Finding Workarounds for Attendee Quirks

EMS physicians don't like to take their seats. Utility commissioners don't always show up for lunch. How do their meeting planners cope?

For four years, Caitlin Arnold, manager of meetings and expositions for association-management company Kellen, has been in charge of planning the Annual Meeting of the National Association of EMS Physicians (NAEMSP). And each year, she has had to contend with a quirk specific to the emergency-room physicians who are her attendees: They tend to cluster in the back of the session room, sometimes blocking doors. “It drives me nuts, from a meeting-planner perspective. Sometimes people can’t get in the back door because people are standing back there,” said Arnold, who also manages conferences for a handful of other clients. “It’s not because there aren’t seats available, and it’s not because they can’t get to [the seats] — it’s because [NAEMSP] attendees] prefer to stand. But it is their nature, because they are always on the go. They don’t like to sit very long.”

NAEMSP attendees clustering in the back row during a session at their Annual Meeting in New Orleans this January.
NAEMSP attendees clustering in the back row during a general session at their 2017 Annual Meeting in New Orleans last month.

A photo from NAEMSP’s 2017 Annual Meeting in New Orleans last month (above) shows the phenomenon in action. “I literally laughed out loud when I saw it,” Arnold said. Her ongoing challenge, from year to year, is to figure out how to set the general-session room so that she can nudge people toward the front, and get them seated — and also accommodate the fact that her attendees come in and out of the room constantly. Part of that is partnering with the venue. “I have to warn the hotel. It’s a conversation I have with them at our pre-con — ‘Don’t be alarmed when everyone’s standing in the back. It’s not because there’s not somewhere for them to sit, it’s just that they refuse to sit.'”

EMS physicians aren’t the only attendees with a penchant for behavior that drives planners slightly batty. Although federal-utility commissioners might seem to be a follow-the-rules kind of lot, they also have their challenging habits. For instance, during each year’s National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) Annual Meeting, new officers are installed during a formal luncheon — a meal that usually has a sizable share of no-shows, according to Michelle A. Malloy, CMP, CAE, NARUC’s director of meetings. So during NARUC 2016 in Palm Springs, Malloy introduced a nominal fee of $45 — not enough to cover the cost of the luncheon, but enough to discourage no-shows and (she hoped) cut down on costs and food waste. It worked. “There was a lot less waste, and a lot less stress,” Malloy said, in part because her guarantees more closely aligned with the number of attendees who actually showed up for the meal.

Like Arnold, Malloy has noticed that people fill seats towards the back of the room. Her solution? “For the whole back row, I pull all of the chairs away from the tables,” Malloy said. “I literally make all of seats fill [in toward the front] until we open new tables.”

While that strategy might not work for NAEMSP attendees — those always-ready-to-move EMS physicians — Arnold might try some new tactics at NAEMSP 2018 in San Diego. “It’s one of those things you have to accept is their nature, and not try and fix it,” Arnold said. “But I’m not giving up.”

Do your attendees have habits that drive you crazy, or have forced you to devise creative workarounds? Do you have any tips for Arnold? Please leave them in the comments below.

Corin Hirsch

Corin Hirsch is associate editor of Convene.

  • Robyn_WINH

    Thanks for the thought-provoking article! I wonder if Caitlin has tried changing up the type of seating available to her attendees. For example, when I work with exhibitors who would like to sit (but should really be standing), we’ll bring in a few taller chairs/bar stools into their booth because they feel and look more like leaning than sitting… Perhaps this could be a good compromise for her group too? Especially if there are great shorter seats in the front (like comfy couches) that feel like a special treat/VIP option for those who choose to take advantage…

  • GJackson

    My attendees also have a hard time sitting (they come from outdoor and wilderness education programs). I’ve started using less chairs in the breakout sessions and adding cocktail rounds to the back of the room so that folks can stand and still have table space for note taking if they need it.

  • K L Jens

    I have the same issue with people standing in the back of the room when there are plenty of seats available. I now have high-boy tables placed behind the last row of crescent rounds in the back of the room so they can at least set down their cup of coffee or set up their notebook to take notes.

    One habit in our meetings that drives me crazy is when Attendees pop in and out of the meetings to take phone calls so the foyer area outside the ballroom can get noisy. If there is a coffee station there, it’s an added incentive to hang out and network (yes, when they should be inside listening to the Speaker). It gets so noisy that I have to close the ballroom door – the one we like to keep open so people can come and go without the constant clicking of those heavy doors – a distraction to those inside the room. Now I ask the hotel to set the coffee station as far away from the entrance as possible without encroaching on another group’s space and if there is some soft seating there where those on their phones can sit, it’s even better. I can’t stop them from taking calls, but we can at least move the distraction away from the registration desk and the meeting room.

  • Ronda

    It’d be an interesting idea to do the front of the room as classroom and the back of the room with draped highboys for those who want to stand. That may pull them away from blocking the doors and will give them a place to ‘lean’, place a beverage or take notes.