Space case: Three principles for guiding spatial design for meetings and events

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By Sheri Moore

Today’s meetings and events planners face pressure on many fronts. That’s why our job is consistently ranked amongst top five most stressful jobs by Forbes. This trend is likely to continue as the industry is disrupted by technology, industry trends and market demands. For a long time, we have been expected to be magicians that can create unique experiences and affect spatial design that’s tailored to guests’ expectations, regardless of group size, profile or diversity of thought, and all while exceeding the program’s measurable goals and objectives. It’s a tall order on the best of days, and with decreasing budgets, leaner teams, crazier timelines and individual capacity stretched to the maximum, there little doubt why there are so many sleepless nights for us.

The latest pressure isn’t totally new to us. As experience managers, we understand the need to create environments that engage and set the tone for the content. The traditional program required us to look at the function, refer to the space capacities and set the rooms. We looked at the design elements that we’d incorporate and treat the spaces as needed. We had classrooms, theatres, rounds, lounges, U-shapes, Xs and all things imaginable. But now we too often have them all at once, mashed-up until our spaces look more like amusement parks than learning environments.

Is it a result of a change in demographics? A convergence of design principles? A natural evolution gained by the understanding of how we learn best? Greater access to ideas and partners? Simply said, yes, yes, yes and yes. The IACC’s June report, Meeting Room of the Future, offers great insight into these trends, providing the insights, metrics and qualitative data that support this new reality.

“The Medium is the Message” — Marshall McLuhan

My background is in communications. I studied Marshall McLuhan in school, including writing mass communication papers on Understanding Media and his famous observation, “The Medium is the Message.” His perspectives resonated with me, and to this day I apply his teachings and theories to meeting and event design. I firmly believe that a message is interpreted through the medium that it’s distributed in, that it gets massaged by the mechanism deploying to delivering it, and that memories are stronger and richer as more senses are engaged. It is also the reason that I firmly and passionately believe that live events offer the best opportunity for learning, content delivery and connection. (I guess it is a good thing that this is my chosen medium!) It’s the lens through which I view event and spatial design.

Before anything can start being designed, I believe that our first step is to look at the reason why we have the meeting or event in the first place. We also need to understand why guests are choosing to come to us. We need to think about what we want our guests to walk away with. It could be learning credits. It could be strengthened networks. It could be ideas, insights and shared experiences. It is likely all of the above and much more. The definition of the function is critical to the design. It is why most of us start with a brief. Without this well-defined starting point, the overall design will become muddy, especially as stakeholders weigh in, bringing their biases with them. Define it so that it can be effectively budgeted, built and measured.

Form follows function” – Louis Sullivan

This is the touchstone for many architects for a very good reason. The adage can help keep a designer on track with the end usage in mind. As we tell stories, articulate space plans and form the event elements, we can use this advice as well, be it in the speaker selection, the space setup, the technology or the schedule itself. The reason for being drives the design, and the user experience will help the design evolve.

For example, stages are a great design element to illustrate the principle. Panel discussions and fireside chats are the norm. We all know the basic setup, but the selection of the furnishings on stage alone could lead to a wardrobe malfunction or a perception of disinterest. Tall stools and deep arm chairs look great empty, but they can be problematic for the speakers. They can be functionally awkward, and particularly uncomfortable if the speaker happens to be wearing a skirt or dress. Deep seated chairs can cause a speaker to lean away from the conversation. On-stage tables act as barrier between the speaker and the audience, communicating an us versus them feel. Before selecting the elements on the stage, think about the experience and the non-verbal messages that are being delivered from the presenter to the audience.

Design thinking demands inquisitiveness and empathy. If your event survey is not telling you anything more than how guests liked the location, the session topic, the food or the room temperature, more questions are needed. If you aren’t getting qualitative data that can help you look forward but only back, either reformat the questions, speak to stakeholders across the audience or bring a sub-group together to talk it out.

Having data, usage and metrics will only help you improve the conference, meeting or event experience. Before you send out your survey — even before you ever set foot on site — get to know your audience, and define your event accordingly. At MCC, we have conferences and meetings where sessions are everything. We also have conferences where the hallway is the most important room in the house because the networking and idea sharing is the reason to attend. Event-goers will tell you how they’re prioritizing the space. Listen to them.

And if you can’t survey or observe it, study it. There are plenty of resources about the future of work, studies on adult learning modules, neuromarketing, sustainable space solutions and our own industry’s innovators. It can be a full-time job just studying the studies, but it is worth the extended reading.

Even with all of this great data, you will get someone in the planning group that says, “I need a cool space.” How is that space measured? What is the outcome? What does “cool” even mean? And, really, how many times have we heard this lately? A ball pit won’t necessarily make you cool. Swings are unlikely to be the difference between success and not when you measure your ROI. Engage with your client. This can become a long dialogue with a few loops and intersections, but if you stick it out and ask the right questions, then you’ll get to the rationale and core of their “cool.” That’s the nugget that I can work with and lean into.

“Content is King” – Bill Gates

Let’s face it. Engaging content presented in a sterile, institutionalized space will likely decrease the effectiveness of it in the end. How many of us have been interested in the content to start only find ourselves lulled into somnolence. It might not be the presenter’s fault, or their presentation’s. The space itself might be dragging everything down, or it might be so off-the-wall that the content gets lost in the ether. Spatial planning shouldn’t just be cool for the sake of cool, either; it’s a budget burn and only scratches the surface of what you can do.

Rely on usage data to help identify type of furniture and amenities you’ll need. If you see from the registration data and surveys that attendees have down-time between the sessions they’re selecting, then you need to account for it when planning out the space. The session format should also govern the internal or external inventory used and the way it is set.

Meeting and event space with a theme that does not support the message is also questionable. I love a good theme, but only if it’s designed to support the storytelling of the event itself. It threads through the elements chosen and guides that very decisions made for the program and atmosphere itself.

Content creation, curation and comprehension are the reasons that our products exist. Content is not just what happens from the discussions on a given topic. It is also the space between the schedule, the informal networking and on- and off-line social spaces. As we design experiences and environments, thinking through the content and messages will contextualize the design plans.

Remember no matter what we are trying to do, how we are delivering it will affect the user. A well-articulated design brief with the data to support the rationale gives us the tools we need to create the best guest experiences in spaces that inspire and support content and messaging.

Sheri Moore is a partner and the Creative Director for Moore Carlyle Consulting & MCC Destination Management, a Global DMC Partner.

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