I’m learning that the space your attendees are in – and the surrounding environment that comes with that space – is possibly the single most critical part of event planning. There are so many elements to consider that can affect the experience, and if even one of those elements is off, people can walk away with negative feelings. A space can be too large or too small, too noisy or too quiet, too dimly lit or too bright.
Here, I’ll list some of the basic things to consider when you are scouting out a space for your event. Later, I’ll write more about how some of the more nuanced details of an event space can enhance the experience, but for now, let’s focus on the main considerations. I’ve generally listed them from what I consider to be most to least important. In other words, if you have to make compromises, prioritize location, size and environment, and compromise on the others.
Do you want your event to be private and removed, like a weekend cabin getaway? Do you want to be close to the action, with access to bars, restaurants, entertainment and tourist sites? Do you need to consider how your guests might travel, such as whether you need an easily accessible airport or public transit? What does the parking situation look like? How expensive is valet parking if there’s not easy street parking?
Size of the space
Along with location, size might be the most critical consideration, and you need to consider three dimensions for this. First, figure out how many attendees you expect and get a space that’s only slightly bigger than that (slightly bigger will allow some breathing room, and also room for catering, some chairs and tables for people to sit and so forth).
A huge space with only a few people will pretty much kill the event. Let’s suppose you’re expecting 200 people at your event, and 220 show up. A nice surprise, right? Well, if your space is designed to hold 500 people, it will feel empty, as if nobody came, and from the attendees’ perspective, it will seem as though half of the people you expected to come didn’t arrive … even though you were only planning on 200 to begin with.
If your space is smaller than you need, that can sometimes work better. Your attendees might feel a bit cramped, with is bothersome, but the event will “feel” successful because it will seem like so many people came that you hadn’t planned on – which in my experience people interpret as success. To use our example above, if your space holds 175 and 220 show up and there’s a line to get in, it will seem like demand is so high that it must be worth waiting to get in.
But what if you had a space that holds 250, and 220 people come? As Goldilocks might say, “This one is just right.” The room will seem comfortably full, but people might still have some room to spread out, store their coats, step to the side for a quiet conversation and so on.
So, as best you can, match the space to the expected number of attendees, and if you must compromise, aim for a slightly smaller space rather than a larger one.
Note: one type of event where this rule doesn’t apply is a fixed program event like an awards ceremony or theater production. For those, make sure people have tickets and that you’re more or less matching seats to the number of tickets, because obviously people won’t be getting in if your space is too full. As always, thinking through your specific attendee experience should always trump any general points I make here.
What kind of atmosphere do you want your space to have? A funky, art vibe? A professional conference venue? A board room? A backyard wedding (and if so, for what season)? Paying careful attention to your attendees’ expectations will help you select an appropriate venue. I’ve been to events at train museums, art spaces, conference centers, hotel lobbies, concert venues, restored theaters, lakeside resorts and many more. All of these were appropriate to the type of event I was attending, but would have been inappropriate under other circumstances. Space, noise level and lighting — other elements discussed here — contribute to atmosphere. But also consider how much sitting or standing attendees might expect, decorations, access to resources like screens and whiteboards, and so on.
Consider the photos here: each of these spaces might be appropriate for some circumstances and inappropriate for others. Would your Board of Directors really have a productive meeting sitting on LED cubes? Maybe not, but they’d make your party reception awesome.
An attendees’ experience can also dramatically be affected by sound. We’ve all been to a bar, club or reception that was too loud, and we couldn’t hear the person next to us speaking, which was frustrating. Sound can be affected by any number of things: street noise, ceiling height, hard surfaces v. carpet and so on.
For now, rather than dive into every element that might affect sound, suffice to say, just be considerate of what your attendees might expect. A conference presentation might warrant a carpeted room with soft walls. A reception — particularly one with alcohol — means the group will probably be nosier and so a larger space with higher ceilings, or even outdoors, would be a good choice.
Lighting is important, but generally you’ll have the least control over it, and of all of the considerations listed here, I think it’s probably the least important. I say this because the venue you select has probably to some degree considered lighting already. Hotels that host conferences probably have adequate lighting and some control over how bright or dim they are. Bars that regularly host receptions are likely to have attractive, dim lighting at the outset and if they don’t, there’s probably little you can do.
A truly professional, highly produced event should carefully consider lighting. But if you’re just organizing a one-day conference, reception, etc., then for now, consider the basic aspects of what you expect your attendees to do and try to match the lighting to those needs.
A few quick examples:
- are you hosting an evening reception? attendees will probably expect dim lightning that creates a relaxing atmosphere
- is anyone giving a slideshow presentation during your event? you probably want lights that can go from bright to dim; bright for before and after the presentation, dim during the presentation so that attention is focused on the presenter and his or her slides
- is your event an outdoor wedding? Will guests be able to see after sundown? If there’s not plenty of street lighting, you might consider bringing additional lighting or displays like Christmas lights to help boost visiblity
These are just a few examples but again, thinking through what you expect your attendees to do from arrival to departure will help you consider what lighting needs you might have, which will help you choose a venue accordingly.