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How to Create More Flexible Meeting Spaces

Written by: Mark Cooper - Tuesday, January 31, 2017

You may have noticed a trend toward more interactive meetings and conferences with shorter programs, frequent shifts in activity and more breakout sessions.  Likewise, more event planners are seeking meeting spaces that are flexible enough to accommodate a more dynamic, hands-on approach to meetings.

In fact, IACC’s recent research report “Meeting Room of the Future,” which surveyed meeting venue operators and suppliers, revealed that 66% of venue operators anticipate that in the next 3 to 5 years flexible meeting spaces will become the most important element in venue selection.

Similarly, an earlier survey of meeting planners found that 47% thought that flexible meeting space would be more important than in the past, slightly less than the 77% who felt access to interactive technology would be the most important element in venue selection. 

These shifts in meeting style may be a by-product of today’s busy, multitasking lifestyles and more participatory approach to business, as well as perhaps the changing demographic of meeting delegates from top-level executives to everyone else.


66% of venue operators anticipate that in the next 3 to 5 years flexible meeting spaces will become the most important element in venue selection.

“People are adapting and changing to the fast pace of the world,” said Chris Kelly, Founder of Convene Conference Centers, USA.   “More things are calling for our attention at once and the way people work is adapting.”

Kelly outlined three main characteristics that are contributing to the growing need for flexible meeting space:

  • Blending of different content types into one meeting.
  • Shortening of format to minutes and half hours from hour-long programs.
  • More generative meetings. Not just learning and teaching but creative output during the meeting.

In addition, today’s meetings are seeing changes in the way delegates learn and collaborate with less time spent in plenary rooms and more emphasis being given to breakout spaces for networking and more informal styles of communication.  

“We’re seeing different types of groups with different objectives,” said Kelly. “It’s not just the management team anymore, but all sorts of groups from marketing to production that are planning meetings.  They’re looking for more engagement and participatory experiences.”

What is a flexible meeting space?

A flexible meeting space is one that accommodates both the traditional type of meeting setups, such as classroom or lecture style, theatre, or rounds, but also anticipates newer, more dynamic formats and even allows the meeting participants to rearrange the room themselves as needed through the course of a day.

“The most important element for a flexible meeting space is having a room that is easily reconfigurable by the user on the fly,’ said Kelly.  “Traditionally users were not empowered to change the room themselves. Now it’s important to build the room in ways that speaks to that. Meaning, everything is moveable, light, with wheels, on casters or stackable. Furniture like that signals its Ok to move it.”

Technology that aids in flexible meeting room design is also important. Mark Cooper, IACC’s CEO commented: “With changing focus for delegates and session leaders at various points of a meeting, comes the need for the technology to be able to adjust to different layouts. Moveable screens and wireless connections for data projectors and displays are important to allow participants to change rooms around more easily.”

Some common types of furniture that lend flexibility to rooms include:  ‘Fireside chat’ seating, bean bag chairs, chalk (or whiteboard) paint on walls, communal tables, creative partitions, ergo or eco-friendly furniture, high-top tables, kitchen/dining style furniture, and lounge style seating.  Equipment might include: moveable/portable charging stations, Digi tables, gaming equipment, holography displays, interactive white boards, mobile A/V equipment, presentation technology, small theatre, and video conference equipment.

Flexibility may also mean having a choice of styles of venues, with options for formal or informal setting and moveable walls with creatively designed adjacent breakout spaces. In fact, IACC’s research found that approximately 40% of meeting planners feel that adequate and flexible breakout spaces are important.


69% of venue operators report that 75% or more of their meeting rooms now have furniture or equipment that allows for multiple flexible layouts.


“Furniture that supports collaborative learning requires larger room sizes so flexibility to expand the meeting room remains key,” said Alastair Stewart CEO, ETC. Venues, London, UK. “In addition, multiple screens for audio-visual use are growing in popularity, requiring that rooms work well with a landscape format as well as the traditional portrait layout.”

Beyond the room itself, flexibility in the service package, food and beverages, and even audio-visual offerings is important as well.   “Flexibility is more than the physical layout of the venue and its furniture,” added Stewart. “For many clients, the flexibility of the service and the staff is probably more important.” A venue with good flexibility and built-in equipment may help reduce the costs sometimes associated with having to bring in your own production/audio-visual equipment.

Essential elements of flexible meeting spaces

Consider these six important elements for creating more flexible meeting spaces.

  1. Larger open spaces.  People need space to move around and reconfigure the room if needed for hands-on activities or breakout groups.  Think open space with moveable walls.

  2. Moveable furniture (castors /wheels). Lightweight stackable furniture and wheels on everything from media cabinets to tables so the participants feel free to move things around as needed.

  3. Casual atmosphere and design. Less stuffy and formal, and more of a workspace or having the feeling of being in someone’s living room.

  4. More writable, tactile surfaces. Be sure rooms are stocked with flip charts, white boards, giant post-it notes or write-on walls (check out chalk-board paint or white board paint such as IdeaPaint).

  5. Anticipating needs.  Provide more resources in the room than were actually requested so the meeting focus can change on the fly if needed. Stock rooms with creative supplies and media.

  6. Digital unity. Bring in more internet-connected screens to a room so participants can have a presentation, live stream social content and show static images at the same time. Broadband connections should be in every room and accessible from everywhere.

Advice for venue owners

Changing venues that are already built can be difficult and expensive and will usually need the input of architects and structural engineers. “We’ve seen benefits from taking walls out to assist in flexibility,” said Stewart.

Where investment requires a return, then a cost/benefit appraisal can be useful. “There are many ‘high impact, low cost’ improvements that almost all venues can make to improve their offering,” Stewart added.

Avoid complexity for the sake of it, and don’t try to be too flexible. You can’t be all things to all people. Flexibility can come at a price if a venue is constantly changing the type of business it serves. Venues that mix social and business events may have to make compromises that negatively impact business clients and might be better off focusing on one or the other.  

“Sometimes the flexibility needed by a client is not worth the consequences for the venue and there is a better piece of business out there for your venue,” Stewart said. “As Michael Porter says, ‘The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do’.”

Finally, be sure to get out and see what other venues are doing, and not just in your own country. Organisations such as IACC can help you network with other leading venue operators to stay on top of the latest trends and industry changes.

Want to know more?

Get a free copy of the Meeting Rooms of the Future report from IACC. 

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