Take a Seat, Any Seat, As Long as it is Red.After attending the 2012 PASS Summit in Seattle I witnessed another incarnation of inefficient seating arrangements.  There were lots of seats, but many were unused.  The seating arranger(s) failed to take into consideration the psychology of aisle seats.  The key to efficiently used session seating is easy.  1) lots of aisle seats, 2) use of side walls, 3) Use of back wall.  These techniques can’t always be used of course.  Some venues have fixed/mounted seating.  Also when you are using tables, there are other constraints, but much of the time the venues are free-standing chairs freely arranged in a large room which can take advantage of these principles.

See this Excel file for a visual of these techniques.  http://dl.dropbox.com/u/7258022/session_seating.xlsx

seating_arrangement_configuration_a

Configuration A

People like love aisle seats.  Don’t believe me?  The next time you go to a conference see which seats fill up first.  The aisle seats are almost always the first to fill up and virtually never go unused.  There are several reasons for this.  They give the attendee an easy entrance/exit without having to shuffle over and disturb other attendees.  The more contiguous seats there are, the more people you have to shuffle over if you sit in the middle, thus making them very undesirable.  How does one solve this?  Simple – make more smaller aisles.  The aisles don’t need to be as wide because they are serving fewer attendees.

seating_arrangement_configuration_b

Configuration B

The second overlooked secret is the use of the side walls.  (Configuration “B” in the Excel file)  Rather than making the aisle that goes along a wall, place a single seat against the wall for two “free” aisle seats per row (one on each side).  Attendees can use the wall to rest their backpacks/bags, etc.  For the claustrophobic these have the added benefit of not being adjacent to another attendee.  These seats (dark green in the Excel file) will always be used even though they are the farthest seat away from the speaker in any row.

seating_arrangement_configuration_c

Configuration C

The third secret is the use of the back wall.  (Configuration “C” in the Excel file)  Place seats all along the available back wall space.  (Purple seats in the Excel file)  If the back walkway is already narrow, just remove the last row of the traditional arrangement and use those seats as the back wall.  You will still have the same size walkway as before as it has just been shifted from the back wall to between the back wall row and back row of the inner seating group.  Every seat on the back wall row allows easy entrance/exit for the attendee without having to shuffle over anyone.  While entering/exiting disrupts the view of the other attendees on the back wall, they won’t have to shift or move their bags and you don’t have to shuffle, thus making the disruption much lower.  Anyone sitting on the back row knows that their vision will be blocked by anyone entering/exiting the session as they walk along the back aisle.  That is the price paid for the easy entrance/exit of the back row.

You may notice that configurations B and C have fewer total seats than configuration A.  The small difference will most likely be more than offset by the higher utilization of the seats.  For example a 70% use of 198 seats = 139 while an 80% use of 192 seats is 153.  So even with fewer seats, you have more butts in seats.  And isn’t that the goal?  Butts in seats rather than just seats?  Actually we want brains, but the brains are always attached to the butts.  <insert your own joke here>.

What about fire codes?  Don’t aisles have to be a certain width?  Check your local listings.  I can’t see how having to maneuver across 5 seats to a thick aisle packed with 40 people is worse than having to maneuver over just 2 seats to a thinner aisle packed with just 20 people.  Even so, if need be, take our more seats to adhere to the aisle width requirements.  That will leave even fewer seats, but I would be willing to bet that the increased utilization will offset.

There you have it.  An easy three step method of increasing the utilization of seating.   More (albeit smaller) aisles, use of the side walls and back wall will increase the utilization of the available seating.