You Are In a Maze of Twisty Little Passages

Finding your way around a conference hotel or convention center can be daunting. Because many places like this have been growing over time and because they use the venue for many different kind of events which all have different needs, conference venues tend to be too large and with too complex a layout. Visitors will encounter many locked doors and dead end hallways, because your event is using only part of the venue.

And while the organizers first view of the location is probably on a guided tour by the venue staff, the normal attendee will arrive there totally unprepared. He’ll see lots of people running in all directions not all of which seem to belong to the same event. So he needs some guidance.

Signs and Directions

First and most important, you need clear signs to help the visitor find the registration desk. Sprinkle signs liberally around the lobby, entrance areas and hallways. Always use your event name and/or logo also, because sometimes there are several events going on at the same time in the same venue. Once the attendee has found the registration desk he should get a map of the venue and maybe some direct instructions: “I see you are booked for tutorial A, this is in the London room, up the stairs over here and then to the right.”

Of course for the staff to be able to give those directions, they have to know where things are. Give them a tour beforehand, explaining to them where all the rooms, stairs, lifts, toilets, exhibition areas, lunch restarurant etc. are. They can only help others if they know their way around themselves.

Use lots of large signs (A4 or letter sized posters are almost always too small) which point out important rooms. Think about what people will need. Its nice that you have a coat check, but if you don’t tell attendees, how should they know?

Especially confusing are those rooms which can be devided into smaller rooms with moveable walls. They tend to have too many doors and plans seem not to agree with reality if you don’t know about the vanishing walls. Lock the doors you don’t want people to use and post signs with arrows on them and some text like “Room X. Please use next door”.

Naming Rooms

Most venues will already have names or numbers for every room. Sometimes rooms have numbers like 114.2, but while this might be handy for the staff who knows that room 114.1 and 114.2 can be used together by removing a moveable wall and then form room 114, for visitors this is confusing. Many venues use names of large cities like Paris, Chicago, Amsterdam, etc. for their rooms. This is a lot more helpful for visitors, because those names are somewhat familiar and therefore easier to remember.

You can either decide to use the names used by the venue (which especially makes sense when the venue already has many fixed signs showing the directions to these rooms) or invent your own names. Just make sure you’re consistent, either always use your names or always the official ones. In any case create signes with room names and tape them to the doors to those rooms. (In a way that they are readable when the doors are open and when they are closed.) Also put those room names in your schedules and programs.

Here is an idea: The YAPC::Europe::2002::Munich Perl conference used the company names of their sponsors, which was slightly confusing in the beginning, but a nice way of giving back to the sponsor.

In some cases, like small events, you don’t need room names at all. Just name them after the event happening there: “The technical track is in the left room and the management track in the right.”

Room Layout

Every conference venue is different and none will be perfect for your needs. Rooms are always too big or too small, there are not enough or too many, the hallway is too long or not wide enough and the registration desk area too crowded. But with some desks and pinboards you can make it work somehow. I’ll talk about some tricks in later posts, here are just some general rules: The reception/registration desk should be up front in plain view from the entrance, it is nice to have a lockable office/store room nearby. The rooms where the talks are held should ideally be grouped around a communal hall for the exhibition and coffee breaks. To make exhibitors happy place them near where people will gather, which will probably be where the coffee is.

Special Needs

And one other note: You might have disabled visitors who can’t use stairs or need a wheelchair-enabled toilet. Find out beforehand how to help them.

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