More Tales From The Crammed Conference Luncheon Table

I have suspected it before, but now I really am convinced that Seth Godin is reading my mind. Right after I made my post about perceived value of conference professional development sessions last week, Godin posts a retrospective of past posts where he talked about how to make conferences more valuable for attendees. (He drills down to ideas for meetings between two people so they are worth a read.)

Of the four posts he links to, I think my favorite is the skewering of the 10 person banquet table.  He says those tables are ideal for the catering manager, but counterproductive for forging relationships with other conference attendees which is the whole reason for spending so much money to show up in person.

If you have ever been crammed at a table with 9 other people I need not enumerate the disadvantages of this set up.

In my experience–I’m sharing a hugely valuable secret here–you score a big win when you put five people at tables for four instead. Five people, that magical prime number, pushes everyone to talk to everyone. The close proximity makes it more difficult to find a place for the bread basket, but far, far easier for people to actually do what they came to do, which is connect with one another.


If you want to let the banquet manager run your next event, by all means, feel free. Just understand that his goals are different from yours.

Another one I liked was his post on how to organize a retreat. In it, he lists all sorts of atypical activities for people to engage in. He hooked me with his prohibition on having people go around the room and name their favorite vegetable.

Instead, a week ahead of time, give each person an assignment for a presentation at the event. It might be the answer to a question like, “what are you working on,” or “what’s bothering you,” or “what can you teach us.” Each person gets 300 seconds, that’s it.

Have 11 people present their five minutes in an hour. Never do more than an hour in a row.

This idea was from a 2010 before the pecha kucha became a fixture at conferences. I think the concept of using it in the place of going around the room asking people to make off the cuff statements is a much more constructive approach.

Some other ideas from that post:

  • Solve problems. Get into small groups and have the groups build something, analyze something, create something totally irrelevant to what the organization does. The purpose is to put people in close proximity with just enough pressure to allow them to drop their shields.
  • Challenge attendees to describe a favorite film scene to you before the event. Pick a few and show them, then discuss.
  • Serve delicious food, weird food, vegan food, funky food. Just because you can.

In a third post, he deals more directly with the physical setting and technology employed in a conference. Some of his suggestions like not forcing people to listen to a speaker in the same room they eat a meal because, “No one ever heard a speech that changed their lives when sitting around a round table having just eaten a lousy lunch,” probably will please a lot of people.

Other suggestions like holding sessions in too small a room and forcing people to stand in order to ratchet up the energy level probably needs to be applied with a degree of caution lest you face a mutiny.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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