairs will suffice. If that is the case, ensure that your aisles are wide enough for people to walk four abreast at minimum, your chair rows are at least 2 feet apart from each other and that your chairs have 3-6 inches of space between them so attendees don’t feel like they’re sitting in airplane economy class.

However, if you need for dining attendees to also view the activities up front, you will need to position your tables and chairs in such a way that they can also easily view things. Typical banquet seating layouts and wedding floor layouts look to maximize dining seating space, which means some guests will have to turn their chairs around to see the front. If this is the case, consider a cabaret layout (chairs around half the table, facing toward the stage) if you can afford the space.

Finally, if your event is more of a networking event or cocktail-style event, placing stools at high-top tables or chairs around the periphery of the open area gives standing attendees a way to rest their feet or sit down to nibble on their apps.

Audio Visual and Technology

Great video presentations and crisp audio can galvanize an audience and give them the goosebumps. But in addition to great content, you also need to deliver it with seamless A/V technology so that the delivery systems "disappear" and guests experience the visuals and audio seemingly unmediated.

This means that, if you are showing video or imagery, you will need to decide if you want front or rear projected video, how big your screen should be based on the width and depth of your room and, if front projection is selected, where to put your projector so attendees don’t obstruct the projected images.

Lighting also becomes a factor here in that you want your guests to be able to easily see and focus on participants (speakers, presenters, performers, etc.), so you will need to decide if you want floor-mounted lighting or lighting rigged from above. Note that rigged lighting and video projection avoids lots of issues with attendees having to navigate around your A/V items and potentially blocking the projecting and lighting, but such rigging can also increase your event costs and requires skilled setup technicians and safety precautions.

Now turning to your event acoustics, you will need to consider where to position your microphones with regard to sightlines as well as where to position your loudspeakers in your event layout plan so attendees in any place in your venue will be able to hear what is being said and/or played. For wide rooms, this may require placing multiple loudspeakers across the width of the space; for narrow spaces, it may require staging loudspeakers at the front, middle and rear of the space.

Two final considerations when considering AV for your event layout design: tech tables and cabling. If your event requires technicians to run a sound board and/or lighting desk, you need to determine the best place to place those tables with regard to the technicians’ ability to hear/see optimally as well as to be as unobtrusive as possible for attendees. Also, you will need to consider how to run cables for all your equipment with regard to electrical outlets/supply and how best to tuck these cables away or use cable protectors so guests don’t trip over cords.

Determine your venue requirements and obtain necessary details (capacity, dimensions, etc.)

Now that you have done all this initial legwork for your event layout plan, it makes it more straightforward when considering and reviewing potential venue spaces or outdoor areas for your event.

Choosing a venue is by far the most critical decision with regard to your event layout because the venue’s rooms and spaces will dictate many things you can and cannot do with regard to your event planning. The goal here is for the “can’s” to far outnumber the “cannot’s”, so let’s examine the most important parameters with regard to the event venue you ultimately select.

Headcount

Needless to say, your selected event space must be able to comfortably accommodate your maximum headcount. But what this means is that you 1) need to establish your maximum headcount well in advance and 2) you need to find out from your prospective venues their maximum capacity based on your needs (purpose/priorities, activities, catering, proposed event layout, etc.).

For starters, you can use these rule-of-thumb estimates for how much space to allocate for each attendee for these standard event layout setups:

  • Cocktail areas - 3 sq. ft. per attendee
  • Dance floors - 4.5 sq. ft. per attendee
  • Theater seating - 6 sq. ft. per attendee
  • Buffet/banquet layouts - 8 sq. ft. per attendee
  • Plated seated dining layouts - 10-12 sq. ft. per attendee

Once you have done this math, you can take the capacity data from your venue(s) and consult with them to ensure that their spaces are capable of handling your anticipated headcount.

Spaces That Accommodate Your Activities

If your event requires space for both a cocktail reception layout and then a theater seating layout, then your venue must be able to accommodate those needs. This is where you should share with the venue your specific priorities and planned activities and see if they have the space types to handle those.

Measurements

Once you have confirmed that the venue can handle your headcount and your planned activities/priorities, you will need to get exact measurements of the interior venue rooms and/or outdoor spaces you are booking to begin to create an event layout diagram that will be a to-scale representation of where all items will be placed, including stages, tables, chairs, A/V equipment, furniture, dance floors, bars, tents, booths and so on.

Furniture and Rental Requirements

Speaking of all those items to be placed, this is the time to consider exactly what kinds and sizes of tables, chairs, stages, furniture, drink stations, booths and floor coverings you will require for your event.

Based on your expected headcount and venue capacity, you now have a good idea as to what type of tables (6 or 5 foot round tables, 6 or 8 foot banquet rectangular tables, etc.) that will work best in the space and how many people to put at them. Or if you have a theater-style event, you now know what types of chairs and how many rows of seating you will require. Or if you have a cocktail or networking area, you now have an idea of what space you are working with and how things like high-top tables and auxiliary seating work into the equation.

This will require some consultation with your venue and/or rental company, but once you have settled on sizes and types of furniture, you can then implement them into your event layout design to make sure everything fits accordingly.

Decor

Although more a criterion to consider when creating the event design rather than event layout plan, decor is certainly something you should pay attention to when choosing a venue, mainly because you want the venue’s decor to compliment the vibe and theme of your proposed event. So if your event theme is more modern and is focused on a younger, stylish demographic, you may want to look at spaces that reflect that modern look-and-feel (and stay away from a darker, old-school country-clubbish look). However, if you are holding a big gala event for a more traditional and monied crowd, a classic-looking venue (like a well-heeled hotel or restored mansion) might amplify the style of your event better.

Also, you will want to make sure that any of the venue's fixtures or larger decor items (think statues, fountains, etc.) don’t impede the flow of your event.

Restrictions and Limitations

Every event venue has its own set of restrictions. Maybe it’s low ceilings. Or small elevators. Or inconveniently placed restrooms. Or narrow hallways. Whatever the limitations, you should make note of them and make sure that none of them have an overly negative effect on your overall attendee experience.

Ensure you adhere to accessibility and safety standards

This element is a must. You should make sure your event layout plan takes into account all safety regulations and adheres to all fire codes and capacity limitations plus clearly defines all emergency exit routes and refuge or assembly points.

Also, make sure that your event complies with all ADA accessibility requirements, including (where appropriate) ramps, lifts and wheelchair seating areas as well as sign language interpreters.

Build out to-scale event layout diagrams before acting on anything

There is no substitute for a well-considered visual event layout design, and once you have made decisions on everything discussed above, you are well ready to create an event floor layout design.

These event layout diagrams are important for two reasons:

  • For your event planners, team members, vendors and volunteers to easily visualize your event layout ideas during the planning and collaboration process.
  • For communicating effectively with the event setup staff and venue staff exactly how the event should be set up and what elements and furniture should be used and where.

Thankfully, no longer do you need to draw these out by hand and hope they are accurate, because now there are a number of event layout software and seating chart software options that simplify and streamline this process. With these tools, your layouts will be professional, clean and easy to use.

Look for event layout tools that offer:

  • Lots of drag-and-drop floorplan elements (like standard tables, chairs, stages, etc., as well as customizable items)
  • Reusable templates so you can build off off the same room or design over and over again
  • Cloud-based tools for easy collaboration with other planners and team members
  • To-scale 2D design - 3D is nice but not necessary
  • Printable PDF downloads for easy sharing

Schedule walkthroughs and soundchecks in advance

Also a must. You should walk through the venue space well in advance of your event as well as once it is set up to ensure that the setup adheres to your event layout planning and visualization of how the event should flow.

In addition, you should test all lighting and A/V systems, including video and audio, to make sure they are operating properly prior to your event. You may also want your speakers and entertainers to arrive an hour or two before the event begins so they can conduct their own checks and make sure their equipment and/or instruments are operating properly.

By planning your event layout well in advance starting with all the tips in this article, you give your events the best chance of success.


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