Imagine you are using an amazing venue for an upcoming, interactive conference of around 200 people (or any number for that matter), and you are visiting it for the first time. What would you want to know? Imagine that the venue is not a purpose-built conference centre, but something like a World Heritage Site, a venue that models the content of your conference in some way, but might not have the systems in place as professional conference centres do. That makes it even more important to ask the right questions the first (and second time) that you visit. Here are a few things that I would want to know prior to putting the final touches on the design of any event:
- How do people get there? Do they have maps and directions available?
- Is it accessible by public transport, and is there parking for those who come by car?
- Is there a preferred taxi service serving the venue? What is the contact information?
- Do they have staff to set up the venue and individual rooms the night before? Can the organizers get in there early (e.g. the day before) to check room set up and post signs?
- Can the staff change the room set up during the day, or must the morning set up last for the entire day? If so, how long does it take to change a room?
- What kinds of tables do they have? Round, rectangular?
- What kinds of chairs do they have? Fixed to the ground? Fixed together in rows? Movable? Can they be moved by the workshop organizers during the day for small group work, etc., if they are moved back?
- Can the organizers post signage for the workshop? Or does the venue have its own signs and post them? What are the rules about posting signs (if any)?
- Are there any limitations to room set-up formats? If so what are they? Can the venue take a suggested set-up format from the organizers (such as cabaret style for breakout groups) and use that, or do they have fixed set up formats?
- What are the capacities for the plenary room and breakout rooms, in theatre style, cabaret style, etc?
- Does the venue have enough chairs and tables for simultaneous set up of plenary and breakout rooms so there is no delay in set up?
- Can flip chart paper and other posters be put up on the walls? If so, is there a preference for fixation (blue tack/sticky stuff, masking tape, etc.)
- If nothing can be fixed on the walls, do they have ample flipchart stands, and possibly pinboards (with pins), for the workshop organizers to use?
- How are the acoustics between rooms? Can you hear people speaking in the corridors? In the neighbouring rooms? What if microphones are used?
- If common spaces are used for workshops, how are the acoustics in the common space? If people are clapping, or talking amongst one another, does that sound travel to other corners where potentially quieter conversations are being held? Are there live barriers (plants, etc.) which might be used to divide common spaces?
- If organizers use interactive exercises, or games in their workshops, are there any limitations to using open or common space for these?
- Are markers provided with the flipcharts, or do these need to be brought in by the organizers?
Registration and Welcome:
- Is there a registration area that can be used to greet people and provide them with their documentation and badges? Where is it? Can it be set up in advance? (the night before?)
- If there are any VIP needs (special access/doors), security, or separate waiting areas, what facilitaties are available?
Food and breaks:
- What kind of lunch is served? Sit down, served, buffet? If the lunch break in the agenda is short, how can the venue assure that people can eat quickly?
- Can all 200 people eat at the same time, or do they need to eat in smaller groups? If the latter, how long is one sitting and how many people can be served?
- Where are the coffee breaks served? Can they be outside the meeting rooms to minimize noise?
- Can the whole group break for coffee at the same time, will there be a back up at the coffee area? Or are there multiple stations that can serve people quickly, so that 15-30 min is enough for every one to have coffee?
- Check the menu options for lunch and coffee breaks-what choices are available? Can they serve special diets (vegetarian, caffeine-free, lactose or gluten-intolerance, etc.) Do people need to notify of special needs in advance? How much in advance?
- Is there water available in between breaks and meals?
- Is there smoking in the venue? If not, is there a designated smoking place?
Communication and Equipment:
- Does the venue have internet access or wifi? Is it free? Is there a code? Are there capacity limitations (e.g. number of people connected)? If so, what are they?
- Are there printing or office facilities available for the organizers, for last minute copies, etc. Or for speakers with last minute changes to their presentations?
- Are there any cell phone restrictions or limitations in the venue?
- What are the cell phone numbers of the key venue service people? Can we have a list of who to call for service, technical, or other issues during the conference?
- Does the venue provide equipment such as PPt projectors with laptops (connected to the internet), overhead projectors, video projectors (as needed)? How many of these are available? Are there technical people to help with set up?
- Is there a sound system for the plenary, is there a technical person for set up and monitoring?
Breakdown and closing:
- What are the organizers expected to do prior to leaving the venue, in terms of venue breakdown, clean up, etc?
- Can anyone at the venue answer questions about return transport, flights, train schedules, etc. or help changing or getting bookings?
- Is there a place where participants could leave or deposit feedback forms prior to leaving?
- Is there a place where participants can leave their luggage on the second day prior to leaving? Is it secure? How do people get things out again if they leave at different times during the day?
No doubt there are more. These are just things that I have seen over the years in conference centres (both things I liked and things that impeded our process because they were not available or there were limitations that we had not been aware of in advance of our meeting.) No doubt there are more. I like to say that we (facilitators, trainers, organizers, and participants) can work with anything as long as we know about it in advance. Sometimes you get a real test, but I can tell you that there is nothing like a freaky parameter to get your creative juices flowing!