Event layouts may seem like the most ordinary of things. A relatively simple sketch of where tables, chairs, stages, furniture and other items should be placed in an event room or space. And a basic planning tool in the toolbox of most any event planner or venue manager.
But in reality, practically EVERYTHING depends on your event layout, like:
- How your event flows.
- Where and how people will interact, dine and drink.
- How you introduce attendees to your featured activities.
- How you want your attendees to engage in the experience.
- How you plan on innovating and differentiating your event from others.
- And, in the end, whether your event will succeed or not.
Yes, a lot is riding on your event layout design. But if you follow these nine best practices, you will have a solid foundation on which to create event floor plans that will keep your attendees in awe and coming back for more.
WARNING: Although some of the initial tips may seem more practical than wildly innovative (see the bottom of the article for our edgier ideas), God is in the details when making a big impression, and we speak from experience when we say that following these guidelines sets you up for success.
1. Define your event purpose and key activities
Simply put, every event should have a singular purpose or mission.
For a social event like a wedding or party, it could be to celebrate the occasion and create unforgettable memories. For corporate events, it’s to promote a product/service, enhance your brand or facilitate staff bonding. For fundrasiers or galas, it’s to promote a cause or increase donations. And for conferences or meetings, it’s to educate attendees or create connections.
Your first step is to identify this one primary purpose and plan your event setup and activities around achieving this goal. Here are two examples.
Say you are planning a professional conference focused on education, networking and professional development for your attendees and fundraising for your organization. To accomplish this, you plan to have keynote addresses for speakers and presenters, breakout sessions, group dining, happy hours and an exhibit hall for vendors and sponsors. Your event floor plans will need to easily accommodate all these functions with flair.
Or say you are tasked with creating a room layout for a special event like a wedding. To create a memorable experience in one space, you need to account for seating for the ceremony, a dining area for a gourmet catered sit-down meal, a front focal point for speeches, a small stage for a band or DJ and a dance floor area. Oh, and it all has to look glamorous.
And this reminds me … the style of the space should also align with your purpose and activities, because it’s much easier to select a room that fits the style and aesthetics of your event than it is to create or rent a bunch of event decor.
By defining these key activities up front, you now know what kind of space to look for and how to begin to lay it out.
2. Establish your max headcount and align it with venue space capacity
Early on you should be planning ahead as to your guest list and maximum number of event registrations or RSVPs your event will be able to accommodate. By locking in this number, you now can determine how to design your event so this number of people can comfortably move through the event (what event designers call “event flow”).
Usually venues will have room capacities prominently detailed in their marketing literature, and venue staff usually know their offerings intimately and what configurations work best for each area. Make the most of their expertise to make the best decisions for your event.
However, you or the venue can still create a to-scale event layout of your event using floor plan software (more on that in a bit) to definitively determine how people and furniture will be spaced out properly; this is especially true if you have unusual floor plans or if you are getting very creative with seating or decor. That way you can definitively tell if the room can handle your crowd and all your activities.
FYI … here’s a great article on the most common event room layout types.
3. Identify features (and constraints) of your preferred room or space
Room dimensions are just as important as capacity because you need to know if the configuration/shape of the space and its total area (in square feet or meters) is large enough to contain all your key activities.
For example, if you are setting up chairs for an auditorium-like performance, you will need a room wide enough and deep enough for your stage and audience seating … so a narrow room may not work well.
Or if you are planning on having a large area for something like a trade expo or silent auction, your space needs to have the proper dimensions for that kind of activity … and an area that is broken up by walls and fixtures may not be the right fit.
Also worth contemplating is if you want something like an open floor plan so your attendees can easily explore and wander about or if your goal is to create a multi-space event that connects multiple rooms.
Hence, other factors you should consider regarding configuration/dimensions include:
- Hallways, corridors or aisles for unimpeded access to all areas.
- Lines for food, event check-in or walk-up registration.
- Where activities encroach each other (like dance floors and seating/dining areas)
- Impediments, fixed structures or architectural items like columns, wall bump-outs, gardens, fountains/sculptures, low overhangs, stairwells/ramps, etc.
4. Optimize spacing for tables and chairs
If your event includes dining of any sort or cocktail seating, classroom setups or auditorium seating, then seating arrangements with tables, chairs and other furniture items are a firm requirement.
But what seating layout is the most appropriate? Which type of table would best accommodate your diners? And how best to arrange them?
Although these questions depend heavily on your room dimensions, for dining and cocktail/heavy appetizer arrangements, the best options typically are:
- 5’ or 6’ round tables, which allow guests to converse easily with one another and view speakers/entertainers (staggered grid layout often works best); capacity of 6 to 10 people per table with ample area for centerpieces and table decorations.
- 8’ or 6’ long rectangular tables (or banquet tables), which also allow for easy conversation and can be placed end-to-end for more efficient use of space with 6 to 8 people per table.
- 2’, 2.5’ or 3’ pedestal round tables (or high-top tables) with bar stools for seating 2-3 persons per table or for standing dining/drinking.
Allowing for an adequate buffer between tables is important so attendees can easily access their seats as well as to ensure adequate service area for staff to deliver meals and remove plateware, silverware and glassware. A good practice is to leave at least 60” between tables and 30” between tables and walls/columns.
If you are setting up your event area for auditorium seating, a good rule of thumb is to leave a 3” to 6” gap between chairs and 2’ between chair rows and to configure aisles so there are never more than 20 continuous chairs in a row. Angling chairs toward a main focal point (stage, speaker, entertainer) also ensures that guests do not suffer any discomfort from straining to see the action (this is often called chevron style seating).
Finally, if you are setting up a classroom for a seminar or small meeting, 6’ or 8’ seminar tables work great (2-3 seats per table) with 3’ between table rows.
Note: Most event layout software programs offer these and many other floor plan elements so you can easily create different room layout options for the same event space to compare and contrast.
5. Align food-and-beverage service with your objectives (and guest preferences)
If you are serving food to your guests, you will need to determine if you want them to self-serve (and if your designated room has the space for such foot traffic) or if you want them to be seated for longer stretches of time so they can be focused on presentations or entertainment.
For the former, buffet-style service would work well with long buffet tables holding entrees accompanied by appetizer and dessert tables/carts and drink carts or a centralized bar area. Just make sure you have staked out ample space for buffet lines (possibly literally with velvet ropes or retractable stanchions).
For the latter, sit-down dinner service is more appropriate with servers delivering drinks and pre-selected meal options from a short menu (having guests pre-select meal options from a limited menu upon RSVPing/registering saves lots of time and confusion at the event and lets your kitchen or caterer know exactly how many of which meals to prepare).
Pardon the pun, but here’s some food for thought … One way to draw more attendees and make a big impression is to serve high-end gourmet catering to your guests, and these meals can be either served up via elaborate display tables or by small plates or platters delivered to tables for sharing.
6. Create a visual and auditory delight for all audience members
It’s not an easy task to book a speaker or band that can leave guests completely floored, and it’s equally as challenging to make sure that your audio/visual setup provides each guest with an equally vibrant and unimpeded experience.
So while we will leave choosing a galvanizing presenter or riveting entertainer to another article, we will concern ourselves here with the following A/V sticking points:
- Sightlines – Position your stage far enough away from the first row and high enough above your attendees so that everyone can easily see what’s happening at the front (this includes not seating people behind pillars). Also make use of a podium and place it closer to the front of stage so the front rows can easily see speakers at the dias.
- Video screen – Elevate it high enough above the stage so presenters don’t block guests’ views. Also make sure that the screen is large enough so people at the back can still easily see images and read captions (this is especially vital for large conferences and meetings).
- Acoustics – Set up your PA system so that no audience members are seated in sound “dead zones” (i.e., behind bumpouts, under low-hanging ceilings, etc.) and can hear everything clearly. This may require setting up loudspeakers at the front, mid and rear points of your venue and/or elevating or suspending your speaker banks at the front of the venue.
- Lighting – Ensure the stage and participants on it are well lit by ensuring proper overhead lighting. In addition, use modern lighting design to create color and movement throughout your space and to place emphasis on certain areas (like dancefloors, bars, etc.).
7. Don’t ignore practical and legal requirements
Most of what has been mentioned so far are time-honored best practices, but here we look at factors you absolutely must consider in any event layout plan, including:
- Restroom accommodations – Make sure there are enough restroom facilities for your maximum headcount and that such facilities are easily accessible and well marked.
- Seating and access for people with disabilities – Includes accessible seating, closed captioning and sign language interpreters as well as creating accessible routes (via ramps and lifts), parking areas and transportation options.
- Health and safety precautions – Includes abiding by all capacity/fire code limits and delineating evacuation routes/exits and assembly points.
- Special dietary needs – Offer menu options or alternatives for low-sodium, nut-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian/vegan or kosher meals.
8. Turn heads with creative decor and unconventional ideas
Earlier in the article we had said that you should focus on one overarching purpose/mission for each event and, well, we sorta lied.
Actually you have two main objectives for every event: accomplishing your primary purpose/mission, and planning an experience that attendees will not soon forget.
And one way you can accomplish the latter is to get super-creative with your event decor with items like:
- Hanging fabrics and paper streams that both add color and can divide one large area into smaller ones.
- Ceiling decor and decorative stage backdrops that can either be physical items or created by innovative lighting.
- Table decorations that can span from unusual floral displays or cool giveaways to tablets/iPads that are interactive or display information related to your primary objective.
- Table settings that deviate from the norm or incorporate interesting plateware/silverware or favors.
- Food and beverage displays that present your catered fare in colorful, vibrant ways (think mirrors, tiered displays, edible flowers, etc.).
- Event technologies like social media walls that display real-time posts and messages relating to your event or that run images and videos relating to your event’s purpose/mission.
Another way you can make a lasting impression is to do something dramatically different with the event layout design itself, like:
- Mix up your table shapes and sizes like using a variety of round tables and banquet rectangular tables.
- Employ unusual table shapes like serpentine tables or half rounds.
- Create unique seating arrangements like cabaret seating (round tables with people only seated around half so all guests are facing the front of the room) or “musical chairs” seating where guests are prompted frequently to change seats and tables to encourage interaction or networking.
- Multi-use spaces that can easily and quickly be transformed from one activity to another, like turning your keynote presenter area into a cocktail dance club while the attendees are at a sit-down meal in another area.
9. Use event floor plan software to test ideas and select clear winners
It’s hugely impractical and prohibitively expensive to physically test out different floor plans at your chosen venue.
But with event layout software, you can quickly and effortlessly create to-scale multiple setup versions; collaborate with staff, clients and vendors online; arrive at the best possible setup; and make tweaks right up to the last minute before everything has to be put in place. It’s by far the easiest visual aid for event planners and venue staff to create a workable plan and explain it to others.
Such tools are often included in all-in-one event planning software platforms and often include the following features:
- Drag-and-drop functionality for easily placing elements.
- Wide variety of elements like tables, chairs, stages, floors, furniture, trade show booths, architectural items, etc.
- Reusable templates to save time.
- Automation tools like snap-to rulers and instant table grid builders.
- Online capabilities for real-time collaboration and anytime access on multiple devices.
- Reports and printouts for inventory, table and chair types, seating plans, etc.
- Guest list capabilities with meal type selections, VIP designations, RSVP status, ticket types, etc.
- Task managers and other tools to track event details like budgets, timelines and event calendar views.
Of course, these event design planning tools are only useful if you are looking to implement them throughout your process, but they will save you lots of time and guesswork and will help you avoid any major SNAFUS regarding how you lay out your event.
Event layouts are not just a key component of event planning and venue setup … they are a critical activity if you want the best possible experience for your audience members. Best of luck, and let us know how we can help with your next event!