what does a socially-distanced conference look like?

posted by Paul Kennie Jun 25, 2020

What unprecedented times we find ourselves in. Having worked in the industry for over 25 years, there has never been a reason to consider the live event environment like today.

Like most live event production companies, once we receive the event brief from the client, we establish the format of the forthcoming event along with their required messages, expectations and ambitions for their audience. Along with booking a venue that ticks all the boxes, we need to ensure the required audience size will fit.

This used to be a piece of cake.

We’d draw up the plans in AutoCAD and plot out the room layout with seating, set, stage and AV support.

Now with social distancing, things are looking pretty different. So, we thought we’d try and figure out what a “socially-distanced audience” would look like.

What happens to an audience of 350 delegates when you add the 2m and the 1m+ social distancing rule?

Here’s what we discovered.

Discovery 1: Cabaret format is a no-go.

Using the 2m rule only two delegates will be able to sit at a 6ft round table - not very space efficient! It does get slightly better with the 1m rule, where four delegates can sit at a table. But still, not very space efficient.

Discovery 2: Lose the tables.

We found the best solution was to remove the tables and replace them with student chairs, with the built-in tabletops attached to the one side of the chair. Right-hand & left-hand versions are available to cater for everyone. Sure, it doesn’t look particularly attractive, but at least it does allow for note taking. On the downside, it doesn’t allow for any table interactivity between delegates.

Discovery 3: Use one-way systems.

Where we would normally have created breakout spaces, we’ll need to remove these to allow for the required social distancing and create a one-way system to move delegates around.

Result: 2m versus 1m - a huge difference to audience capacity.

For 2m social distancing between each delegate, along with set, stage, AV and crew, one-way and fire routes, our best layout achieved a max. audience of 161.

For 1m social distancing, with all the same criteria, we can get the audience number back up to 353.

This naturally does not take into consideration the registration, reception, catering, toilets, and logistics of the delegate movement throughout the event. It does however provide the number of delegates we can safely seat under the current restrictions.

All things considered.

From our point of view this has definitely been a worthwhile exercise, as since the lockdown there has always been that nagging doubt of what the 2m social distancing rule would actually look like on a room layout for an event.

It has also flagged the difference in potential audience capacity if the government rule was changed to 1m, but its success would depend greatly on both the client and their audience being happy to attend an event practicing the new 1m rule.

Making it work no matter what.

For now, we are still in the hands of the government guidelines. There is a change to some of the lockdown measures, but the event industry cannot seem to get the government’s attention.

The 1m+ rule certainly helps, but until we get permission to use it and get together, we’ll continue to try things out. Whatever happens, I guess in the true spirit of all event production companies & event professionals, we will make it work no matter what is thrown at us.