March 8, 2010

Making a bad space better

Download audio here.

Over this past weekend I shared a booth at the Women's Festival at Earl Warren Showgrounds in Santa Barbara.

The main exhibit hall at the showgrounds is a large, circular building with concrete floors (originally designed to resemble a giant daisy with a 43' domed ceiling at the center). I've been attending events there since I was a small child, and I've always been impressed with the amount of echo in the space.

Now imagine a conference and expo held in this large echoing hall, with speakers or musicians on the stage at the same time as a couple hundred people shmooze their way through the expo.

The stage was on one side of the round hall and was surrounded by exhibitor booths, concessions and first aid booths. There was also an art show going on.

When the musicians or speakers were on stage, it was nearly impossible to have a conversation with booth visitors. For the speakers, the room was way too loud and full of distractions. During one panel discussion, the speakers were set up at the back of the stage, a good 30 feet away from the audience, which probably didn't help matters.

At one point, volunteers came around and asked exhibitors to keep our voices down when there were speakers. Am I wrong, or did the exhibitors pay a lot of money to be there and to do business with attendees?

So as you can probably guess, this was not a good situation for the speakers or the exhibitors.

The organizers of the event could have done a couple of things to make this better for everyone involved.

1. Carpeting

I don't know if Earl Warren provides carpeting as an option, but most trade show halls do. It's amazing how well carpeting mutes sound, as well as makes it much more comfortable for an exhibitor to stand on her feet all day!

2. Curtains

There could have been some drapery around the stage and audience area to set it apart and contain the sound a bit.

3. Placement

The stage could have been placed in an area not surrounded by exhibitors, but in its own space with exhibitors to one side. And then set off by curtains, as mentioned above. Or, in the case of Earl Warren Showgrounds, had the organizers also rented the Warren Hall for the speakers, a smaller space next to the main hall, the expo and speakers could have co-existed in separate buildings altogether.

4. Timing

The expo could have been scheduled during times when there were no speakers or entertainment, not throughout the entire event.

Ultimately, I don't think Earl Warren Showgrounds is the right venue for this event, because I don't think most of the suggestions mentioned above are even possible. If that's the case, the organizers should rethink entirely their location; for example, finding a space that allows for an expo, main stage and breakout rooms. Speakers and exhibitors leaving disappointed is never the desired outcome for an event like this.

All that being said, I am the queen of making the best of a bad situation, and I met and talked to a lot of great people. Left with a strained voice, but I did my best to interact with my booth visitors through both my flip chart and my Flip video camera!

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