Meeting and event basics: program flow

Understanding how you want people to experience your event — how they “flow” from room to room — is important, as it will help you think through more details down the line.

For now, let’s focus on the big picture: how will people get from the entrance to your “main event,” or the primary reason they’ve decided to attend. Let’s look at a standard wedding as an example. Often, people will show up at a church or wherever the ceremony is being held. Then, they’ll move to a reception hall for cocktails, then dinner, then dancing. You want to make sure your guests know these basic steps, and it if you are thinking about them well in advance, it might also help you decide where and how to position some of the finer details. Do you want attendees to sign a wedding guest book? Place gifts somewhere? See the cake, or pictures of the happy couple, or stop at a photo booth? Knowing when and where your guests will be at different times will help you plan where to position these things so that people can easily locate them.

Timing is also important when considering flow. We’ve all been to weddings where the wedding party took off for hours to take group photos, while the rest of the guests waited impatiently — with no music — for the cocktail hour to start. That’s a drag. Don’t put your guests through that. Make sure there’s something to keep them busy or at least a spot to relax in for the duration of the event.

For something like a conference, the “main event” might be a welcome address or keynote speaker. Then you might have breakout sessions, followed by an opening reception or dinner. Again, helping attendees understand generally they should move from registration to a large room for a keynote to a smaller room for a breakout session to another large room for a reception. These might all seem simple and organic to you, but don’t forget, your guests probably haven’t seen any of the rooms before, and will have to adjust to each one in turn. Anything you can do to help orient an attendee and ease their experience will be valuable, even if attendees only pick up on it subconsciously. Providing subtle cues so that attendees can focus on the important parts is one way to think about good design.

As for timing, the trick with conferences is providing adequate, optional downtime. Leave plenty of space for coffee and lunch breaks, and don’t make attendees feel pressured to be at every single event you hold. Sure, you’ve put a lot of work into it, but people experience a need for downtime at different times of day, and it varies by personality type. So, make sure there are activities planned throughout the duration of your event, but allow for downtime and make sure people know they can step away.

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